The silence from the platinum strike talks mediated by the Labour Court is ominous, what with the crackle of champagne bottles as the new cabinet is swiftly appointed and sworn in.
The underlying feeling is that the excitement will be interrupted by an abrupt reality check when the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) emerges from the talks, along with its adversaries, Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin.
The mediation started innocuously enough on Monday last week with the Labour Court due to hear an urgent interdict application against Lonmin to stop the companies from communicating directly with workers. Talks that were scheduled for three days stretched into the weekend and this week with no indication of the direction they are taking.
The notion that the cradle might yet fall is lent credence by the appointment of Ngoako Ramatlhodi as the new minister for mineral resources. Those in the know claim that Ramatlhodi has a reputation as an often gruff African nationalist who believes the economy remains too heavily concentrated in white hands.
“Ramatlhodi is someone who will put the mining industry’s feet to the fire in terms of black economic empowerment and the mining charter,” Richard Calland, a political commentator and associate professor in the public law department at UCT, said.
Speaking yesterday Ramatlhodi said he wanted to “find a way of facilitating an agreement” to end the more than four-month long platinum strike, and once a settlement was reached, “it will give us space to negotiate a new system”.
Ramatlhodi said the current system of labour relations had collapsed and that in future, “we will be debating real economic transformation”, such as improved living conditions. He said while mining companies contributed to the economy through taxes, “not enough has been done to address” social conditions. Police have been known to be a bit more ambiguous, and effective in breaking up a party.
Sugar bosses are patiently waiting for the government to give them a firm commitment on the production of fuel-grade ethanol using sugar cane.
In South Africa, the blending regulations provide for a blend of between 2 percent and 10 percent bioethanol on a volumetric basis in petrol and a 5 percent blend of biodiesel in diesel.
Both Illovo Sugar and Tongaat Hulett said yesterday that they would only invest in such a scheme if the government was prepared to subsidise them and provide a firm long-term view of the sustainability of the programme. As patient as the companies may sound, there was an undertone of impatience with the government.
Tongaat Hulett said it was ready, but it would only make a capital commitment when the government presented it with a solid picture of the programme.
Gavin Dalgleish, the managing director at Illovo, said a few things should be put in place before bioethanol could be made an option: a government subsidy should be contemplated in the policy and time given for plants to be expanded.
“For us it’s a matter of waiting for things to develop a little further where there might be opportunities for us to plant more sugar cane and develop funding partners to participate in this project.”
Tongaat Hulett chief executive Peter Staude said producing bioethanol could cost anything above R1 billion and about two years of construction.
The next big turning point would be to get a firm picture of what the new scheme would look like, Staude said. “Tongaat will not invest R1 billion if it feels like the programme will not be sustainable in the medium term,” he said.
Edited by Banele Ginindza. With contributions from Banele Ginindza and Nompumelelo Magwaza.