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Amplats passing the buck after pocketing the rand

No wonder Anglo American Platinum, the world’s largest platinum producer, is fixing to lay off at least 14 000 workers. According to the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, the remuneration of a mineworker increased by an average of 30% each year between 1999 and 2011. I highly doubt the average mineworker increased his or her productivity by 30% each year. It’s an impossible ask, more so to sustain it over a 13-year period.

Amplats says it arrived at the conclusion to put the 14 000 jobs to pasture after it reviewed its business and discovered it was the best way to “create a sustainable, competitive and profitable platinum business for the long-term benefit of all its stakeholders’’.

“Stakeholders”, by the way, is the corporatese catch-all phrase that supposedly includes the 14 000 workers and the potentially 44 800 unemployed dependants they support. So yes, it may hurt now, Mr or Ms 1 of 44 800, but in the long term this hardship you are about to endure is for your benefit.

“The company’s review of its business is in response to its revised expectations for platinum demand growth and a number of structural changes that have eroded profitability in recent years, including capital intensity, mine depths, ore grades, higher-than-inflation unit cost increases, jewellery demand-elasticity and increasing secondary supply of platinum,” stated their media release.

Translating from corporatese: the money the company makes from selling each ounce of platinum has been decreasing while the cost of what it takes to make each sale has been increasing. This is because it’s had to increase the quantity and sophistication of tools and machines used in its operations relative to each miner it employs, dig deeper to extract platinum ore (which turned out to be of a lesser quality than it had been previously), and pay costs, particularly labour and electricity, that have increased faster than inflation. The demand for platinum has also been lower than expected and platinum recycling has meant that fewer people want the fresh-out-of-the-ground stuff.

In 2000, the company by its own benchmarks was much more profitable than its peers while today it’s relatively much less profitable. We’re talking about the company that has access to 80% of the world’s platinum reserves. It should be peerless, which indicates that something specific to South Africa is happening here. And that something began on December 13 1995 when the office of the former president Nelson Mandela notified the nation the president had assented the Labour Relations Act to law. Amplats’ fate was sealed two years later when the president assented another act, the Basic Conditions of Employment, to law. Among other things, both acts give effect to what is now section 23 of the Constitution.

This section, indeed the Constitution itself, had not existed prior to 1995 and companies and businesses in South Africa had operated under a regulatory regime that had little regard for human rights. This meant mining companies like Amplats’ predecessor JCI Limited didn’t have to buy the tools and machines that would prevent the frequent mining accidents that cost human lives. They didn’t have to ensure the hostels where miners stayed were habitable nor did they have to ensure the miners suffered no ill-effects from working underground for long periods. They also had their pick of the large pool of systematically undereducated and racially marginalised workers apartheid had wrought. The apartheid-created migrant labour patterns we today recognise are responsible for many deep-seated social ills were (and still are) a boon to mining companies prior to the regulatory changes.

So when Amplats, or anybody else, bemoans faster-than-inflation increases in mining wages that have no commensurate increase in productivity, they’re cynically ignoring the lower base South African mining costs began from in 1995 and why this had been the case. So listen carefully: the faster-than-inflation increases in mining wages that have no commensurate increase in productivity are a poor substitute for the apartheid reparations that never happened. Any why didn’t they happen? Well because apartheid-era capital fought hard to ensure they were never a part of the so-called miraculous transition from apartheid, of course.

The great irony is that under capitalism, a company’s value and profitability is determined by what it did. By 1994, Amplats/JCI and other South African mining companies had behaved in the most repugnant manner yet were highly valued and profitable. Since then they’ve been forced by law to respect and uphold human rights and now their value and profits are at an all-time low. That they’re now heaping the burden of this critical flaw in the capitalist model on the workers they’d exploited for decades should put paid to any notion that The Corporation Limited, despite the corporatese spin it might employ, can ever act in the interests of justice, human dignity and the other fluffy ideals in our haloed Constitution.