Mining our future economy

2014-06-10 10:00

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‘So as the current generation, we are saying that enough is enough, this cannot happen to our forefathers and still to us. We want to put a stop to it. I’ve got my own grandfather who is still alive. He was injured in the forehead [on the mines]?...?this old man cannot see any more; he was dismissed because of the injury.’

Striking platinum miner interviewed by Amandla! magazine

A striking miner speaks. The platinum strike, now five months long, has flummoxed senior political leaders. First, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was a Lonmin director, failed with the rest of his board to shift labour relations to suit the 21st century.

Marikana happened and so inexorably changed the labour market. The strike is a consequence of it. Then, former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe failed to mediate an end to the strike.

So did Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. A judge failed too?–?Hilary Rabkin-Naicker made an unprecedented effort at judicial mediation.

Then, new Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi entered the fray with fresh energy. He appears to have failed too. Add to that stellar cast the country’s finest mediators and arbitrators, all of whom have used their best negotiating tactics to no end.

This strike is a workers’ revolution?–?the upending of wage bargaining as we know it and possibly the end of the economy as we know it. It is the strike to make right on historical injustice.

It is rippling across the economy as metal and manufacturing workers organised by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA table demands they are unlikely to back down from.

“...?we have them by the balls. What’s happened, you can see, is I’m getting fitter now because I cannot go underground. I’m becoming healthier. Now we can go and change our minds?...?maybe we decide to demand R15?000 because what we are now demanding is nothing, it’s peanuts.”

Striking platinum miner interviewed by Amandla! magazine

What we are witnessing is the end of the economy built on high shareholder returns and cheap wage labour.

The Mail?&?Guardian reported this week that new research revealed again that shareholder returns from the platinum mines where workers are now on strike were much higher than returns to labour.

The same pattern is evident across the economy and is set to change. About time too, although it is going to be painful. Industries that survive on cheap labour will go to the wall and no amount of bargaining or negotiating will change this.

A new economy will have to grow. We have the skeletal framework to see what it might look like. The burgeoning mobile and data industry is our future. The most commonly owned asset is a cellphone?– chances are you have one, or two.

The other part of the new economy is entertainment and television in the form of pay TV. Drive through our cities, towns and shack lands and you’ll find satellite dishes everywhere.

Our future economy lies under the ground, but not in deep mines. It is in fibreoptic cables to amp the speed of broadband transmission, propelling us into the future.

Our future economy is creative, like South Korea’s. We can see it in Joziwood, the name given to our new film industry. Five new satellite TV services were licensed recently.

When we eventually migrate television to digital, it will free up broadband to drive this new economy. If you do not already, you will take your news from the internet or smartphone apps because it will be simpler, better and faster.

Banks are hitting the profit stratosphere because they’ve embraced technology to enhance services.

I can’t remember the last time I went into a branch?– my bank’s on my tablet and phone. Can it be long before all shopping goes online too? Mining is still the greatest contributor to gross domestic product through exports, but how long can it be before services outstrip this?

Paging through the UK’s Sunday Times last week, I saw a full-page ad for Vitality?–?Discovery has exported an idea and it is becoming very rich off that. In Western Cape, tourism has replaced clothing as the biggest contributor to growth and employment in the province.

This is where our new communications setup comes in. There is a near-absolute lack of clarity on what fits where and who will be responsible for setting the environment to drive the innovation into a new economy.

The division of communications and information into the departments of communications, and telecommunications and postal services, was so unexpected, if you go to the government’s website (, you’ll see they reflect no change yet.

The website of the new department of telecoms and postal services is nonexistent, while the website of the communications department contains old?information.

The split ministries are built for the past, not the future. Both reflect great expansionary plans for Telkom and the Post Office?–?in line with the state-led economic growth path we are on.

For the state, Telkom can still be the font of the broadband revolution (although data statistics show it can’t), while the Post Office is set to become a mass bank and service delivery site because of its vast network of structures. Numerous questions greet this strategy, but it’s worth noting that they come from sophisticated modern South Africa, not poor rural South Africa.

A team is working around the clock in the presidency to answer the many questions the split has raised. Clarity is promised in a month. In discussions with senior civil servants this week, it’s clear they do not know the answers.

Changes to the Electronic Communications Act and the legislation underpinning the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) are necessary.

Some industry leaders say the split does not matter much?–?the key concern is that Icasa must not be delayed by higgledy-piggledy decisions and that the revitalised regulator can continue its work.

Siyabonga Cwele and Faith Muthambi

But other questions remain: if Communications Minister Faith Muthambi is responsible for the SABC, what about the other broadcasters? Some believe they still fall under the communications department but telecommunications and postal services spokesperson Siya Qoza said he wasn’t sure.

Pundits are concerned that Muthambi’s super information ministry now includes the SABC, which makes it an arm of government communication (although it has a public and not a state mandate).

Her spokesperson Phumla Williams said different mandates can coexist. “However, all state entities are expected to conduct their affairs in line with the country’s development agenda,” she said.

And, she said that because Cabinet operated in clusters, overlapping authority did not matter because ministers could consult one another. Icasa regulates broadcasting and communications but these two areas have been separated by President Jacob Zuma’s split ministries.

Responses to the big split have ranged from “a big mess” and “antiquated”, to “it doesn’t matter”.

But it does matter. South Africa’s state has a huge hand on the ICT sector –?it is the key to our future. We are running way behind most emerging countries.

If the ministerial split presages further delays in digital migration, cheaper communication costs and more broadcast licences, it will delay our future?–?one that is catching up with us very quickly as the miners’ strike shows.

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