Newsmaker: Strike-enders strike again to resolve Lonmin impasse

2012-09-22 17:37

The man who went to Marikana to broker a deal wasn’t sure he would be coming back

As Afzul Soobedaar turned to leave for the mountain of Marikana, he handed his boss a business card.

On the back he had written instructions about what should be done if something happened to him.

His boss, Nerine Kahn – the director of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) – recalls what happened that Wednesday, August 29, long before Soobedaar mediated this week’s landmark wage deal between Lonmin and its miners.

“I probably shouldn’t tell this to a journalist,” says an exhausted Kahn over her first proper meal in weeks, at a Johannesburg restaurant on Thursday.

“As Afzul left to go to the mountain – oh I’m going to cry now – he turned and gave me his business card and on the back there was, ‘In case of an emergency please do the following ...’”

Soobedaar, the CCMA’s national senior commissioner of mediation and collective bargaining, was asked by the miners’ inexperienced representatives to explain the bargaining process to their colleagues on the plain in front of the koppie where 34 of their compatriots had been gunned down by police on August 16.

The week before, 10 others had been brutally murdered. Two had been found with their tongues and lips hacked off.

Soobedaar, the CCMA’s front man at all difficult strikes of grave national importance; and Nkosinathi Nhleko, the labour department’s director-general, drove in an armoured vehicle to meet the miners, accompanied by two unarmed bodyguards.

Soobedaar had engineered it so that Kahn couldn’t go too, and had instructed their security adviser to “lay it on thick”.

“I really wanted to go, and I really didn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t want to,” says Kahn.

“I took a lot of pressure from my family and my nine-year-old son was really, really stressed because he had seen what had happened on TV and he was very nervous about what I was doing every day.”

Soobedaar spoke to the miners for more than an hour, his words translated by a local pastor. Asked if they threatened to kill him, Soobedaar jokes: “No! Worse! They threatened me with circumcision!”

He jokes now, but it was a very difficult time.

“I had a tough time when I was coming back from there thinking what could have happened. Going there was a very moving experience for me.

"On the way back, I asked them to stop and I got out at the koppie and I said a prayer. I asked the Almighty to have mercy on all those who lost their lives there.”

Soobedaar and Kahn have slept little in the past month.

They laugh a lot, perhaps to relieve tension.

“So have you told Nicki the reason this is settled is because your daughter’s getting married?” Kahn jokes.
Soobedaar’s daughter Laeeqa’s wedding will be held in Durban today, and he will now get to enjoy it.

“It’s so stressful – you’ve got to have humour. You’ve got to try and be human in the process, it’s so hard.”

The CCMA took over the negotiations on August 27 at the request of the labour department, Lonmin, the Lesotho High Commission and several unions.

Soobedaar, the CCMA’s North West commissioner Elias Hlongwane and, initially Kahn, had to juggle complicated three-way negotiations.

In one room at the Lagai Roi lodge were the eight representatives of the miners, with no experience of wage negotiations, distrustful of their employer and the unions.

In another room was Lonmin management and, in yet another, union representatives – all with trust in short supply.

It took creative mediating to put the employer’s position to the rock-drill operators.

“We used the example of a spaza shop. We told them that if they bought 10 loaves of bread for R100, and people were having a sale nearby, nobody was going to buy bread for R12. They would then have to sell the loaves for R8, which meant they would be R20 short, and where is that R20 going to come from?” Soobedaar says.

“This is exactly what is happening to Lonmin if you look at their debt situation – they’re borrowing from shareholders to basically maintain operations.”

Was this the most difficult mediation they have ever been involved in?

“No, no,” says Soobedaar in his calming, baritone voice.

“Harder than this was the 2009 civil engineering strike when workers stopped building the (World Cup) stadiums.”

Kahn and Soobedaar also dealt with the private security strike in 2006, during which more than 50 strikebreaking guards were killed by strikers.

“The build-up to the World Cup was very, very intense. We also had some of the challenges which we’ve had here, where the workers were on unprotected strikes all the time.

"And we had to grapple with the principle of supporting unprotected strikes or not when the CCMA was set up to try and ensure you have legal strikes,” says Kahn.

As the quarterfinals of the World Cup were about to start, Eskom workers gave notice and were about to go out on strike.

“The weekend of the quarterfinals was actually spent in the office. I had tickets and I didn’t go. I’m pissed off still,” jokes Kahn.

What skills do they have to help them do their jobs so well?

“I think one of the biggest skills you need is patience. I think I do have a lot of patience. I fish. And most fishermen have a lot of patience,” says Soobedaar.

“Maybe I should take up fishing,” jokes Kahn, before answering her cellphone.

It’s the human resources manager from construction firm Murray & Roberts.

Workers constructing the massive Medupi power station are on strike again.

“Oh s**t,” says Soobedaar.

Are Kahn and Soobedaar good mediators at home?

Soobedaar, the diplomat, declines to answer, but Kahn jumps in in her rapid staccato.

“Afzul lives in an all-women household and I live in an all-male household.

“If my husband were sitting here, he would say I am very annoying because I want to process everything and facilitate everything and mediate absolutely every decision – like what time the children are
going to go to bed.”

Soobedaar has high praise for the union and employer representatives involved in the Marikana

“The unions did not look at these employees as prodigal children, and did not have the attitude of, ‘Ja let’s see, let’s see how you do it yourself’,” he says.

“I had nothing but respect for Lonmin management, they’re a very dynamic management team.”

If they were that good then why was there a strike?

“Sometimes it’s not what’s going on in your house, it’s what’s going on outside,” he says.

Going on outside was the demand for R12 500 a month, the arrival at which, Soobedaar says, the worker representatives themselves did not fully understand.

Hinting at outside forces at work, he says: “The danger here was that the demand was not the demand of the workers themselves, and that became patently clear. Each time we heard this demand somewhere else, it became clearer.”

Like many others, Kahn is concerned about the precedent set at Marikana, amid reports on Friday that miners across the country were phoning their unions to demand the same pay as workers at Lonmin.

“We think there is going to be a bit of that, but not as bad as everybody thinks. It’s a tricky one,” she says.

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