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15 December 2017 20:09 (South Africa)
South Africa

Platinum strikes: Hope for the next step, but which way?

  • Greg Nicolson
    greg nicolson BW
    Greg Nicolson

    Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

  • South Africa
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Almost a week after the Labour Court brought the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) back to the table with Lonmin, Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum, unconfirmed reports suggest the discussions have finalised. As we wait for word as to whether a deal could be reached, struggling communities have been receiving help. By GREG NICOLSON.

AMCU Treasurer Jimmy Gama told Daily Maverick on Tuesday evening that discussions facilitated by the Labour Court had ended and weren’t expected to continue on Wednesday. He couldn’t provide further details as the parties were waiting for word from Judge Hilary Rabkin-Naicker.

Judge Rabkin-Naicker took the unusual step of inviting the parties to resume discussions behind closed doors when the union went to court to try to prevent the mining companies from communicating directly with employees over issues related to the strike and the pay offer. The discussions began last Wednesday and lasted for five days. The parties have been tight-lipped on whether any progress has been made.

Charmane Russell, who is acting as spokesperson for the mining houses, said she couldn’t confirm that discussions facilitated by Rabkin-Naiker wouldn’t be resuming on Wednesday. She said that the parties continued their discussions on Tuesday.

The strike has lasted over four months and according to a website set up by the mining companies has cost the platinum producers almost R20 billion in revenue and employees almost R9 billion in earnings. Before the latest round of negotiations, the employers were offering yearly increases leading to entry-level underground workers to receive R12,500 by 2017. The figure includes allowances. AMCU was demanding R12,500 by 2016, excluding allowances.

As discussions stalled, both employers and labour have been trying to curry favour in public. The platinum producers recently released comparative wage figures between mining and other industries showing that even before a deal is reached basic minimum wages at the three producers range from R5,000 to R5,713, higher than the steel and engineering, motor, road and freight, civil engineering, and chemical industries. Mineworkers cite a high number of dependents, higher living costs in mining areas, dangerous conditions, and the role mining houses have played in systems of exploitation and inequality as reasons for their wage demands.

There’s been speculation as to whether the government would play a stronger hand in helping resolve the strike after it was quiet on the matter during the lead up to elections and newly appointed Minister of Mineral Resources Ngoako Ramatlhodi has already called for an end to the industrial action. “I appeal to all stakeholders to assist this country to emerge from the crippling strike that is really hurting the economy and individuals involved,” he said after being sworn into office on Monday. “Everyone would be keen to see the strike end as quickly as possible. It will be my first job tonight as I will be briefed by my director general [Thibedi Ramontja] so that I have a sense of what are the issues that are holding the agreement back.”

Immediately after Ramatlhodi’s appointment, the media began to question Zuma’s choice. He is a previous premier of Limpopo and has been investigated for kickbacks from a contract in the early 2000s. He has also pointed out the compromises in the Constitution, which he says has resulted in “the black majority enjoys empty political power while forces against change reign supreme in the economy, judiciary, public opinion and civil society.” UCT’s Richard Calland, meanwhile, called his appointment “bizarre” and predicted he may signal an increase in government attempts to transfer stakes in mining houses to black owners.

The mining strike is a headache for the new government as Statistics SA said on Tuesday a dip in the sector was a large contributor to the worst quarterly growth figures in five years. Seasonally adjusted GDP shrunk by an annualised 0.6% in the first quarter of 2014 compared with a 3.8% rise in the last quarter of 2013. The mining and quarrying industry dipped 1.3% and manufacturing lowered 0.7%. It’s the first time there’s been negative growth since 2009’s second quarter. Last week, Stats SA said annual headline inflation for April came in above the Reserve Bank’s target of 3-6%.

While the strike is taking its toll on the platinum belt, organisations have rallied to provide relief. On Sunday night, Johannesburg jazz club The Orbit held a fundraiser for the community of Marikana. It raised R40,000 plus a donation from the club after almost 320 people turned out to hear the musicians who played for free. Aymeric Peguillan, a partner at The Orbit, said a group of regulars came up with the idea and the club decided to host the event because it would be “a strong act of citizenry” and highlight the social impact of the strike. The proceeds were donated to Gift of the Givers.

Gift of the Givers traversed the Rustenburg area last week, offering strike-hit communities food parcels, a hot meal, and medical treatment. They visited Marikana on Saturday and accused Lonmin of potentially causing trouble by preventing them from using Wonderkop Stadium, now well known for hosting union rallies. “This was a recipe for disaster; it was the biggest crowd we had seen as yet after a week at various shafts on the mine; word was spreading about the availability of food and the expectation was high,” said the organisation. Daily Maverick sought clarity on the issue on Tuesday, but wasn’t able get a comment from Lonmin or the aid organisation.

Despite thousands of people turning up for assistance, with pictures of lines resembling images of voting lines in 1994, some mineworkers didn’t won’t to be portrayed as suffering. “We do not need charity in Wonderkop and we are not dying of poverty and hunger and it will not happen until we get R12,500,” Phumeza Mdunyela, 28 years old, told Daily Maverick. “We still eat meat and drink beers. It would be great if people could stop worrying our relatives back in the rural areas by saying we are suffering. We are not,” added 29-year-old Shezi Sgwacu, a mineworker at Lonmin’s K3 shaft. Many of the businesses around mining areas are said to be suffering from lack of business and it’s been reported that some mineworkers haven’t been attending clinics for antiretroviral medication. AMCU has said the mineworkers the current situation isn’t much different from usual as miners are used to living in poverty on insignificant wages.

The union needs to prove to members, most of whom joined after the 2012 industrial action, that it can deliver on its ambitious demands while at the same time being able to reach a deal without putting jobs at risk. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) claims it has won back some of the members it lost to AMCU. “They have learned that words can move mountain but experience is different,” said NUM, after its leaders met last week. Its national executive committee said members should exercise their right to go to work and called on members to defend themselves against any form of violence or intimidation against their lives, families or property. DM

Additional reporting by Thapelo Lekgowa.

Photo: Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Read more:

  • Let’s see yo’ cards, boys, in Daily Maverick.
  • A roadshow like no other: Striking Marikana miners, looking to win hearts and minds in Daily Maverick.
  • Greg Nicolson
    greg nicolson BW
    Greg Nicolson

    Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

  • South Africa

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