Johannesburg | A group of miners from an unregistered, rival union are holding around 500 of their colleagues underground for the second day at a gold mine in South Africa over a union dispute. Some 15 miners have been injured in scuffles, the head of the mine said on Tuesday.
Details were sketchy and there were conflicting statements about what happened.
According to Jon Hericourt, CEO of New Kleynfontein Gold Mine company, which manages the mine, the incident erupted early on Monday when the miners from the unregistered union prevented hundreds of others from leaving after their night shift ended at the Modder East mine in Springs, east of Johannesburg.
He said he did not know exactly how many of the miners were being held hostage by others from the rival union. There were all sorts of hammers, picks, shovels and other mining equipment that could potentially be used as weapons, he said.
Police were deployed to the mine but they have not been in contact with anyone underground despite trying to reach them via mine telephones and two-way radios.
Hericourt said there were at least 543 employees underground in various sections of the mine. He added that there was some initial contact early on Monday with the alleged hostage-takers.
Engineers who were working in the mine on Sunday morning were also caught up (in this), Hericourt said.
At least one man had sustained a serious head injury in scuffles, Hericourt said. The mine sent a paramedic and a security officer to bring him out on Monday after an agreement that they could, but the two were also taken hostage, he said.
The National Union of Mineworkers, which is the sole recognized union at the mine, said more than 500 of its members were being held against their will underground by what it referred to as hooligans."
They are still preventing them from coming to the surface, NUM representative Mlulameli Mweli said, adding there were also female mine employees trapped underground. NUM calls for the law enforcement agencies in South Africa to intervene and go underground and arrest the hooligans who are holding our members against their will."
Hericourt blamed members of the rival AMCU union, saying it has demanded to be the sole syndicate representing the miners at Modder East.
Meanwhile, AMCU has disputed Hericourt's version of events, saying that there was a sit-in protest by miners in support of the union. New Kleynfontein Gold Mine manages Modder East, which is owned by the Gold One Group.
Rivalry between the NUM and AMCU unions was partly responsible for one of South Africa's most horrific mining episodes, when 34 striking mineworkers were shot and killed by police at a platinum mine in Marikana in the North West province in 2012.
Six other mineworkers and two security officials were killed in days of violence that preceded the mass shooting by police.