When a problem arises, a gut reaction is to ask: who is responsible? But it is unproductive to focus only on apportioning blame. Angrily pointing fingers at each other, antagonists lose sight of the real issue, which is to seek a way out of the dilemma. The better question to ask is: where to now?

An impasse has been reached on South Africa’s platinum belt as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) threatens continued strikes and industrial unrest and mining firms warn of possible permanent mine closures.

The platinum majors are offering raises of between 7.5 percent and 9 percent a year, far short of Amcu’s demands, which include a R12 500 basic monthly salary to be phased in over four years. Attempts by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to overcome the differences between the parties have been suspended indefinitely because the CCMA said they were too far apart.

According to Bloomberg, the companies’ sales lost to the prolonged strike top R10 billion, while workers have lost more than R4.4bn in wages.

Every week the losses mount. And the mining sector is already haemorrhaging jobs. Statistics SA reported this month that 16 000 jobs were lost in the 12 months to December last year, 8 000 of them in the last quarter of the year.

Against this backdrop, marches and strikes seem to be a road to nowhere.

Workers may justifiably argue that their jobs are difficult and often dangerous and that they are underpaid. But the reality is that the mining industry was built on cheap labour. If mining companies sink under their mounting wage bills, the issue of fairness becomes academic – something the angry workers apparently don’t understand and union leaders don’t want to understand.

The current strife in the local mining industry, particularly on the platinum mines, is reminiscent of the stand-off in Britain’s coal mining industry 30 years ago. The failure of the 1984/85 strike, orchestrated by Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), accelerated the collapse of unproductive operations and the decline of the industry as a whole.

The Financial Times reported recently: “On the eve of the strike – which lasted a year after being declared a national stoppage on March 12, 1984 – Britain’s coal industry produced 120 million tons a year and employed almost 150 000 miners in 170 pits, most working deep underground. Today’s UK coal industry has just 6 000 workers and 17 million tons of annual output. Only three deep-level mines remain.”

The episode also eroded the NUM, now a shadow of its former self.

NUM supporters blamed the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher for the damage, while union critics blamed NUM leader Arthur Scargill. Whatever the truth, the outcome was the same and the losses were irretrievable.

On the face of it, the conflict was a clash of ideologies over how to deal with the deteriorating economics of the UK coal industry. As demand for coal declined and costs rose, unions believed public money should be used to fund unprofitable operations to avoid pit closures while Thatcher thought otherwise.

But the way events unfolded had a lot to do with the personalities of the combative Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader who came to power in 1979, and the belligerent Scargill, elected president of the NUM in 1981. Two less aggressive people might have achieved a different outcome, limiting the damage.

On the local scene, tensions are high on both sides of the labour divide. And the situation is further complicated by rivalry between Amcu and the traditional Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is seeking an alternative path – a way to resolve the conflict in the mining sector before more damage is done. But Motlanthe’s influence is limited by his looming departure from the political arena.

A powerful and visionary political leader is needed to restore sanity to South Africa’s tangled labour relations after the May election. It’s hard to tell who that would be as the energy of the ANC faithful is devoted to putting out the fires around President Jacob Zuma, whose credibility has taken another blow with revelations about the extent of the Nkandla scandal. This limits the time and energy available to steer the mining sector through a crisis.