Legacy of bitterness in the Platinum Belt persists

2014-03-18 10:00

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 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 mining 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, which were published last Sunday.

She criticised Amcu negotiators and maintained the representatives of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) “lacked a knowledge of economics”. But Strydom, and the Chamber, do not negotiate on behalf of the platinum mines.

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

And this background goes beyond the Marikana massacre in August 2012.

Perceptions of betrayal, duplicity and gross exploitation go back 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 shanty towns dominated by “shack farmers” and mashonisas (moneylenders).

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

Post 1994, hopes for “a better life for all” were widespread, 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 Bophuthatswana homeland and the decision by JCI to unbundle its platinum holdings into Anglo American Platinum (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 shanty towns.

It was backed by at least one local lawyer and a group of insurance salesmen.

Amplats, perhaps seeing an opportunity to weaken the then growing strength of the 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 shanty towns remained unchanged. As one 2001 report noted, these were areas of “no roads, electricity, sewage, refuse removal, nothing”. Nothing but debt, poverty, disease, rape and murder, that is.

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

This was a powder keg, a fact made clear in a 2007 Bench Marks 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 Marikana massacre 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 an 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 after consultations, the employers, with Strydom apparently in an advisory role, rejected the compromise and the legacy of bitterness on the Platinum Belt continues to grow.

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