Strike focus must be on jobs, not wages

2014-04-09 10:00

It’s crunch time this week in the platinum sector. Stockpiles are all but exhausted and striking miners are starving.

In normal circumstances, this would be the time when a compromise is reached. A matter of who blinks first.

But this is no “normal” strike, it’s an industrial dispute like no other. And the sooner all parties, including government, realise this, the better.

This will require honest and open communication, and some innovative action. It will also take a great deal of work long after any pay deal is struck.

Some commentators are still drawing parallels between this dispute and the bitter miners’ strike in Britain 30 years ago that destroyed both the miners’ union and the British coal industry.

But unlike coal and Britain, South Africa supplies more than half the current global demand for platinum group metals and has perhaps 70% of the world’s reserves.

So the platinum group metal sector is an industry with a future, despite the fact platinum is mainly used as a catalyst and is, therefore, almost endlessly recyclable.

This factor too must be dealt with by companies, unions and government, all of which are affected by the price and profitability of platinum group metals.

But whatever the levels of demand, supply and price, future production will require labour and, for the sake of stability, good labour relations. Which is why it is essential to realise there is much more at stake in this strike than a higher entry-level pay scale.

A legacy of decades of neglect, mistakes and insensitivity on behalf of employers, unions and all tiers of the government will have to be adequately dealt with if a longer-term solution is to be found.

It may seem to be an impossible task and it will certainly take a great deal of time and effort.

There are even echoes of history extending more than half a century that should be confronted. The fact that the Marikana strikers of 2012, mostly migrants from rural Eastern Cape, called the rocky outcrop that was their gathering place “intaba” (the mountain) – is a chilling reminder of the past.

It was to this “mountain” they summoned management to negotiate with them after initially being rebuffed.

In 1960, a community gathering on another intaba — Ngquza Hill in Transkei — waited to negotiate with invited government representatives. They never came.

Instead, police launched a land and air assault, and blood flowed. Memories live on and so it is perhaps inevitable that parallels have been drawn and perceptions among many miners have hardened.

This is a ticking emotional time bomb.

Honest debate and discussion, and a just outcome of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, can heal such wounds, although the scars will remain. But the days of managements refusing to talk to worker delegations or permitting the police to take over as intermediaries must be over.

Consultation will be crucial to ensure future stability.

But such consultation can only realistically take place once various other issues are appropriately dealt with. Prime among these will be the march of mechanisation and the job losses that will follow.

None of the unions organising in the sector appear to have taken this factor fully on board, although the future has been staring them in the face, especially with the development of the Mogalakwena mine.

Situated 30km outside Mokopane in Limpopo, this opencast Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) development comprises four open pits in a mining right of 137km². The staffing ratio to production is minimal.

During the ongoing strike talks, the iconic entry-level wage has been the focus, but it is jobs, how to deal with thousands of newly unemployed people, housing and a legacy of bitterness that must be a priority in order to secure the future.

By boosting production at Mogalakwena, Amplats could probably meet its forward sales commitments and so steal a march on equally strike-struck Lonmin and Impala Platinum.

If this happens and the strike is extended, it could be another terrible mistake.

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