File photo: Members of the mining community wait for food parcels donated by Gift of the Givers, at the Khomanani mine in Rustenburg.

When Amcu’s president declared that “this strike has changed SA and the mining industry”, he was quite right, says Allister Sparks.

Cape Town - Even as the platinum strike appears to be moving towards a settlement, the consequences of this drawn-out conflict are going to be with us for years to come. Not only will it take the miners themselves years to make up for their lost earnings, but the mining industry itself will never be the same again.

A revolutionary change in the way South Africa’s oldest and most fundamentally important industry operates lies ahead with far-reaching consequences for all concerned, not least for our future shape of labour relations generally.

The days of low-wage/high-employment on which our mining industry was founded nearly 150 years ago are over. A radical switch to high-wage/low-employment lies ahead.

In the new era, only a few years from now, miners will not only be paid the minimum of R12 500 a month they are demanding now, but much more. However, far fewer will be employed.

Machines will do most of the work and a relatively small number of highly skilled, highly paid mineworkers will operate them.

Old mines that are nearing the end of their productive lives, or that don’t lend themselves to mechanisation, will be shut down or sold off to smaller operators who feel they can still operate them profitably

However, the big platinum producers will focus on new mines, especially open-cast mines such as Anglo American’s rich Mogalakweni mine in Limpopo province, which can easily be mechanised.

That way the mining companies will continue to be profitable and individual miners will earn considerably more, but they will be much more productive because they will operate the machinery that does the actual mining.

As Anglo American’s new chief executive, Mark Cutifani, has noted, the average mineworker in Australia – his home country, where mining has long been mechanised – earns five times what the average South African miner earns, but is 10 times more productive.

That will enable the producers to employ far fewer people. Which means tens of thousands of our mineworkers will become redundant.

When the president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), Joseph Mathunjwa, declared triumphantly last week that “this strike has changed South Africa and the mining industry,” he was quite right.

But as the old saying goes, beware of what you wish for.

The migrant labour system will come to an end – a system which, for all its well-publicised social ills, provides work and sustains the families of some 300 000 mineworkers, as it has done for the past century and a half.

The impact on our rural areas, particularly the Eastern Cape, as well as neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, where most of those migrant workers come from, will be severe.

The mining companies have been aware for some time that this transition would become inevitable at some point, but they did not expect it to arrive so soon. Now it has been precipitated by the crippling Amcu strike.

That means there won’t be time to phase it in gradually in a planned and more painless way. The huge losses the producers have already suffered because of the strike means they will be under pressure to speed up the process.

The producers themselves must take some of the blame for the time crunch they now face. They should have started planning for this transition at least a decade ago when its inevitability was already apparent to them.

But those were the fat years when the platinum price was high and the producers were raking in huge profits.

Amcu must also carry blame for its intransigence – which has already inflicted great pain on its members, whose pay increases will take years to recover what they have lost through the strike – and who will face even greater devastation with mechanisation.

Some of Amcu’s militancy can be ascribed to naiveté. They are newcomers to the tough business of wage negotiating, which requires one not only to understand the extent of one’s power but also to recognise its limits and when it is time to cut a deal.

Then there is the fact that Amcu is locked into competitive rivalry with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to demonstrate its greater militancy, which has driven Amcu’s negotiators to excess.

But above all, this strike has been politicised. Amcu, along with the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), which is now threatening a similar aggressive strike in the motor industry, together with Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), appear to be forming a New Left alliance to attack the ANC and its allies.

Their emerging aim appears to be to outflank the SACP and trade union body Cosatu, which they accuse of going along with the Zuma administration’s alleged betrayal of the ideological dream of a “national democratic revolution”.

That makes negotiating with these unions doubly difficult, for their objective is not simply to improve the lot of their members – but also to wage war on capitalism.

But there is little point in playing the blame game at this stage. What is urgently needed now is to consider what should be done about those rural areas that are going to feel the worst impact of this new industrial revolution that is about to hit our mining industry.

The ANC has been shameful in its neglect of the old bantustan territories, the heartland of rural South Africa, which is where the mineworkers who are soon to be devastated come from. It has continued to treat them just as the old apartheid regime did, as feudal territories.

People live there as subjects of their local traditional chiefs. They don’t own the land they live on and work in their meagre efforts to maintain a subsistence livelihood. The land belongs to the state and is placed in trust under control of the chiefs, who can evict any family that doesn’t show them due deference.

They are vassals in a true medieval sense.

That is why the families don’t develop the properties they live on, or upgrade the agricultural methods they use. The properties don’t belong to them, so why spend money improving them? So they remain economically dependent on their migrant labour earnings.

Now that is going to come to an end. What are the government’s plans to cushion the shock that awaits these loyal ANC voters?

For a start it should end the feudal power of the chiefs over these rural people by giving the land to those who live on it, thereby encouraging them to develop it and become proper, productive peasant farmers able to sustain their families.

It should provide courses in modern techniques of small-scale farming; and help establish collectives so that communities can share agricultural equipment.

Above all, the most depressed rural areas in the country, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, should be proclaimed Special Export Zones and exempted from all but the most basic aspects of the Labour Relations Act to encourage the establishment of low-wage small industries.

These regions are well-located to focus on manufacturing modestly priced goods for export to Africa.

The time for lateral thinking and bold action is now. The new industrial revolution is on its way.

* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape TImes