Strike that should focus on jobs

Posted on April 8, 2014


A crunch point has this week been reached in South Africa’s platinum sector. Stockpiles are all but exhausted and striking miners are starving. In normal circumstances this would be the time when compromise is reached, a matter of who blinks first.

But this is no “normal” strike, no industrial dispute just like any other. And unless all parties, including the government, realise this, the better. Because there are critical lessons to be learned, acknowledged, assessed and acted on at all levels if the situation in the mining industry is the be stabilised.

And, short of some radical and so far unforeseen social upheaval or economic transformation, stability is what is needed both by employers and employees. This will require honest, open communication and some innovative action. It will also take a great deal of work well into the future, and long after any pay deal is struck.

Yet some commentators are still drawing parallels between this dispute and the bitter miners’ strike in Britain 30 years ago that destroyed both the miners’ union and the British coal industry. However, unlike coal and Britain, South Africa supplies more than half the current global demand for platinum group metals (pgms) and has perhaps 70 per cent of the world’s reserves.

So the pgm sector is an industry with a future, albeit that platinum is mainly used as a catalyst and is, therefore, almost endlessly recyclable. This factor too must be dealt with by companies, unions and government, all of whom are affected by the price and profitability of pgms. But whatever the levels of demand, supply and price, future production will require labour and, for the sake of stability, good labour relations.

Which is why it is essential to realise that there is much more at stake in the present strike than a higher entry level pay scale. As Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration director Nerine Kahn noted in this column last month: “There are many more broader political and social issues at play.” If anything, this was an understatement.

It is this multiplicity of issues, in some cases dating back decades, that makes this strike different. A legacy of decades of neglect, mistakes, and insensitivity on behalf of employers, unions and all tiers of government, will have to be adequately dealt with if a longer term solution is to be found. It may seem an impossible task and will certainly take a great deal of time and effort.

There are even echoes of history extending over half a century that should be confronted. The fact that the Marikana strikers of 2012, mostly migrants from rural Transkei, called the rocky outcrop that was their gathering place, intaba, the mountain, is a chilling reminder of the past. It was to this “mountain” that they summoned management to negotiate with them after initially being rebuffed.

In 1960, a community gathering on another “intaba” — the Ngquza hill in the Transkei — waited to negotiate with invited government representatives. They never came. Instead, police launched a land and air assault and blood flowed. Folk memory lives on and so it is perhaps inevitable that parallels have been drawn and perceptions among many miners have hardened. This is an emotional timebomb.

Honest debate and discussion and a just outcome of the Farlam commission can heal such wounds, although the scars will remain. But the days of managements refusing to talk to worker delegations or permitting the police to take over as intermediaries must be over. Consultation will be crucial to ensure future stability.

But such consultation can only realistically take place once various other issues are appropriately dealt with. And prime among these will be the march of mechanisation and the job losses on the mines that will follow. None of the unions organising in the sector appear to have taken this factor fully on board although the future has been staring them in the face, especially with the development of the Mogalakwena mine.

Situated 30km outside Mokopane in Limpopo, this open cast Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) development comprises four open pits in a mining right of 137 square km. The staffing ratio to production is minimal.

During the ongoing, on-and-off strike talks, the iconic entry level wage has been the focus, but it is jobs, how to deal with thousands of the new unemployed, housing and a legacy of bitterness that must be a priority in order to secure the future.

Amplats, by boosting production at Mogalakwena, could probably meet its forward sales commitments and so steal a march on equally strike bound Lonmin and Implats. If this happens and the strike is extended, it could be another terrible mistake.