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18 December 2017 09:09 (South Africa)
South Africa

Mining crisis: Zuma's response and its infinite inadequacy

  • Sipho Hlongwane
    sipho hlongwane BW
    Sipho Hlongwane

    Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

    He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\Sipho-Zumamining

President Jacob Zuma called in the captains of industry, union and community leaders on Friday evening and Tuesday to talk about the economy and the mining sector, which is in the throes of widespread illegal strike action. While the proposals that came out of the meetings were broadly sound, the analysis of the problem differed to what we’ve heard from the striking miners over the last weeks. This means the president’s plan is unlikely to be acceptable. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The responses to the labour crisis sweeping across the mining sector have been haphazard and halting so far. Individual companies have been left alone to try and solve flare-ups at their premises, while affected labour organisations like the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and its parent, Cosatu, have also tried to leap into every trouble spot. 

Neither the companies nor organised labour can report great success. The only thing we have seen that has come close to a coordinated effort to deal with the problem has been the police presence everywhere, and their intervention has often ended in tears. The president of the country finally convened a meeting on Friday evening and again on Tuesday morning to try and provide a holistic solution to the problem.

The leaders of Business Unity South Africa, the Black Business Council, Cosatu, Fedusa, Nactu, the overall community constituency convener at Nedlac and the economic cluster ministers all attended the meetings. Zuma chaired the meeting. 

The leaders directly representing the striking miners or affected communities were not there.

A committee was set up on Friday to give a report on Tuesday, recommending what the appropriate response was to the labour crisis. The parties then agreed on a plan, which on one hand promises to normalise the strike situation while investing heavily in development in the mining towns to improve the standard of living. In a nutshell, the plan asks workers to go back to work immediately on the promise that they’ve been heard and that things will be better. 

“The parties agree to take steps to improve public and investor confidence in the economy and social stability, using their respective resources and capacities to build partnerships for development,” Zuma said after the second meeting was concluded.

“Processes to address the grievances of workers have now been put in place and we wish these processes to be concluded speedily.”

The striking workers have been ‘called upon’ to return to work as soon as possible, and have said that violence and intimidation must come to an end. The justice, crime prevention and security cluster were given full support in their actions taken to normalise daily life.

A plan is already being developed by specific agencies such as the Development Bank of South Africa, SANRAL, the Industrial Development Corporation and Eskom to direct socio-economic and economic investment and interventions to the affected areas. The plan includes accelerated infrastructure rollout to create jobs, tackling reckless spending and other job opportunities through public sector work programmes. 

The president’s plan is very heavy on platitudes and very light on details. While it proposes that “measures to address the challenges faced by workers and companies affected by the global economic slowdown” be developed, it doesn’t say what sort of intervention will be proposed. Will the government relax labour laws to allow companies to sack more workers and therefore weather the economic downturn by cutting costs? Or will the government bail companies out to allow them to afford the wages being demanded across the industry? Will it buy up excess platinum and gold stocks to keep the mining economy from imploding under ballooning labour costs? We simply don’t know what the proposed intervention is. Or indeed what it will cost.

A direct appeal was made to CEOs to commit to a 12-month freeze on bonuses and income increases.

What will perhaps incense the striking miners is that they were not party to the discussions at the Union Buildings. While the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has a far better relationship with the striking miners than NUM or Cosatu, was reportedly represented, the miners have tended to want to select their own people when real negotiations get underway. Once again the big players have locked the angry minnows out of the boardroom.

What will also cause great unhappiness is the contention by the President Zuma (doubtlessly informed by the people he spoke to) that the bargaining process works. “We are of the common view that our collective bargaining system is broadly sound, that the integrity of the system must be defended,” he said.

The Daily Maverick has spoken to many mining workers who have contended that the system does not work for them at all. In fact, the wide rejection of NUM as the legitimate labour representative in the mining sector by the people who go down every day should have been warning enough to the president that his remark does not ring true. The main problem is that it can be quite difficult to dislodge the recognised labour bargaining partner, since he who has 50% + 1 negotiates for all. It is conceivable for a large number of workers to be negotiated for by a union that doesn’t even draw fees from them, as happened at Impala Platinum, Lonmin and other mining companies. Without some kind of review of the laws surrounding collective bargaining, Zuma has just shifted the problem back by a few years. 

Unfortunately for the miners on the ground, the plan lacks both their direct input and a short-term intervention. Their decision to down tools unlawfully is perhaps a sign that they feel that they need to resort to extreme measures to be heard, and they’ve been failed in that regard once again. They will also ask how the plan addresses how they will get to the salary level they demand, or at least attempt to meet them halfway on that count. It doesn’t, and for that alone the plan is very unlikely to “normalise” the situation. DM

Photo by Greg Marinovich

  • Sipho Hlongwane
    sipho hlongwane BW
    Sipho Hlongwane

    Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

    He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

  • South Africa

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