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NUM’s erroneous article boils down to little more tha...

Business Maverick

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NUM’s erroneous article boils down to little more than deceit and divisive, indulgent rhetoric

Former Blyvoor Gold Mine employees and community members walk to deliver a memorandum to Blyvoor Shaft 5 in Carletonville, Gauteng, on 5 November 2021. (Photo: Luphert Chilwane)

Your recent article, ‘Blyvoor Gold Mine management must be taken to task for violating the Labour Relations Act’, written by Luphert Chilwane of NUM, was a superlative example of fake news at best and outrageous fiction at worst.

Telling lies is one thing; playing dangerously with people’s hopes and emotions is quite another. The submission by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was clearly designed to misinform the public, mislead the government and create anger and mistrust among our people. We would therefore like to take the opportunity of responding to and correcting the various spurious allegations contained in the NUM’s submission to Daily Maverick.

Mr Chilwane spends the first 12 rather tedious paragraphs of his missive trying to teach the reader about employee rights in South Africa. We have no comment on these, save to say that they are hardly worthy of repeating in such lengthy form, given they are so universally understood.

Mr Chilwane asserts that there is confusion among our employees and that workers are being dismissed on the basis of their right to belong to a trade union of their choice. This is entirely false: workers were dismissed on the basis of their participation in an illegal unprotected strike coordinated by NUM. Such dismissals were tested in March 2021 at the Labour Court, which found their conduct illegal, ruled in favour of the mine and awarded a punitive cost order against NUM.

He further alleges that our management be “taken to task” for violating the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995. We have done no such thing. If Mr Chilwane has evidence of such violations, he is welcome to report them to us, or use legal resources at his disposal. In contrast, the mine did so in the high court in March 2021, in a separate case. The court found that NUM’s conduct relating to intimidation of our workforce was illegal. It granted the mine an interdict against the regional and local NUM leadership and again awarded a punitive cost order against NUM.

Mr Chilwane accuses us of not “pushing forward” with transforming and improving the socioeconomic conditions of surrounding communities, and of being “obsessed” with establishing closed shop agreements. We would like to remind Mr Chilwane that closed shop agreements are a legal part of South African labour law and that NUM has many dozens of closed shop agreements in its favour elsewhere. Perhaps the boot on the other foot is less than comfortable for NUM.

We would also care to remind him in case he has memory problems, that it was NUM itself that called for a wildcat strike in 2012, which led to the liquidation of the mine and resultant loss of 5,000 jobs without severance pay, pension fund payouts, and a complete economic and infrastructural collapse of the local village. The mine remained closed for seven years.

If he’d bothered asking, or in fact done even cursory research, he would know that Blyvoor is at the forefront to transform and improve the conditions of the communities where it mines. It was Blyvoor that raised R800-million during the Jacob Zuma era — an incredibly difficult task given the political and economic environment at the time — to rebuild the mine and create some 2,000 new jobs from a destroyed mine.

Former employees tell us with anger and despair how after the liquidation in 2012, NUM strike protagonists facilitated the zama zamas in stripping and looting the liquidated Blyvoor mine and sharing the proceeds. This cost the old Blyvooruitzicht more than R1-billion in damage, costing the lives of 39 policemen and security personnel.

It was these former employees who had been stripped of a living and so fearful of a repeat that they asked to form their own union to protect them from such threats to their lives, and the intimidation that came with it. We understand that other workforces in related industries (platinum) have forged a similar path and registered independent unions. It seems that it is this trend that is causing anxiety in the ranks of NUM, evidenced by its intimidation of both the mine and its workforce, fuelled by panic that there will be further erosion of its historic status as was the case in 1998 in the formation of Amcu.

Yet another allegation is that since the beginning of this year, many workers at Blyvoor Gold Mine have been intimidated, attacked, assaulted, victimised and prevented from reporting to work. This statement is absolutely true. Many good, hard-working Blyvoor employees have indeed been threatened and intimidated — by NUM cadres. Criminal charges have been laid, many NUM leaders were arrested by SAPS, and investigations are ongoing.

Mr Chilwane asserts that several calls have been made to investigate the behaviour and attitude of the Blyvoor management. The Department of Employment and Labour visits the mine routinely and no adverse findings have been made. Mr Chilwane is concerned that there has been silence from the department. We would urge the department to continue to engage and investigate. Our conviction is that their silence reflects their satisfaction with Blyvoor’s worker and community relations.

Not satisfied with only one ministry, he then urges the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy to reconsider the future operations of the Blyvoor Gold Mine. The department is welcome at Blyvoor to engage with us at any time, as it does on an almost weekly basis.

Mr Chilwane urges the government to intervene and visit the mine. The government is quite welcome to visit Blyvoor any time they wish. They will find a happy, well-paid workforce. Yet another emotional outburst is that workers are being forced to join the Blyvoor Workers Union. Workers are joining the Blyvoor Workers Union voluntarily, representing an overwhelming majority of workers at the mine who engage with a trusted, decent employer honestly and with integrity.

He asserts that workers are being paid low wages without benefits such as UIF. What we pay, legally and according to accepted remuneration levels, is articulated above. All UIF was paid.

Blyvoor has excelled in serving the needs of the community, the mining industry and South Africa as a whole. For the record:

  • Blyvoor purchased the mine in 2016, with overwhelming community support.
  • Blyvoor recruited the majority of its workforce from the local community, as it had undertaken to do.
  • Blyvoor, ahead of its committed social and labour plan, commenced community initiatives including daily dispatches of technical teams, vehicles, tools and materials into the local community to do repairs to local sewerage, water supply and electrical infrastructure at substantial cost to the mine and zero cost to the recipients. This programme has endured for more than three years.
  • Blyvoor has for five years contributed to the national coffers, by paying substantial taxes, levies, rates, skills development levies, unemployment insurance fund contributions and related, all while not profitable and largely funded from ongoing shareholder contributions.

Mr Chilwane was nearly out of steam, but not before accusing us of making profits by exploiting labour. Blyvoor restarted operations in June 2021. It takes huge effort, substantial funding and much time to rebuild a mine, rebuild a gold processing plant, recommission two shafts, access and re-equip the workings, and eventually produce gold profitably.  To date, Blyvoor has spent all of the substantial capital raised and at last the mine is just about to break even. The good news is that soon it will be able to share any profits, because we have allocated 20% of the mine’s shareholding to a workers’ trust. To our knowledge, we are the only gold mining company in South Africa that has done this, giving real meaning for the first time to broad-based black economic empowerment. Mr Chilwane is strangely silent on this.

He alleges we raised $65-million through a structured funding arrangement and began rebuilding the mine, using vulnerable local workers. Mr Chilwane hasn’t done his homework, again. The facts are as follows:

  • The costs to rebuild Blyvoor far exceed this sum.
  • In 2016, raising foreign direct investment was nigh impossible. The raising of the required rebuild capital was an exceptional feat, the only known successful international capital raised for mining projects in South Africa in that year.
  • In the normal manner, contractors would be used, but they are expensive, and they bring labour in from outside. This is why the Blyvoor management team and its suppliers employed local labour, teaching, training and up-skilling them how to build a mine. Some were skilled and earned higher salaries; some were not skilled and earned the normal market-related construction salaries applicable in the area.

His last bit of nonsense is that there are no health and safety structures in place at the mine. The mine is visited by the health and safety officials of the mineral resources department on a regular and routine basis, and the mine has had many compliments and accolades for its commitment and health and safety history over the past six years, first in building the mine, and now, producing from the mine.

In addition, the mine undergoes quarterly third-party independent health safety audits and all have been passed with flying colours. The mine had the industry’s largest private Covid testing campaign during the pandemic. Not a single employee’s life was lost to the virus and not one shift was lost, a remarkable achievement and evidence of our management’s commitment to the health of its workers.

The submission by NUM was ill-conceived, untrue, and with clear motivation: A desperate last attempt to restore the lost trust of workers across the industry. BM/DM

Alan Smith is Chief Executive Officer of Blyvoor Gold Mine.

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  • NUM is p***** off because it has been kicked off the gravy train…..most of our big unions actually lose jobs due to their unrealistic wage demands which push worker affordability over the edge and lead to retrenchments and cutbacks. It is time the unions took a step back and stopped using our government as their model. If they really had the worker’s interest at heart, there would not be so many issues.

  • Ouch, what a rebuttal. It’s easy to make allegation to appeal to emotions but the problem often comes with substantiating them,

    Excellent article.

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