South Africa

As hurricane Shabangu looms, Amplats miners return to work

By Greg Nicolson 17 January 2013

After briefly downing tools, Anglo American Platinum miners are back at work. Somewhere in the war of words, miners realised an unprotected strike isn’t their best option. Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu’s outrage played a part in getting them back to work, but just how far will government and ANC anger go in the dramatically changing landscape of the South African mining? By GREG NICOLSON.

Shabangu’s outrage over the announcement by Amplats of its decision to restructure its South African platinum operation, likely to cost 14,000 jobs, has been condemned by the usual suspects. The Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister James Lorimer tore into the minister for misunderstanding the free-market economy and the government’s role as a regulator and for harming the mining industry. Writing in MiningMX, David McKay asked whether hassling the platinum industry is worth the risk when mining companies are continuing to face increasing costs while the country needs their investment. Shabangu has continued to rebuke Amplats for its limited dealings with government over its plans.  

Yet the minister’s tough stance was cited as a key reason Amplats miners decided to return to work after downing tools on Tuesday evening. Godfrey Lindani, a leader of the workers committee that led strikes at Amplats during the mining unrest in 2012 and employee at one of the mines earmarked to be mothballed, told the Daily Maverick workers were encouraged that Shabangu wanted to publicly take on the mining company. He suggested that because the minister knew little of Amplats’s plans, workers thought government was on their side.

“We decided with Amcu (the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) to bring the workers back,” said Lindani. Amplats spokeswoman Mpumi Sithole confirmed on Wednesday evening that employees were back at work. “Our employees have clocked in and have proceeded underground to commence with their shifts at our Rustenburg operations and in the north of Pilanesberg,” she said as the night shift began. “All is normal.”

Some miners went on strike Tuesday evening after Amplats CEO Chris Griffith informed them of the restructuring plans, including putting Khuseleka 1 and 2 and Khomanani 1 and 2 on long-term maintenance and ceasing production at Union North Declines before selling the Union mines. “Regrettably, these proposed changes will have an impact on roles. We estimate that a total of 14,000 roles may need to be restructured or be at risk of retrenchment. From today, we will be notifying any employees affected by these proposed changes as soon as possible as part of a formal, collective consultation process,” Griffiths wrote in a letter to all employees.

Amcu treasurer Jimmy Gama, along with an Amcu regional organiser and national organiser, met with workers on Wednesday and decided to suspend strike action while they wait for approval for a protected strike. They hope to strike in February before expected retrenchments begin. Amcu took a majority of members from the National Union of Mineworkers in the affected shafts during 2012. The NUM, along with union Uasa, the United Democratic Front, Young Communists League, and other groups have expressed dismay at the plan to cut 14,000 jobs. 

“I don’t think that I’ve been arrogant and I don’t think that our company has been arrogant,” Amplats CEO Chris Griffiths told SAfm on Wednesday. He said the company was limited in how much it could engage with stakeholders before making its decision but was cautious regarding Shabangu’s comments. “I can hear she’s angry and perhaps have some sympathy with that. What I clearly can’t do and don’t want to do is have a tit for tat with the minister on the radio… If the minister is unhappy, we need to go back to her, back to her team and sit down and work through that process.”

What such engagement can achieve is debatable. The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) has already said it has received a referral to facilitate on the issue and will begin to look at it this week.

Shabangu however has suggested the platinum producer’s mining licence could be at risk. The ANC on Tuesday suggested government review all mining licences and consider revoking licences to mothballed mines before auctioning them publicly. Asked if Anglo American Platinum could lose its licence, Shabangu told SAfm, “It’s themselves who are putting their licence in jeopardy, not us. Themselves.”

Despite Shabangu’s continued insistence that the government has no plans to nationalise mines, her comments have predictably been read by some in the context of the nationalisation debate and the ANC’s ideas on creating a state mining company.

Neither government nor mining companies have indicated whether they would bid for Amplats mines if they become available, but the restructuring announcement and resulting anger has already affected the market. Amplats closed almost 6% down on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on Wednesday while its majority owner, Anglo American, shed points on the FTSE 100.

Shabangu’s comments may have contributed to ending the brief strikes at Amplats but if the market’s reactions are anything to go buy she has hurt investor confidence in an industry already facing high costs and possible downscaling after a tumultuous 2012. With credit rating agencies continuing to downgrade South Africa, it’s not a good sign for investment or jobs.

But Amplats employee Lindani and his workers’ committee are buoyed about finally being on the same side as government and the ANC, the side that is, for now at least, against the mining company and for workers. DM

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Photo: A man walks past a train carrying goods, at Anglo Platinum’s Khomanani shaft 1 mine in Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg January 15, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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