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Lonmin strike: Why the R4,000 figure is no trivial matter

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.

Do rock-drill operators at Lonmin earn R4,500 a month, or R10,000? The difference between the two is not just one of perspective between company management and their miners, but a fight about whose version of events will go down as history. 

It was the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) that first came out with the R4,500 figure – this is what rock-drill operators “earn”, we were told. It seemed straightforward enough. After the two incidents at the Marikana mine of Lonmin PLC in which 44 people were left dead in two days of carnage – separated by six days – the figure has become a political hot rod. There are accusations that the media reporting that figure did not check their facts, and the insinuation is sometimes that this is to demonise a company that ought not to bear any fault.

In a press release on August 20, Solidarity general-secretary Gideon du Plessis said not only was it “clear” that many of the striking workers were retrenched drill operators from Impala Platinum, other types of workers and general members of the community, but also that “there is a misconception that the dispute mainly revolves around underpaid rock drill operators who reportedly only earn R4,000 a month. The adjusted total cost package of a Lonmin rock drill operator is approximately R10,500 a month, excluding bonuses.”

A Politicsweb writer, who goes by the unpleasant nom de guerre The Ratcatcher, made the same point as Solidarity. 

“In response to a separate query from Politicsweb, Lonmin’s Mark Munroe, Executive Vice President of Mining, basically confirmed these amounts. He stated: ‘Lonmin’s Rock Drill Operators earn in the region of R10,000 per month without bonuses and over R11,000 including bonuses. These levels are in line with those of our competitors and are before the wage hike of some 9% which will come into effect on 1 October 2012’. If this increase applies to the whole compensation package it would push gross earnings – with and without bonuses – to between R11,000 and R12,000 per month. The net income of rock drill operators may well be considerably less than this – after deductions – but this is the cost to company,” the hunter of rodents wrote.

That phrase “cost to company” is the key.

Lonmin confirmed the figures given to Politicsweb in a press release, which contained the following table, noting the remuneration for rock-drill operators:

  • Basic – R5,405.00
  • Pension (14.83%) – R801.56
  • Medical – R556.00
  • Housing – R1,850.00
  • RDO allowance – R750.00
  • Holiday leave allowance – R450.42
  • Total: R9,812.98

Two days after the police killed 34 miners and injured a further 78, Greg Marinovich and I interviewed several men who said that they were rock-drill operators at the Lonmin Marikana operation. One of them showed us his payslip. The payments followed a similar pattern: basic pay of about R4,365.90, R1,850 housing allowance, with benefits: a cost to company of R8,124.80. After deductions, his net pay was just over R5,000.

We asked what the miners meant when they said that they wanted R12,500 – they all unequivocally said that they meant that they wanted their net pay, after all deductions, to be that figure.

The failure, if any, by the media has been to be clear that the miners are talking about net pay. Obviously Lonmin regards cost to company as earnings, but that is definitely not what the drill operators are talking about.

This debate concerns me. Lonmin faces a tough future. On the one hand, it will be subject to a penetrating commission of inquiry that will try to establish the company’s possible culpability in the events before the shootings, and on the other, the company is in some financial trouble and there is talk of it having to raise more money to continue operating. There is obvious currency for the company to soften the rock-drill operator cause by claiming that they’re paid much more than they claim. 

Married to the incessant stories that paint the workers as mindless savages (this one especially goes beyond the pale) or illiterate buffoons, you have to ask if the point here is not to try and shift focus away from the terrible lives that most of these people lead. We are permitted by the government to weep for the dead and their families, but we can’t point fingers. Is that lest we discover that the miners might actually have a point?

Volatile industrial action happens all around the world. But the kind of desperation that leads men to speak of happily sacrificing their lives rather than going back underground for a take-home pay of R4,500 must lead us to look past the figures and ask what has gone wrong.

Lonmin employs 28,000 people in South Africa. That counts for something. And perhaps we shall discover that their wages compare favourably to the rest of the mining industry. But the trick of switching around the cost to company and net wages in this discussion smacks of dishonesty on the part of the company and its apologists. DM


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