In stygian depths 4km and more below the surface of the earth gold continues to be harvested, but by fewer miners and with the aid of more — and increasingly efficient — mechanisation. It is an expensive exercise, costing between $550 and $600 to extract an ounce of the metal. But, with a gold price in excess of $1 600 an ounce, it is extremely profitable.
Such profits keep shareholders happy and enable mining companies to provide better wages and conditions to fewer, but better skilled employees. As planning minister Trevor Manuel noted recently, the days of the pick and shovel are past. He could have added: even if the volatility of the commodity markets is an ever present danger.
But the pick and shovel era is also past in even open pit mines or mining at shallower depths. Only the zama-zamas retain the old ways out of necessity. These human moles spend sometimes months at a time in the musty humidity of old workings, illegally scratching out what remains of gold bearing ore.
Many of the zama-zamas are retrenched miners, casualties of the mechanisation that has made for safer, more efficient, cost effective and profitable work, but for many fewer people. For the trade union movement, the zama zamas provide a constant reminder that the primary unemployment problem is not a question of skills or the lack of them: it is just that there are fewer and fewer jobs and more and more people wanting — and needing — work.
As Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi notes, employers do not hire workers “out of the goodness of their hearts”. Nor would they take on any more workers than are necessary. Various trade unionists have also pointed out in this column over the years that bosses are in the business of making profits and will always take the least costly route, even if the consequences are socially damaging — and so long as they do not harm the bottom line.
This point was underlined strongly in the wake of the strikes and clashes in the grape and fruit growing areas of the Boland, with farmers threatening to turn to machines if human labour became “too expensive”. The initial union reaction was that this was largely an empty threat; that table grapes in particular, could not be harvested by machine.
But the truth is that almost all grapes for almost all purposes can be — and often are, in other grape growing regions — harvested by machine. The capital cost is high, but machines can work 24 hours a day and bring in between 80 and 200 tonnes of grapes in the time it would take the best individual human labourer to pick one to two tonnes.
It is a reminder yet again that our social and political order has not yet come to terms with the speediest and most far-reaching technological revolution in history. Yet unlike most governments and employers, trade unions do seem to be groping towards an as yet undefined alternative. They would tend to agree with the writer George Orwell, who stated 60 years ago that “in 20 years it will be possible for everyone in the world to live a decent human life, if we set our minds to it”.
But Orwell also noted that, if the political and social order did not change, this technological revolution could mean misery and destruction.
Today, as the International Trade Union Confederation points out, there is increasing human misery as millions are thrown out of work and into a lifetime of destitution. Yet the global economy continues to foster instability as it staggers on in crisis while wallowing in surpluses.
Against this background, trade unions are being pilloried for demanding higher wages and better conditions. In the view of the free marketeers, when surpluses exist, be they cans of beans or working people, they should cost less.
“Yet, in the boom times the bosses do not share their massive profits with the workers,” says National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) general secretary, Irvin Jim. “And when the bad times come, it is the workers who are told to tighten their belts.”
In this view, shared widely in the labour movement, austerity is merely a case of punishing the poor for the mistakes of the rich. And while the unions do not claim to have any single answer, several of them provide some cogent analysis and seemingly sound suggestions for how matters might be improved.
Yet these tend to be ignored, buried under reports of reactive strikes and other industrial conflict. However, these are much more nuanced ideas than the callous simplicity of the free marketeers or the calls for social compacts emanating from more astute employers and governments. For many in the labour movement, calls for social compacts are seen as futile attempts to turn the clock back by ignoring the inherent clash of interests between employers and employees.
In broad terms the unions appear to favour not only a more direct say by communities in the way they are governed, but also greater regulation of markets to ensure the more equitable distribution of resources. This means more control over exports of minerals and a stress on beneficiation, especially of chrome and platinum group metals.
And they maintain that there is sufficient capital available to invest in downstream plants; that South Africa’s cash rich companies are sitting on billions of rand — or investing outside the country. The result is a dearth of investment in South Africa while the country is now listed as the sixth largest investor in sub-Saharan Africa, after the United States, Britain, France, India and the UAE.
It is also a situation, says Numsa, where locally based Sasol sells product more cheaply to Chinese than South African manufacturers; where South African iron ore returns to the country as finished steel products from countries such as India.
“So it is not the unions that are at fault,” says Jim. “We actually could have peace and prosperity.”
Follow Terry Bell on Twitter: @ telbelsa