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1 November 2014 11:21 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: Mining's unholy trinity and current impasse

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa
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There are tensions in SA’s mining sector – between workers, capital owners and unions, all pulling in very different directions. Something’s got to give if this country wants a sustainable mining future. MANDY DE WAAL spoke to industrial sociologist Gavin Hartford about causes, consequences and possible solutions to the quagmire the industry’s facing.

South Africa’s mining sector is being held hostage by an unholy trinity, it seems. 

In the one corner there’s an increasingly militant working force demanding a living wage, decent living conditions and what they call the “democratisation” of the mining sector.

A second corner is occupied by the mining companies. Some of these companies have taken a harder line than others, with the toughest ones reacting with unflinching aggression, declaring strikes illegal, threatening workers with dismissal or giving them the chop. 

The harder-line mining companies are driven by aloof shareholders who want returns regardless, and their corner is backed by a political establishment with significant direct mining interests. Local mining business is supported by a government which, through its law enforcement agencies, has gone as far as killing its own to maintain ‘order’.

Then there is the third corner: the unions who are in bed with government and business, and who appear to have turned their back on the labour force that has enriched organised labour to the point where the likes of the National Union of Mineworkers has material interests (through its investment structures) in mining capital.

“It is a lose-lose situation,” Gavin Hartford, an industrial sociologist, told Daily Maverick. “Nobody is talking about what they will put back into the equation. No one is looking how cake can be grown so all can benefit, and instead the conversation is locked into a very adversarial and one-dimensional curve which is crisis-driven.”

“The question stakeholders in the mining sector should be asking is: ‘How do we share the spoils so that the goose that lays the golden egg can do so again for the benefit all tomorrow?’ That is the future of mining in South Africa. Failing this, the future looks set to be nationalisation.”

Hartford, the CEO of The Esop Shop, accused the local mining sector of trading “theories of motherhoods and apple pie” by means of spin doctoring, charters and sustainability reports that espoused faked sharing and caring. “The real conversation is missing in this sector, and that conversation is all about what must be given up to ensure that all constituencies can enjoy real rewards over time. Without this, it will continue to be a lose-lose situation.”

Hartford recently published an 11-page report on the sector’s crisis, entitled “The mining industry strike wave: What are the causes and what are the solutions?”

In his paper, Hartford writes that the causes of the strikes are being misdiagnosed in the media, and challenges the industry to remake itself because it is still held captive by the ghost of Apartheid. “The strike wave crisis emerges from the landscape of gross inequality and poverty, and is made intolerable by the additional financial and work cycle burdens that arise from the apartheid migrant labour system,” he writes. “These factors propelled the strike action. And once begun, the institutions of collective bargaining, both in the form of the company and the union structures and processes, were found wanting in their ability to arrest and address the root causes of the social crisis.”

What is the real cause of South Africa’s “miners’ spring”? Hartford believes it is the migrant labour system which remained unaltered despite the death of Apartheid, together with migratory and housing conditions of migrants, which has led to a double economic burden; as well as collective bargaining processes and institutions that failed dismally to hear the signs of discontent and address the causes. He points a finger at mining company leadership together with the HR and management functions in these businesses, and expresses a belief that these line management functions are complicit in the sector’s current failure.

“The only solution is a radical re-think of the future of migrant labour, of collective bargaining, and of the manager/employee interface at shaft and mine level,” Hartford said, adding that it was only through these interventions and by confronting the requirement for shared rewards by all stakeholders in mining that the future performance of the mining sector could be assured, and that this sector count remain an attractive investment destination.

“I was a trade unionist for many years in the '80s or '90s,” Hartford explains. “In those days there was one HR (human relations officer) or IR (industrial relations officer) to deal with collective agreement, because shift scheduling or discussions about bonuses were always done between employees on the line and line management.”

Democracy arrived and there was a complete, and very necessary, revision of employment laws in South Africa, which included the Skills Development Act; the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act; the Mine Health and Safety Act and others. As these laws arrived and labour relations in the mining sector became more complex, companies appointed professionals to deal with the laws and to ensure compliance. 

As they did, HR departments ballooned, often growing from a solitary representative to a phalanx of diversified corporate professionals who started taking ownership of skills development, transformation, communication, community liaison roles, legal issues and public relations. Hartford explains that in the process of changing labour relations, communication between line management and workers was disrupted and disintermediated by the HR function. “There was this gap that opened up, a separation between line management and the employees, as well as between unions and the members.” An unintended but very real consequence of all that labour law was the creation of institutions with large groups of alienated employees.

The legal and institutional frameworks created the environmental disconnect, while the economic drivers and social conditions created the powder keg to which Marikana has become the spark.

“The platinum industry has gone all-out to centralise bargaining, which is a very risky situation, because none of the labour unions enjoy the confidence of the employees. NUM has been discredited while AMCU (the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) are merely leaders of old organisations coming together with companies to fashion a new union. What mining companies should be doing now instead is to create inclusive structures at the lowest possible level and to start listening to employees,” Hartford says.

“If I was part of a mining company I would be going out and saying to every shaft and operation that we must create forums that involve workers, union reps and the community at the lowest possible level, but in the most participatory way possible,” he adds. 

But instead, mines became so bogged down in HR functions, PR functions and IR functions alongside collective arrangements with unions that they no longer listened to employees.

Hartford believes that change, if it comes at all, will be slow. “It will take years… a very long time to change. The first thing to understand is that the mining is 150 years old, institutional memory is very strong and it is not a quick-changing industry. It is a very hierarchical and institutionalised sector. If mines want to change pay structures, shift patterns, employment or employee engagement, it all takes significant time.”

Yes, there’s the time issue, but the crucial element in this sector is also political will. As Marikana starts edging off our popular consciousness (as it will over time), what remains to be seen will be what the mining industry has learnt from the raging strikes that have savaged the platinum sector in particular. Will 2012’s strike season be enough to bring real change, or will the mines merely default to back to form, as they have done after every crisis that came before? DM

Read more:

  • South Africa’s Labour Relations Act needs radical reform at Mining Weekly
  • 'Overhaul system': Business-Labour bargaining is failing in Sowetan 
  • The radical new face of labour relations in SA on BDLive 
  • Download Gavin Hartford’s ‘The mining industry strike wave: What are the causes and what are the solutions.” 

Photo: A mine worker walks underground in South Deep mine outside Johannesburg June 4, 2010. South Africa's Gold Fields said mechanisation at its big South Deep mine had reduced fatalities and boosted output compared with its other more labour-intensive operations. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko 

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa


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