Inside labour: Gwede Mantashe will have to eat humble pie

2014-06-16 08:00

Barring some unforeseen last-minute hitch, it seems the country’s longest mining strike is finally over. By tomorrow at the latest, some 70?000 miners should stage “back to work” marches behind their union banners.

The breakthrough came on Thursday afternoon when the three major platinum companies?–?Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin?–?tabled their latest offer.

In a 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 at the forefront of this strike, as they were during the stoppage in August 2012 that culminated in the Marikana massacre, 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 to the deal in principle.

But, as Implats spokesperson Johan Theron noted, Mathunjwa could not sign until he had taken the offer back to the union members “for their mandate”.

He added there might still be a few “i’s to dot and t’s to cross”, but 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 mine and were en route to other mines.

By Friday morning, amid news reports that Amcu had rejected the deal, Mathunjwa said all the strikers he had addressed had “agreed in principle” to it. There were just “one or two small points” raised by them 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 chairperson of the SA Communist Party and former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers 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 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 the 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 led wherever.

Such comments are based on perceptions, usually tinged with prejudice, not by facts. Unfortunately, it is

on perceptions that many actions are based and many opinions formulated. And we in the media are too often responsible for promoting, without adequate inquiry, perceptions as facts.

A good example of this was when Implats executive director Andile Sangqu, mentioned in a round-table discussion at the University of Cape Town Business School this week that the company had telephoned employees. He said 85% 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 plenty of 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 organising a major strike is 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 an important lesson has been learnt by all concerned parties: a lasting solution will only be found if the situation is addressed in a holistic manner. And this will require courage and innovative thinking to avoid tragic history repeating itself.

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