Bitter background to stalled pay talks

Posted on March 16, 2014


Unless bridges are built between competing sides, legacies of bitterness, hatred and fear, often distorted by prejudice and myth, can persist for decades, even generations.  And when there are are fairly recent incidents, especially those involving bloodshed and human loss, feelings, particularly among those who identify as victims, are all the more acute.

This is the background to the lengthy and now stalled pay talks between platinum companies and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).  These have been thrown into sharp focus by the intemperate — and apparently “off the record” — remarks of Chamber of Mines negotiator, Elize Strydom that were published last Sunday.

She criticised Amcu negotiators and maintained that the representatives of the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) “lacked a knowledge of economics”.  However, the platinum mines are not members of the Chamber and Strydom was not one of their negotiators.

This raises a number of questions, but reactions to the furore reveal that many people do not understand the role of the CCMA, which is to help groups in dispute find — if possible — common ground.  It is also clear that there is little understanding of the deeply emotional background that underlies the talks.

And this background goes beyond the massacre at Marikana on August 16, 2012;  perceptions of betrayal, duplicity and gross exploitation go back to to the transition from apartheid, to the collapse of Bophuthatswana and to the unbundling of Johannesburg Consolidated Investments (JCI).

This took place at a time when race-based influx control had broken down, when mining companies, who had for decades stacked workers like so many human artifacts on concrete bunks in single-sex hostels, finally conceded to “living out allowances”.  These inadequate allowances allowed miners to bring families to live in what rapidly became squalid shantytowns dominated by “shack farmers” and the mashonisas (money lenders).

Mining companies that had provided reasonable accommodation for white employees, largely ignored this development, as did local, provincial and national government and the dominant union in the sector, the National Union of MIneworkers (NUM).  Yet a social and economic timebomb was being created.

Post 1994, hopes for “a better life for all” were widespread and certainly among many miners regarded by both management and union officials as amaqaba,  the uneducated.  Little attention was paid to these recruits, mainly from rural Transkei, although they were a substantial and potent force.  But there were opportunistic elements ready to exploit them.

The opportunity after came with the collapse of the “Bop” homeland and the decision by JCI to unbundle its platinum holdings into Amplats.  Fearful of losing jobs and hoping for a better life, many miners fell prey to the “Five Madoda” movement and the subsequent Workers Mouth Peace Union (WMPU) that emerged from murderous gangster elements in the shantytowns.  It was backed by at least local one lawyer and a group of insurance salesmen.

Amplats, perhaps seeing an opportunity to weaken the then growing strength of NUM, conceded to an April 1996 demand of the WMPU to pay out provident funds to their employees.  This depleted the provident fund, defeating its purpose, but boosted the WMPU that eventually fragmented into a slew of competing unions.

By 2002, stability had returned.  But the horrendous conditions in the shantytowns remained unchanged.  As one 2001 report noted, these were areas of “no roads, electricity, sewage, refuse removal, nothing”.  Nothing that is, but debt, poverty, disease, rape and, all too often, murder.

By then, the mining houses had reached an accommodation with the NUM.  At the same time, miners heard how senior officials of union had apparently moved seamlessly from union positions into boardrooms and to billionaire status.

This was a powderkeg, a fact made clear in a 2007 Benchmarks Foundation report.  Sins of commission by the mining companies and omission by all levels of government and the unions had created an explosive situation.

Against this background, it is a credit to Lonmin miners that, when they rebelled, they organised democratically and demanded to negotiate with a management that refused to talk to them.  The end result was the massacre at Marikana and the initial R12 500 entry level pay claim by specialist rock drill operators becoming the demand of all underground workers.

Amcu, an established union from the coalfields of Witbank, today represents the majority of miners on the platinum belt for whom R12 500 has almost iconic status.  On the other hand, the mining companies want to maintain profits.

With the CCMA mediating, Amcu offered to phase in the R12 500 over four years.  This seemed to indicate the beginnings of a breakthrough.  But the employers, after consultations, with Strydom apparently in an advisory role, rejected the compromise — and the legacy of bitterness on the platinum belt continues to grow.