The union is stuck between a rock and a hard place and seems prepared for the strike to continue until the industry shuts down, writes Lesiba Seshoka.
Johannesburg - The South African mining industry is on a path of self-destruction. The three-month-old strike action on the platinum belt and the recent junket labelled Mining Indaba held in Cape Town are just a few of the pointers.
In August 2012, a violent strike action saw more than 50 workers die at Lonmin in Rustenburg under the guise of “workers’ committees”, which we later learnt were to be synonymous with the Association of Mine and Construction Union (Amcu).
Currently, the ravaging and hard-hitting strike action is in its third month on the platinum belt, affecting the world’s three largest platinum producers – Anglo Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin.
Though the strike action has been characterised by violence too, it is nowhere near the levels witnessed in 2012.
But the current Amcu strike is in many ways similar to the action of suicide bombers in the Middle East who throw themselves into crowds to die with them.
The strike has dire consequences for everyone and marks the beginning of the end for the country’s mining industry.
First, for an economy whose gross domestic product (gdp) relies heavily on mining, the consequences of the ongoing strike will be devastating.
With high unemployment figures estimated at about 26 percent and a shrinking fiscus, the strike is likely to send the economy into intensive care.
The revised economic forecast of 2 percent or less by the finance minister in the recent Budget address is a harbinger of the worst to hit our shores.
Rating agencies are likely to downgrade South Africa to junk status, sending investors packing.
Just recently, Moody’s Investors Service, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s (S&P) cut the country’s sovereign rating by a notch while both Moody’s and S&P still have a negative outlook on our country with a much greater possibility for a further cut.
Many of the striking workers are themselves already heavily burdened as they support an average eight dependants each.
With the no work, no pay principle being applied and the prolonged strike action in its third month, the workers and their families are faced with starvation.
But more worrying is the possibility that at the end of it all, they may all lose their jobs.
The possibility of job losses is not far-fetched after all. As a result of the last protracted industrial action in 2012, a total of 5 210 jobs were lost at Impala Platinum, 7 450 at Anglo Platinum and an estimated 3 000 at Lonmin.
These figures exclude the gold sector. More jobs are likely to be lost as platinum companies punt new retrenchment figures and machinations in the wake of the debilitating strike action.
As more people are retrenched, the unions, including Amcu itself, will definitely get weaker and the remaining workers, if any, will become more wary of trade unions. The adage that there is strength in numbers is more than true of unions in general.
But Amcu itself, like the suicide bombers, seem to be determined to die not alone but with a whole lot of others. It is common cause that its death is intertwined with the death of the industry as there is no trade union without an industry.
The union finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The strike has taken three months and its members have lost huge amounts in income. They have lost houses and cars. They sold their cattle, goats and sheep in order to try to eke out a living during the strike.
Having lost so much, it will be impossible to accept anything less than what they bargained for. Should the union leadership try to persuade them otherwise, they will desert the union in droves in protest.
The only way is to continue striking until they get what they want or the industry shuts down.
The union is prepared for its demise to be conflated as a death caused by the economy.
In other words, if all platinum workers get retrenched and are replaced with machines, it will cease to exist together with the lily-white South African economy.
The mining industry in South Africa directly employs about 500 000 workers and another 500 000 indirectly.
The strike action will no doubt destroy the credibility of Amcu as a union, the credibility of South Africa as an investment destination of choice and leave millions of people destitute.
But it is not Amcu alone that should be blamed.
The mining indaba, a gathering of the mining bourgeoisie, took place a few months ago at the height of the current impasse in the platinum belt.
Though a former chief executive officer of the Chamber of Mines took issue with my description of the indaba as a gathering of the bourgeoisie, a former fellow executive-turned-journalist recently correctly described it as a “junket”.
The Indaba is a forum where mining executives, mining investors, governments and some “significant” stakeholders gather under the guise of searching for sustainable mining solutions.
It is a forum that excludes the most significant stakeholder of the industry, the mineworker.
The indaba has for many years failed to address critical mining issues.
The industry is unable to meet its targets set in the mining charter years ago, yet failure to meet production targets in the sector is simply taboo.
Issues of beneficiation are problematic for the sector, so we are told by the captains of the industry themselves.
The higher echelons of the industry remain lily-white while those toiling the ground are pitch black and underpaid.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe correctly described our society as an Irish-coffee milieu with a concentration of black at the bottom and the white cream on top with a sprinkling of chocolate.
The issue of how best to address strikes in the long term was not covered by the Indaba, nor are there plans to close the wage gap between the toiling black masses, who have simply become slaves in the industry.
Issues of addressing past inequalities also have not received the necessary attention, nor have pressing issues of environmental degradation.
The consequence of these is that long after mining has ceased, our country will be one big unrehabilitated dump with a lot of ghost towns.
Our children will have no place to play. Building structures near mining towns will crack and collapse while the captains of the industry will be smiling all the way to foreign banks.
Nine miners perished at Harmony Gold’s Doornkop Mine, one at Kusasalethu and one at Joel Mine in the Free State at the time of the junket. All these failed to persuade the investors, industry captains and participants at the Indaba to put issues of safety on the agenda.
For many of them, the indaba was about profits and stripteasing.
Thus, captains of the mining industry are themselves instigators of a rebellion in our country by simply doing nothing to advance the lot of poor people.
At the end of the mining sector’s indifference and Amcu’s arrogance, there shall be no mining left, no economy left and no union left.
* Lesiba Seshoka is a former spokesman for NUM and now executive director of corporate relations at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.