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Leadership vacuum aided mining crisis in South Africa
February 21, 2013, 8:05 am

The commission of enquiry into the shootings that left 41 people dead at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in South Africa in August last year is nearing the end of its fifth month of investigation.

But the crisis facing the mining industry continued to deepen this week, with members of the two opposing trade unions attacking each other at the Anglo-American Platinum (Amplats) mining operation in Rustenburg, outside Johannesburg.

The violence – which was sparked at Marikana when workers clashed with the police and has since spread to other mines where the two unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) are represented – has had major ramifications for both industry and labour.

Gold and platinum shares have plunged, with Amplats closing 4.85 lower at R442.94 ($49.7) this week as the South African rand weakened to R8.8 to the dollar.

Meanwhile, confidence in the country as an investment destination has suffered. This week it was revealed that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which was bidding for South Africa’s biggest English language newspaper group Independent News & Media Group, pulled out of the bid after the outbreak of the Marikana incident as it feared for the safety of its investment in the country.

In related news, Harmony Gold this week made individual workers at its Kusasalethu mine sign a treaty with the company in order to return to work. The mine had been closed since December 20 as a result of illegal and militant labour action. This action had put 6,000 jobs at risk – at this mine alone.

Now 14,000 workers at affected Amplats shafts might be retrenched – but, thanks to a government warning, the employers have suspended indefinitely their plan to effect these retrenchments.

Split wide open

While the government has openly blamed the mine owners for the appalling conditions in which most mine workers find themselves, and the salaries they pay, it cannot dictate pay scales to employers.

The country has a strong collective bargaining tradition – with unions and employers interacting through the National Economic Development and Labour Council, a body through which government, labour, business and community organisations are supposed to deal with problems of mutual concern.

Unfortunately, it would seem that this tradition of collective bargaining has all but collapsed, especially in the mining sector.

In August last year, rock drillers at Marikana embarked on a wildcat strike demanding a pay raise to R12,500 ($1,403) a month, effectively tripling their wages.

Before the illegal strike in August, there had been serious tensions between the NUM, which is aligned to the country’s governing the African National Congress (ANC) party, and the AMCU, the non-aligned union.

At Marikana, AMCU was in the majority in terms of membership representation, at the expense of the NUM which has always been the dominant force in the country’s mining industry.

As a result, mining management were correct to have pursued talks with AMCU, the majority union.

The talks broke down as management couldn’t accede to the demands of the workers – especially the figure of R12,500 in monthly wages.

(Incidentally, this figure would become the rallying cry at subsequent strikes all over the gold and platinum belt in South Africa)

Unfortunately, talks between mine management and AMCU did not go down well with the sidelined NUM.

Tensions between the two unions flared and soon led to numerous deaths – before the major showdown on August 16 where police shot dead 34 workers.

As the TV images of what has come to be called the Marikana Massacre have shown the world, when the police arrived at the scene on that day tensions were already at breaking point.

Armed to the teeth with machetes, clubs and an assortment of weapons, some miners attacked the police. The police fired back, sparking the worst political crisis in post-apartheid South Africa. Not since the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 had the police shot at ordinary citizens with impunity.

Against this background, an analysis of our mining industry is incomplete without reference to what happened in Marikana.

Some captains of industry have expressed befuddlement at the sudden upsurge of labour unrest.

Mark Cutifani, the CEO of AngloGold Ashanti, has said: “In a country where one in four people do not have reasonable work, it is incomprehensible for us to be threatening job losses in our most important and demonstrably high paying job sector.”

Leadership must stand up

The crisis currently engulfing labour is a sad mirror of what is happening in the country’s body politic: a rot is setting in thanks to a lack of leadership that is accountable to the general populace.

In the black townships, there are sporadic demonstrations – many of them turning violent – by ordinary citizens who are protesting that 18 years since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, joblessness and the number of homeless people has increased, while the quality of education has declined.

These people, who have consistently voted for the ANC, are frustrated at the lack of service delivered – or at least a leadership that shows that it is listening to them, and doing something about their grievances.

At the height of apartheid, labour strikes were a dime a dozen and members of the public would hold regular pickets and marches in support of this or the other labour strike.

But these were generally conducted peacefully. In the townships there were street committees which fed into local leadership, which in turn escalated issues to the next rung of leaders. In a word, there was accountability.

In the mining sector, this lack of leadership is even more profound. Compared to other labour sectors, leadership at the mines is in a shambles. With no accountable leadership, workers have taken the vacuum; violently so.

Ironically, Cyril Ramaphosa, a director at Lonmin when the Marikana killings occurred, in a past incarnation as general secretary of the NUM played a major role in entrenching a culture of learning within the union.

After leaving the union, he went on to help broker the talks between the ANC and the then white government of the National Party. The negotiating skills that he had honed during his days at the NUM shone ever more brightly.

Even after his departure from the NUM, there was stability within the union. Thanks to its Elijah Barayi Memorial Training College where they were schooled in political education and trade union work in all its manifestation, the NUM’s shop stewards were among the most well-trained in the country in collective bargaining and general trade union discipline.

Before the Marikana imbroglio, the last major strike called by the NUM took place in 2007 – when only five per cent of the entire mining workforce turned up for work. The protest was against increased fatalities – pointing to unsafe working conditions – at many mines across the country.

Remarkably, the 2007 strike was conducted on peacefully.

Quality of leadership has dipped

Over the years, the quality of cadreship at the top echelons of the unions has dipped. Ramaphosa is now deputy president of the governing ANC, and Kgalema Motlanthe, a one-time education officer at NUM, is now deputy president of South Africa.

Other leaders of note have also gone either into government, or business.

Inevitably, this has had an impact on discipline, and adherence by strict collective bargaining principles as witnessed in the build-up to the circumstances that led to the Marikana shootings.

Now every one waits with bated breath as the Chamber of Mines, the unions and platinum producers go back to the drawing board with the view to reaching an agreement on establishing a centralised bargaining system.

It remains to be seen if this will be a sustainable solution.

At the end of it all, it’s clear that leadership remains the key; those currently in positions should be stepping to the plate if the industry is to save itself before it creates an environment that will be adopted by workers in other industries – to the detriment of the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.