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Mining strike: Ominous clouds of history

Working as a miner is a filthy, frightening and dangerous occupation. Death and dismemberment are the spectres lurking every moment at your side.

And that’s while you are still above ground, as was demonstrated during the Marikana massacre in which police fire killed 34 miners and left another 78 injured. Actually go below ground and that’s where around 100 South African miners die each year, extracting platinum and gold from the deepest and technically most challenging mines in the world.

So it would seem to me eminently reasonable that platinum miners demanded a basic monthly salary of R12 500 – up from R7 100 – which sparked the strike that has paralysed the industry for five months and counting. In fact, pay them double what they demand, it is no less than they deserve.

Even at triple that amount, those miners will earn half of what a rookie parliamentarian earns. And look at the difference in what they contribute: the miners grow the nation, while the parliamentarians deplete it; the miners risk life and limb, while the parliamentarians risk only Numb Bum Syndrome and the occasional flying spittle.

But also, let’s not bluff ourselves. When advocating proportionately large wage increases, the Economic Freedom Fighters and various radical political activists who have egged on the miners from the sidelines should at least be honest about what the outcome will be.

The number of miners will drop dramatically from the 70 000 who at present work in the sector, as producers recoup costs through mechanisation and the closure of now uneconomic shafts. Those wage increases will ripple through the rest of the mining industry and then through South Africa’s limping manufacturing industry, with further lay-offs in their wake.

It is this immutable economic equation that lies at the heart of South Africa’s low-wage and unemployment dilemma. The expenditure to revenue equation has to produce a surplus, otherwise – no matter whether it is a multinational or a nationalised entity – one is emptying the pockets of either shareholders or taxpayers. One can do so, but only as a stopgap measure, not forever.

So the conundrum for governments, especially populist ones, is how to engineer that critical trade off between labour and capital. Either maximise employment, which means exploitatively low wages that barely keep noses above the starvation line (China), or maximise wages to create a unionised labour aristocracy that lives in relative comfort while millions of unskilled have zero hope of employment (South Africa).

Fortunately, there is one problem-solving input that government can make. That is to raise the value of all the terms in the equation by delivering the social, legal and economic infrastructure that will over time encourage investment and job formation. But as the ANC has found to its distress, this is a little more difficult to do than simper in front of potential investors while simultaneously reassuring its supporters with socialist incantations.

As a consequence, government’s belated efforts to mediate the strike are viewed with suspicion on all sides. Both the workers and the mining companies point to the ANC’s ties with its alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, as a reason why it can’t be an honest broker, albeit for different reasons.

The mining companies are, of course, innately sceptical of an avowedly anti-capital party, especially one whose stewardship over mining has been haphazard and incompetent. The workers striking under the banner of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union – the bitter rival of Cosatu – distrust government mediation because it knows that the ANC has a vested interest in keeping the labour movement dominated by its ally.

In any case, at the moment there appears to be no mood on either side for compromise. One must hope that the platinum industry strike does not expand into the gold mining sector to become South Africa’s equivalent of Britain’s 1984-85 year-long miner’s strike.

Then, too, there was no mood for compromise. The coal mine owners – at that time the British government, which ran the nationalised industry – wanted to cripple a rampant union movement. The miners, in turn, wanted to topple a Conservative government and keep in existence an industry that had through over-manning, among other factors, had become a drain on the public exchequer.

Symbolism triumphed over good sense. Though Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s government would claim victory, it was in many ways a Pyrrhic one. The British social compact lay in tatters and the bitternes still exists to some degree to this day.

Is this really the path SA wants to risk?

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  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.

12 Comments

  1. Martin Warburg Martin Warburg 16 June 2014

    Thatcher’s victory was hardly Pyrrhic; it was the foundation on which modern British economic success was built.
    And you omit to question the overall viability of a “collective bargaining” coercive state in which low skills, bad education and an entitlement ethos conspire to entrench unemployment.
    There is absolutely nothing long with an “above the starvation line (China)” option as it would promote investment and economic growth in the long run.

  2. Peter Lawton Peter Lawton 16 June 2014

    I’m reading/writing this on 16 June 2014, a day that commemorates the shooting of school kids by South African police. It occurs to me that the shooting of mine-workers, again by South African police or troops, whether at Marikana, or way back during Jan Smuts time, is a national way of trying to bend the people, by our governments of the day. Shooting individual protesters (eg Andres Tatane) is equally favoured. Commonly, all this has happened because our State, at the time, was not a competent, even-handed, honest broker, dedicated to the well-being of the whole country, but only tolerated a modicum of opposition or protest against exploitation or injustice. Hammering and shooting the people eventually hardens the steel of their protest and resolve, and drives the motivation to hold out to the bitter end to achieve something (such as R12500 month). If our citizens keep on voting for such governments, which do not know how to develop the appropriate climate for education, enterprise, investment and meaningful employment, then we will again have unsustainable demands, exploitative conditions, protests and violent suppression. We are definitely heading for a bad future unless the citizens get their heads right about how the country should be led and developed.

  3. aim for the culprits aim for the culprits 16 June 2014

    Mines are already heavily mechanised. Has the author ever been into one? R12500 is not excessive. Huge ROIs are.

  4. Yeah, right Yeah, right 16 June 2014

    It is quite interesting that it is acceptable for miners to brandish weapons and murder and intimidate their way into a larger salary than a SAPS constable, who faces similar attrition rates in their profession, but who is also arguably held to much higher levels of responsibility. Add to that the fact that legally speaking the SAPS member doesn’t have peaceful striking as an option – whereas the miners do. Then take incorrect public assumptions about tactical methodology (during which trial by media and opinion has been condoned quite openly), along with the other assumption that all police officials are acting in some sort of political unison, into account. It would be intriguing to see how well received a… journalist, let’s say, would be if they stepped into Mail & Guardian or Naspers’ offices and starting demanding better pay and treatment while brandishing a machete or firearm. If any professional feels that it would be acceptable for them to do so, then by all means encourage our professional miners into the mindset of intimidation and violence being the best negotiation of employment terms. Just remember that considering most of the world is held hostage by capitalism, if we passively or actively promote violence as a means of negotiating, a worldwide bloodbath would be the consequence.

  5. Grant Grant 16 June 2014

    The choices are simple, the politics is not.

    The South African labour pool is vast, uneducated for a modern economy and highly unproductive as a short visit to China will illustrate. Should this pool of labour want to earn more, it will need to learn more, be more productive and stop leaning on labour law, trying to strong arm the capitalst system to give a damn. It won’t. Capital will move in the global landscape. Local labour will lose.

    There are 2 ways for miners to earn more and neither involve striking:

    1) Get all South Africans to work so the pool of available labour is tiny and competition from business for good workers is fierce. Simple economics will dicatate an increase in wages. Gov needs to radically change the culture of work and labour in SA.

    2) Fire half the miners, keep the most productive, smartest workers, up skill them on new mechanised technologies and pay them more according to their new skill level.

    Either way, striking for 6 months and causing mine closure and the partial collapse of the SA economy might get the struggle blood pumping. It might be very exciting and it might feel good to shove a middle finger in the face of those suited bosses with their awfully perfect hair but in the end, you bring them down everybody loses. They lose, the workers lose, the tax coffers lose which means that everyone loses.

    Simple choices, tough politics.

  6. Baz Baz 16 June 2014

    @ Martin Warburg….yes, what you say is agreeable and where are we heading with all these uncalled for strikes….more mass unemployment…

  7. JohnbPatson JohnbPatson 17 June 2014

    The Maggie Thatcher allusion draws attention to what she was doing simultaneously to the money supply, namely cracking down to reduce inflation.
    It is something South Africa should consider.
    For years the government has been content to leave inflation at 6%, a level where the risk of run-away inflation is always present.
    The people who suffer the most through this policy because of higher food prices are the poor, and the rock drillers, even though they are well paid by mining standards, consider themselves poor.
    They see prices go up every year and this too adds to their determination to get a big win from the strike.

  8. lover of Africa in spite lover of Africa in spite 17 June 2014

    u mention part of the solution, altho u don’t develop it. Limit the perks of MP and other politicians, to, say, twice the average miner’s salary. Not only will salary increase for miners become popular with the power that be, but also, thru saving the public purse and hence reducing the need for taxation, it will allow companies to give in as they should then be taxed to a lesser amount.

  9. Paul Bluewater Paul Bluewater 18 June 2014

    Nothing can change this status quo (or arrest the general decline) other than leadership which inspires Hope that makes men want to bring out their best effort and integrity.

    I do not see that wisdom and wit present in our leadership at the moment.

  10. Monwabisi Ncayiyana Monwabisi Ncayiyana 18 June 2014

    In South Africa an MP/Member of Parliament who goes to parliament every day & relax or sleep, earn around R80.000 to R90.000 p/m and ordinary Mine worker whom is working kilometres underground in severe difficult & dangerous conditions earn around R5000 p/m. in my view government must set minimum amount that must be paid by all miners in South Africa in order to avoid a dilemma of this nature for future purposes. One of the reasons why government in not taking a centre stage in this Saga, they have vested interest in these mining companies.

    Therefore it is not surprising why police went and shoot those miners in Marikana, Government want to protect inverters or mining bosses instead of protecting ordinary citizens. On instances like this government must never be found folding hands as spectator instead of taking a centre stage when mining bossing exploiting and underpaying miners.

    The third question that we must look unto is:- how much are the mining bosses are earning per month or per year? How much of surplus or interest are they making? Lastly can they afford to pey these miners R12.500

  11. JohnbPatson JohnbPatson 18 June 2014

    One other tuppenny worth — in spite of its low labour cost mines, China still buys tonnes of cheaper coal from highly mechanized open-cast mines in Australia.
    The world’s platinum users are not squealing yet from the five month strike, which suggests they too have an alternative supply.
    My guess is that recycling of car exhaust systems (talked about for years but only recently a reality) is playing a role.

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