South Africa

Platinum strike: Mining minister claims hollow victory

By BC Simelane & Greg Nicolson 11 June 2014

Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi spoke of the successes of his intervention into the platinum strike on Tuesday, claiming to have brought the parties closer together. His task team seemed to make ground, but now they’re gone the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Anglo American Platinum are as far apart as ever; for now, hopes of a resolution are dashed. By GREG NICOLSON & BHEKI C. SIMELANE.

Ramathlodi is confident discussions facilitated by the inter-ministerial task team have done enough “for the parties to take the process forward and continue engaging on their own.” Speaking at the Department of Mineral Resources in Pretoria, Ramathlodi said while his official intervention has ceased, he’s available for informal discussions and will do what he can to maintain mining’s role in the economy. That, however, will take place within mining legislation.

Speaking on Sunday, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe expressed doubt from the party leadership about the minister’s intervention. Ramatlhodi’s predecessor Susan Shabangu ignored pleas for the state to get further involved, leaving mediation to the parties and the Commission for Conciliation, Arbitration and Mediation (CCMA), which ended in deadlock.

On Tuesday, Ramatlhodi said the parties last week agreed to find a way to pay workers R12,500 per month but were divided over what year it should be achieved and what to do with the living out allowance, a sum paid to mineworkers who don’t live in employee accommodation. The minister suggested the living out allowance be diverted into basic wages while government hurries to provide decent housing in mining areas. In 2012, President Zuma announced plans to improve conditions in mining communities and Ramathlodi said the offer is still on the table to speed up the delivery of housing so mineworkers can take their allowances as basic pay.

“I’m convinced they’ve both moved from their original positions,” said Ramatlhodi on the success of the negotiations. “We’ve given them the key, which is us delivering the houses quickly. They didn’t use it.”

Platinum producers were less optimistic than the minister. Lonmin’s Sue Vey said it’s possible for a deal to be reached at any point “but frankly we’re still very far apart”. The housing idea was a proposal from government but AMCU refused, she added. Despite two weeks of government-led talks, the official wage offer remains the same as it did on 17 April. That five-year deal would see entry-level underground employees’ basic monthly pay rising from between R5,000 – R5,713 (differing for the three companies) now to R8,871 – R9,250 in 2017. Total cash remuneration including allowances would rise from between R7,154 – R8,359 to just over R12,500 at all the companies in 2017. The offer from the companies is backdated to mid-2013, when negotiations begun.

Anglo American Platinum’s Mpumi Sithole said after the task team ended without an outcome, “The companies and AMCU remain far apart.” She said there are currently no scheduled talks with the union. The company is still trying and communicate with the employees bypassing AMCU, encouraging them to return to work.

Symbolic of how far apart the parties remain, AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa reportedly said on Monday the union had made multiple concessions in the negotiations while the companies refused to budge. “That’s absolutely incorrect,” disputed Lonmin’s Vey. She said the companies had moved “significantly” and on Monday Mathunjwa had a change of mind. He agreed the figure of R12,500 could be reached by 2017, she said, before going back to the union’s demand that it must be reached by 2016. The union couldn’t be reached for comment.

The platinum companies say they remain committed to a negotiated settlement but are reviewing further available options. This could include resuming discussions through the mediation of the Labour Court, but might also see an application to the courts to end the strike because of reports of violence and intimidation against non-striking workers. More options need to be considered, said Vey, as there’s “no real negotiation” and it’s turning into an “ideological fight”.

Trade union Solidarity announced Tuesday it will approach the Constitutional Court to ensure its members’ right to go to work is respected. The case could set up a clash between the rights of employees to strike and to work. “We do not foresee the strike to end anytime soon considering that it is ideologically driven,” said Gideon du Plessis, Solidarity general secretary.

On Tuesday, the South African Council of Churches announced it is “gravely concerned” about the strike and has offered to be present at negotiations to provide a fresh space for discussions. On Monday, AHi, which represents small business councils across the country, said local businesses are suffering and Rustenburg faces a “complete economic meltdown”. It called on government to declare the strike an unusual and extraordinary threat to the security and economy of the country if no resolution is found soon.

Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus weighed into the discussion on Tuesday, urging government, business and labour to “rebuild the confidence and trust that is an imperative to change the negative trajectory that the economy is presently on”. According to SAPA, Marcus said the strike could lower export figures soon if the companies deplete their platinum stockpiles. “While the global backdrop remains difficult as the advanced economies emerge from the very deep financial crisis of the past seven years, it is no longer the main cause of South Africa’s weak domestic economic performance,” Reuters quoted Marcus.

After his discussions with the mining companies, Ramatlhodi said there’s a risk of mine closures and job losses. The platinum producers said that if they meet the R12,500 demand sooner rather than later, there’ll be large dismissals and shafts will shut down. “There might be job losses. I suspect there will be, actually,” said the minister.

AMCU members participating in the strike told Daily Maverick they remain committed, but are struggling financially. Amplats Safety officer Madiba Bukhali said he supports the strike. “It’s not easy. We knew that it wasn’t gonna be easy from the beginning. We should be able to carry ourselves through despite the hunger. The struggle continues. If you look at it from another angle you’d swear the strike is not really about wages as some are starting to claim, but I can tell you now the strike is about wages. The reason we are not at work is because of the R12,500 monthly basic wage that we demand.”

Andy Matwa, a mine assistant also from Amplats, though is struggling. “Our lives are at a standstill. I don’t know the last time I visited a shop to buy [something]. The sad thing is that kids are really struggling at school. There haven’t been any reports of crime or anything of that nature but our lives have come to a stop. I don’t know how long I can still carry on.”

Some AMCU members expected a meeting would be held in Marikana to discuss the latest negotiations on Tuesday, but it appears the union will give feedback and take a mandate from members in the coming days. DM

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Photo by Reuters.

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