Mining industry must save itself from a strike that has no winners

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The drama unfolding on the platinum belt ought to give everyone pause. It is certainly not in the national interest.

Here we are, pretending that the labour dispute that has shut the country’s major platinum mines for more than 10 weeks is a mere aberration.

In actual fact, this response is symptomatic of an industry, a government and a labour union in denial.

Although the contribution of mining to the overall economy has been shrinking over the years, the industry still accounts for half a million jobs, on which millions of mostly poor South Africans rely to make ends meet. It is also a major contributor to exports and therefore of foreign exchange inflows.

One cannot understate the importance of this industry, yet all its stakeholders keep treating it as something whose problems are best avoided.

To a large extent, the platinum industry strike underscores just how much South Africa is losing the plot in mining.

How is it that the whole country can stand by and watch as such an important industry self-destructs? By now it is abundantly clear that all parties have failed to grasp the gravity of what is at stake.

Employers, on one side, reckon they have the upper hand to string the strike out for as long as it takes.

On the other hand, the combative Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) thinks it can stretch the limits of popular rage by keeping its members out on the streets and unpaid for as long as it takes. That this is the biggest test of Amcu’s “staying power” is not lost on the employers.

And where is the government in all of this? Well, it is busy being government. And since it is made up of politicians whose sole worry right now is re-election on May 7, working feverishly to resolve the strike will not suddenly become a priority.

But the strike really must be resolved forthwith.

Employers and Amcu must find some middle road or the intransigence of both risks plunging the platinum industry into an abyss from which it can never recover.

It is clear that both employers and Amcu are becoming increasingly desperate.

Obviously, employers prepared for the strike by stockpiling as much of the metal as possible, but those stockpiles will not last forever. News that Impala Platinum is contemplating buying platinum on the open market to meet customer deliveries is alarming. It shows the dangerous and unpredictable nature of this situation.

Not only are the employers grappling with supply dislocations as a result of the strike, their business models are now taking serious strain, which could mean the outright shutdown of some of the mines down the road.

What the employers and Amcu don’t realise is that the industry is now firmly on the road to nowhere.

South Africa must not forget that persistent labour problems on the mines could undo some of the strides that have been made in transforming the industry. This is an industry that has thrived on the back of cheap labour. While this may have changed somewhat, the industry continues to be its worst enemy because of its reluctance to do good by the communities that sustain it.

It is in need of bold leadership, from a business, government and labour union perspective.

It is a tragedy to see the strike go unresolved for so long because, in the end, there are unlikely to be any winners. Even if Amcu and the bosses manage to come up with some face-saving manoeuvres, the workers will still be the losers.

What would be the wisdom of securing a pay hike only to find that you have no long-term job to return to because the mine has closed?

The time for the industry to save itself is now.

Ellis Mnyandu is the editor of Business Report. Follow him on Twitter @Ellis_Mnyandu.


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