Back to work on the SA platinum front

Posted on June 15, 2014


Barring some unforeseen last minute hitch it seems that the country’s longest mining strike is finally over.  By Monday, June 16 or Tuesday at the latest, most of the 70 000 striking miners should stage “back to work” marches behind their union banners. Others, among this army of migrant workers, are already making plans to return from their rural homes or from neighbouring countries.

The breakthrough came on Thursday afternoon, June 12, when the three major platinum companies — Amplats, Implats and Lonmin — tabled their latest offer.  In a three to five-year deal, increases in monthly pay ranging from R1 000 to R1 250 will take the lowest paid entry level miner’s pay to R10 000 in three years.

It appears that rock drill operators, who were to the forefront of this strike, as they were during the stoppage in August 2012 that culminated in the massacre at Marikana, may achieve their R12 500 demand.  All three companies signed off on the deal and the union negotiators, headed by Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) president Joseph Mathunjwa, agreed in principle to to add his signature.

But, as Implats spokesman Johan Theron noted, Mathunjwa could not sign until he had taken the offer back to the union members “for their mandate”.  He added that there might still be a few “i’s to dot and t’s to cross”, but that he was confident that a breakthrough had been achieved.

By late Thursday afternoon, Mathunjwa and the other negotiators had addressed thousands of shop stewards and miners at Lonmin’s Marikana and were en route to other mines.  By Friday morning, amid news reports that Amcu had rejected the deal, Mathunjwa noted that all the strikers so far addressed, had “agreed in principle” to it.  There were just “one or two small points” raised by the members that required “tweaking”.

The manner in which this apparent breakthrough unfolded should finally put paid to the often inflammatory and erroneous perceptions voiced over recent months.  It also means that ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe will find himself in a very awkward position.

Earlier in the week, this former chairman of the South African Communist Party and former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) launched a bitter attack on the strikers.  In what must qualify as the most ironic case of “we’ve heard all that before”, he blamed the platinum belt strike on “white foreigners”.

There will be many people who will be aware of South Africa’s recent history, along with others old enough to have experienced the apartheid days when it was loudly trumpeted that “white communists” were responsible for “stirring up” the allegedly malleable black majority.

And so, as that French saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Because both expressions — from the old and the new regime — are arrogant, elitist and, fundamentally racist.  They denigrate an entire section of humanity as ignorant and pliable;  sheep to be lead wherever.

Such comments are based on perceptions, usually coloured by prejudice, not by facts.  Unfortunately, it is on perceptions that many actions are based and many opinions formulated.  And we in the media are all too often responsible for promoting, without adequate inquiry, perceptions as facts.

A good example was when Implats executive director Andile Sangqu, mentioned at a University of Cape Town Business School “roundtable” this week that the company had telephoned employees;  that 85 per cent of those contacted wanted to return to work, but said they could not because they were afraid for their safety.

Although Sangqu was  not questioned about the context and did not say how many employees the company had been able to contact, his comment was reported as fact.  This provided popular reinforcement for what is, at best, a dubious proposition that the strike was manipulated by a brutish minority.

In the first place, only a limited number of employees were contacted.  But, much more importantly, there is plentiful evidence that workers in such situations — and still hoping to be employed in future — will provide answers they think the boss wants to hear;  answers that contradict their real feelings.

This perception of a bullying minority or a small group of politically motivated individuals orchestrating a major strike is both as silly as it is dangerous.  Silly, because, factually, it makes little sense and dangerous because those acting on such perceptions will probably exacerbate what is usually an already fraught situation.

But there are now signs that an important lesson has been learned by all concerned parties:  that a lasting solution will only be found if the situation is addressed in an holistic manner. And this will require courage and innovative thinking to avoid tragic history repeating itself.