June 21, 2015 / 12:25 PM / 2 years ago

New South Africa mine union boss decries 'apartheid' wage system

WESTONARIA, South Africa (Reuters) - The newly elected head of South Africa’s biggest mine union said on Sunday that his members were still being paid “apartheid” wages, signaling a hard line ahead of gold sector wage talks due to start on Monday.

David Sipunzi, formerly a regional leader from the gold-producing Free State province, was elected general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) earlier this month, replacing veteran Frans Baleni.

The leadership shake up has come just ahead of what are expected to be tough negotiations in South Africa’s ailing gold sector, which is grappling with depressed prices, falling production and rising costs.

Speaking to Reuters ahead of a rally in the mining town of Westonaria west of Johannesburg, Sipunzi defended NUM’s demand for wage hikes of around 80 percent for its lowest-paid members, who make between 5,000 rand ($410) and 6,000 rand monthly.

“We expect them to meet our demands. Eighty percent of just over 5,000 rand is not too much. The CEOs are raking in millions. But the indications are that they are going to plead poverty,” he said.

“Nothing has changed. We are still being paid under the apartheid wage structure,” he said, referring to the fact that lower-paid miners were overwhelmingly black and often drawn from rural areas far from the shafts - a system that has prevailed for decades.

Sipunzi poured cold water on an industry initiative that has seen it propose “an economic and social” pact as part of the wage talks. Labor’s response has been frosty.

“We don’t believe it will play a role in this year’s negotiations because if we mix these two, the negotiations might become more protracted,” he said.

ANC RELATIONSHIP REMAINS

Sipunzi also said he intended for NUM to remain a political ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) so it could inject itself into decision making - but the union expected the party to pursue labor-friendly policies.

“Our relationship with the ANC is as strong as ever. But if we support the ANC they should support us,” he said. “We believe that in order to have influence on policy making we have to be close to the ANC.”

One reason for the leadership change at NUM has been the tens of thousands of members it has lost to arch rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) in an often violent turf war.

Sipunzi said he aimed to bring AMCU members back into his union’s embrace, including its charismatic leader Joseph Mathunjwa, who left NUM over a decade ago.

“Mathunjwa himself, he must come back home,” Sipunzi said, adding that NUM and AMCU should bury their hatchets and confront the boardroom together.

“We are not enemies, we are both workers. The enemy is the employer. If we are fragmented we are not going to win the battle with the employer.”

Monday’s wage talks involve AngloGold Ashanti, Sibanye Gold and Harmony Gold.

Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Rosalind Russell

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