(File image) South African President Jacob Zuma. Photo: Jacques Naude
(File image) South African President Jacob Zuma. Photo: Jacques Naude

Zuma wades into mining crisis

By Time of article published Oct 17, 2012

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Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma waded into South Africa's churning labour crisis on Wednesday with a call for striking miners to return to work and for CEOs to freeze their pay, amid months of industrial unrest and bloodshed that threaten to derail the nation's economy.

After nearly five hours spent behind closed doors corralling business and labour leaders, Zuma emerged with a collective demand that tens of thousands of workers who have downed tools illegally go back to work.

“We call on workers who are engaged in unprotected strikes to return to work as soon as possible and for production in the mining industry to be normalised,” he said.

“Violence and intimidation must come to an end. These have no role in our system.”

In an effort to appeal to workers, Zuma also announced measures to develop down-at-heel mining towns and called on senior officers in business and government to freeze salary increases and bonuses for the next year.

That he said, would signal a “strong commitment to build an equitable economy”.

Zuma insisted that “the frustrations and challenges that have become clearer during the protests and the legitimate grievances will be attended to”.

He listed housing needs, pressures on wages caused by high levels of personal debt and wage disparities “that create resentment and limit our social cohesion as South Africans”.

Eviscerated by critics for failing to stop months of rolling strikes that have often spilled over into deadly violence, Zuma's comments mark the government's first decisive step to halt the widespread unrest.

But it is unclear if the meeting will move the ball forward, let alone end a crisis that has spread like wildfire across the country's industrial heartland and threatened to cripple already meagre growth.

While Zuma and leaders representing major business associations and organised labour signed onto the statements, ending the crisis will ultimately come down to individual mine owners and miners who increasingly question the legitimacy of established trade unions.

According to political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki, the police's killing of 34 platinum miners at Marikana on August 16 has destroyed the government's credibility and workers are unlikely to heed Zuma's entreaties.

“They are in no position to mediate,” said Mbeki, who is also the younger brother of former South African president Thabo Mbeki. “They should never have used force against the miners, that hardened the position of the workers.”

Industrial relations are a subject fraught with political and economic dangers for Zuma, whose fate hangs on balancing policies that appeal to investors as well as leftists, communists and trade unionists within his ruling coalition.

“The government is a huge beneficiary of the mining industry in South Africa in terms of the taxes that it gets from the mining industry,” said Mbeki. “It sees itself losing taxes and losing hard currency earnings.”

But with two months until a party conference that could see Zuma face a leadership challenge that would oust him from office, the political stakes could not be higher.

“It now challenges him personally because he wants to go to the African National Congress conference in Mangaung in December with a clean report,” said Joe Mavuso, an independent analyst.

“No president wants to lead a country that is bleeding economically otherwise it speaks ill of him.”

Since talks between gold mine owners and workers broke down on Monday, the reaction on the ground has been mixed, with some miners vowing to sustain strikes for months if necessary and others heeding threat of dismissal.

At Carletonville, near Johannesburg, stick and placard-wielding striking workers at an AngloGold Ashanti mine vowed not to budge until their pay demands had been met.

At another AngloGold site, four workers were injured by rock-throwing strikers while trying to report for duty.

But some workers ended their protest, agreeing to terms offered by management.

Village Main Reef reported that 772 employees of out of 941 reported for work amid a threat they will be fired.

A major test of both sides' resolve will come on Thursday, when there is a deadline for as many as 15 000 Gold Fields employees to return to work or face dismissal. - AFP

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