William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

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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