Unless handled meticulously, the simmering tensions between Sibanye-Stillwater and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) could have far-reaching implications and probably fatal consequences that would not be too dissimilar to what happened in Marikana in 2012.
At issue is a claim by Amcu that it represents a sizeable majority of Sibanye-Stillwater employees.
Sibanye, however, says its verification process shows that Amcu is far less visible in the mines than its bitter rival, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), as well as unions Uasa and Solidarity.
The company says the results of the verification process mean it can and will extend the wage agreement it signed with NUM, Uasa and Solidarity to Amcu members, effectively ending the union’s five-month strike at its mines.
Now Sibanye is well within its rights to exercise this option of extending a wage agreement that has been reached with the majority unions to include all its employees. That is the nature of central bargaining.
More so after the Labour Court dismissed Amcu’s application to have the verification process halted. But the way in which this agreement is being extended points to a breakdown of trust between Sibanye and Amcu.
The fact that they even needed to go to court to proceed shows just how fractured the relations between the two sides are.
But such has been the deteriorating nature of relations between organised business and labour in South Africa.
Business and labour have moved away from the social partners that the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) envisaged them to be.
Nedlac wanted the two to use their combined wisdom to discuss and avert potential economic pitfalls for the country, in conjunction with the government.
But the past few years have seen the two retreating to their laager mentality and viewing each other more as adversaries than partners.
The adversarial nature of this relationship became more pronounced in August 2012 when 44 mineworkers died in Marikana following a similar wildcat strike at Lonmin mines in Rustenburg.
The fact that the Sibanye strike has already claimed nine lives should send worrying signals to all of us. This is how Marikana started.
We would have hoped that such a tragic incident would induce us to retrace our steps, or at least look for lessons elsewhere.
However, the reality is that we have retrogressed to the worst era of socio-economic relations in the history of this country.
You just have to listen to the bellicose rhetoric from union leaders and the indifference that business sometimes shows to pertinent issues that organised labour raises to see how wide the gulf has become.
It is a sad state of play because the government, business and organised labour are integral links in the value chain that we call our economy.
Last week, SA Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago gave us a clear picture of where our economy stands. Kganyago said growth for 2019 was now expected to average 1.3percent with a slight upswing of 1.8percent next year and 2percent in 2021.
Whichever way we want to look at it, the economy is not growing at a level where it can create jobs.
Without any co-operation from organised business and labour, we are unlikely to get out of the calamity that we are in in the immediate future.
Marikana showed us that there are no real winners in a strike.
And that a struggling economy such as South Africa’s needs every hand on deck. We can take lessons from countries that have succesfully mastered partnerships between unions and employers.
The German experience is instructive in this regard. It helped to build the country from the ruins of World War II to become a success story.
The two opted for a culture of dialogue rather than confrontation.
They were mature enough to see the bigger picture by taking short-term knocks in order to survive in the future.
Unions stomached pay cuts, shortened working-time arrangements and negotiated flexible work accounts, with the government co-funding to make the effects more palatable.
This did not make them weaker. In fact, it made them strong partners who understood the economic well-being of the companies they worked in.
It made them appreciate that a healthy private sector is not only good for business, it is equally good for the workers. It fuels a healthy economy and society.
Employers, on the other hand, refused to see unions as an unnecessary irritant or a cost factor that stifled innovation and growth in the workplace.
They did not shift the goalposts by saying they will invest only if the government curtailed the influence of unions on their businesses.
They saw unions as partners in the effective co-management of legally secured co-determination.
They allowed them a say in developing long-term strategies.
This co-operative approach has made Germany one of the most successful economic stories of modern times and cushioned the country from recent economic and financial crises.
Sadly, in South Africa, unions want to achieve immediate gains without any regard for what happens in the future.
In most instances, the greed of union leaders has seen wage demands that are far more than the inflation rate.
This in turn has led businesses to be mean and to take the easy way out through retrenchments to supplement their costs.
Employers have also used existing labour laws to deflect the attention away from the real issues that affect their workers.
This is a cataclysmic situation that is not sustainable.
It is not only backward, but costly and counterproductive to the well- being of the industry.
Weak organisations only fight for survival. They let the future take care of itself.
South Africa needs a strong and visionary leadership from the government, business and organised labour to take it out of its current economic quagmire.
It needs a new mindset that is able to see the others as important players in rebuilding a country that is teetering on the brink of economic collapse.
But that can happen only if maturity replaces mistrust among social partners.
The Germans have shown us a model way.
Let us modify it to suit our realities.