Wels Sempe, a company director and leader of the Blyvoor Workers’ Union, was assassinated on 2 March while en route to work when his bakkie stopped at an intersection. He was shot three times. The Blyvoor mine, which just started producing gold again, is now shut, blockaded and under siege.
Blyvoor executives who spoke to Business Maverick said they are convinced his murder was linked to Blyvoor Workers’ Union (BWU) resistance to attempts by the local National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to dislodge it.
In the past week, according to Blyvoor executives, the mine sent its first gold bars to the Rand Refinery, signalling its rebirth. But it has been temporarily closed, members of its management team say, by workers associated with NUM who blockaded the entrance. The disruption has been going on for two weeks and continued over the long Easter weekend. The miners who have been blocking the entrances to the mine include 60 NUM members who have been dismissed for launching a wildcat strike, company executives said.
Tensions have been rising for a month in the wake of Sempe’s murder.
NUM, for its part, maintains that its members have suffered intimidation and that the BWU is an entity formed by management, rendering it illegitimate as a union that represents workers. NUM also says its members were fired for refusing to join BWU.
“Our members were fired because they were fighting to remain members of NUM,” NUM spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu told Business Maverick.
It must be said that — as is often the case in inter-labour struggles in South Africa, such as the violent NUM-Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) turf war — it is extremely difficult to verify the facts on the ground, and attempting to do so is risky.
But labour and social unrest are erupting once again around Blyvoor, after a five-year effort to restart a historic and high-grade mine with an injection of well above R1-billion from US investors. This makes it an unfolding case study in attempts to rebuild shattered mining assets and attract badly needed investment while navigating South Africa’s turbulent social and labour landscape.
Speaking on condition that their names not be revealed — on the advice of police because of the potential danger to their own lives — the executives say Sempe had a police protection order after his life was threatened by a NUM member, whose name cannot be revealed for legal reasons. A 9mm bullet lodged in his vehicle that was sent for forensic analysis revealed that it was fired from a gun linked to 10 other hits, including the murder of two policemen. The remaining senior BWU office bearers have had their lives threatened and have gone into temporary hiding.
“Wels was a great and decent man, and he had the warmest of hearts and was appalled that 2,000 workers had lost their jobs when the mine closed because of a NUM wildcat strike,” one of the executives said in an emotional conversation. According to Blyvoor management, he formed the union to keep NUM at bay because of its actions during the 2012 wildcat strike which initially crippled the operation.
After it stopped operating in 2012, large parts of the infrastructure at Blyvoor were stripped and looted. But since much of the mine was flooded, it was off-limits to the likes of the zama zamas, who focused on illicit surface mining, according to a source previously involved in security at the operation. There are concerns on both sides, echoed by the security source, that such groups may be playing a shadowy role in the unrest, adding an unwelcome element of uncertainty and danger to the saga. And there were reports last week that cannot be verified of zama zamas smashing cameras underground at Blyvoor. Scores of zamas also allegedly streamed out of Blyvoor one night last week. If true, it suggests that zama activity may be linked to the instability and violence.
Blyvoor executives told Business Maverick they believe that NUM’s national office, which they maintain they have no issue with, is unaware of rogue local elements attempting to hijack the workforce into their ranks using violent tactics that NUM itself often accuses Amcu of employing.
NUM’s acting general secretary William Mabapa told Business Maverick in an interview that the creation of a union by management was “a conflict of interest”.
“Our issue is that there is no way that someone who is with management can create a union. And that is why we are questioning why the Department of Labour, why they are not deregistering this union? Then they sign a closed shop union with the union they create. That is union-bashing,” he said.
“The allegations against the comrade, let them make investigations. And if indeed the comrade is wrong, the law will take its own course. We have nothing to do with the issue of killing.”
On this front, the investigative capacity, or incapacity, of the SAPS is also clearly an issue.
Like the rich gold seams that still lie below Blyvoor, there is a lot to this story that remains deeply buried. But a few facts stand out on the surface.
Blyvooruitzicht, as it was originally known, was established in 1937 and for decades was a cash spinner of note. Like all other commercial South African gold mines, its profits were built on the exploitation of a migrant black labour force which over decades saw its real wages decline. Things have improved since the end of apartheid and wages the past couple of decades have been outpacing inflation, but history has provided fertile soil for the violent labour ructions that have periodically rocked the sector the past decade. Blyvoor in 2012 was clobbered in this maelstrom, leading to its liquidation.
That left 2,000 miners with no work in a depressed area in western Gauteng. But the asset still has rich pickings and the company that took over the mine from 2015 to 2016 — Blyvoor Gold — sought to bring it back to life. After the mining right was secured, the company raised $65-million through a structured funding arrangement and began rebuilding the mine, using local workers. The company claims the operation straddles more than 26 million ounces of untapped underground mineral resources.
NUM has accused the company of paying its workers only around R5,000 a month but its executives say most make considerably more than that, and that wages will rise as it transitions from a project to production. It also has 26% BEE ownership, with 20% allotted to an employee trust which the company says will pay regular dividends directly to the workforce. As required, there is an extensive social and labour plan which Daily Maverick has seen.
“You don’t get American pension fund money if you don’t do everything by the book,” one executive said.
There are examples in South Africa and elsewhere of mining assets that have turned toxic because of labour unrest or lawlessness. The Marikana mine tarnished by the 2012 massacre was a cash burner that investors were wary of, but has been turned around by Sibanye-Stillwater. AngloGold Ashanti’s Obuasi mine was invaded by thousands of illegal miners, but is now being rebuilt as a mechanised operation and is key to its portfolio. Blyvoor has followed a similar trajectory.
A historic asset that was in the process of revival is again under siege, and there are many allegations and mudslinging. It may require intervention on the part of the Department of Minerals and Energy or its labour counterpart in government to help sort out the situation before it spins violently out of control. If that happens, the only winners will be criminal elements who would get a chance to loot the mine again. BM/DM