Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 17 June 2014

Dear Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi, let’s talk frankly

You are to be commended for your active stance on the mining strike. But as you pulled out at the eleventh hour and reform still seems a long way away, it’s become clearer and clearer that I need to wish you, and the rest of South Africa, good luck.

It’s pretty clear that you couldn’t wait to do something serious with your time, and Msholozi must be smiling after appointing you. You wasted no time jumping in, boots and all, to try to resolve the debilitating mining strike. Well done. As they say, a dog only barks at a moving van. If you did nothing, no one would have cautioned you about how slowly you should have been intervening. But folding your arms was obviously not an option. Your decision to establish a task team deserves praise. I wonder why your predecessor never did something that straightforward. I am sure other things were done; we were just never informed of their impact.

What must distinguish this term of office is ministers like you, sir, getting their hands dirty. They must have offices without an armchair; be out there more, solving problems, listening to the people and connecting with communities and stakeholders. It will not always end in success, but the attempt to resolve the issue in itself must be commended and must be seen as a victory for our people. Of course there is a need to be cautious about intervening in workplace strife – but anyone who suggests that you should have folded your arms after a strike that lasted five months must have their head thoroughly examined. This strike is a gash on the side of South Africa and the failure to intervene so far is a shame for the leadership of this country. We need more leaders like you who theorise less and get into the ditch with the people. For that I salute you. The current downgrades by international agencies are proof of how vital visible action by government in this mess is. I hope that even though you have ‘withdrawn’, you are continuing behind-the-scenes intervention to bring this strike to a speedy end.

There are other noises about whether this is a political strike or a strike influenced by foreign forces. Let’s for a moment say it is – so what? South Africa is not an apolitical environment, and a strike like this goes to the credibility or loss thereof by NUM in the platinum belt and is clearly political. It has debased the political sway of NUM. If NUM were the majority union at the helm of that strike, would we have heard complaints from anyone saying this is political? What if there are foreign people involved? Have we become an island? Are these very companies not headquartered abroad? Or at least with foreign shareholding? And so what is the issue of foreign involvement other than a red herring? As minister, you will be well advised to fly above the petty and cut to the chase of cooperation amongst all stakeholders.

The mining stakeholders have to come around the table and address the slave wages – no point rushing to agree that they can’t afford the demands on the table. It’s important to remember that business will always find a way to underpay the lowest paid worker who does the most work and pay the laziest executive the highest and most obscene bonus. Cutting down even a fraction of the mining bosses’ bonuses can go a long way in helping them afford decent wages for their workers. Minister, you have to put it to the mining bosses that they pay much more in other countries where they operate. They have become accustomed to paying slave wages here largely because they have not transformed how they used to conduct themselves under Apartheid. This was exposed by the Marikana tragedy where the living quarters of these miners – which I will suggest you visit quite soon – are a shameful display of the dark ages of oppression still lurking in our midst.

Minister, you have your work cut out for you. While the EFF is idiotically calling for the wholesale nationalisation of mines – something so Utopian, really – you have a mine that is run by the state. Its success may just give a wrong idea – but believe me, you don’t want government trying to run mines. That’s a silly idea. Let’s be frank: government battles to run things successfully and efficiently; our parastatals remind us all the time when they regularly implode.

But in 2003 there was legislation that was focusing on something called Mining Royalties. I wonder what on earth happened to that? You can clear that up with a phone call to the head of UN Women – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka – who was on your hot seat back then. What a lady! She was in the eye of the storm, and under her reign the mining companies huffed and puffed and took billions out of the stock exchange, intimidating all and sundry against transforming the industry meaningfully.

A document was leaked suggesting that mining companies would have to give up as much as 51% as part of BEE in the sector. The noise resulted in the eventual agreement that 26% would have to be given to historically disadvantaged South Africans with in 10 years; this debate was the best part of a decade ago, and one wonders how many mines have achieved as much as that in transforming their ownership. This is a matter you may want to zone in on quite considerably.

With the dawn of the new BEE Codes, the mining bosses must also tell us how much they spend on skills development, how many small enterprises they have empowered and how much they have invested in communities. Getting down to this may not initially be the ‘lights, camera and action’ stuff the AMCU intervention generated, but it will eventually help you get to the real business of your portfolio. This is the heart of the economy – sadly, you don’t have the luxury that Juju has to just pronounce that you want to own the mines lock, stock and barrel; harder work is required.

Back to your Superman intervention. You have done very well, although I can’t say I understood why you would pull out at the last minute. Wishing you well as you have your sights on the pending gold strike that may not be as grimy. Your promise that you will fast-track the delivery of housing in the platinum belt truly shows you intend to dirty your hands. I wish you luck. One hopes, though, that you won’t let the bosses off the hook by trying to mitigate their own neglect of the basic needs of their own workers. One thing is for sure, this assignment will be harder than shouting at the judges for lack of transformation. So, to steal your words, I wish you and South Africa good luck.

Yours frankly,

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane. DM


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