Strike at Sibanye 'targets takeover'
The hotly contested Lonmin merger may be at the crux of the impasse between mining company Sibanye-Stillwater and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), after a protracted strike at the company's gold operations.
People close to the negotiations, who did not want to be named, said Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa wanted to ensure the merger did not take place so he could continue his cordial relationship with Lonmin CEO Ben Magara.
Sources told Business Times Amcu had initially settled with Sibanye in the gold talks and was ready to sign when Mathunjwa scuppered that agreement.
Sibanye's wage strike at its Kloof and Driefontein operations in Carletonville and Beatrix in the Free State began on November 21, the same day the miner announced that the Competition Tribunal had approved its acquisition of Lonmin.
The strike has been underscored by violence - resulting in four deaths - and allegations of intimidation as it continues with no apparent end. At the heart of the action is a demand for a basic salary of R12,500 a month.
This week, the union said workers at Sibanye's platinum operations would join their striking peers in the gold sector in solidarity.
Mathunjwa would not be drawn on industry talk of the gold wage dispute being used to scupper, or at least further delay, the Sibanye and Lonmin merger.
Earlier this week, Sibanye and Lonmin agreed to extend the date for the transaction in which Sibanye would acquire all of Lonmin's shares from the end of February to the end of June because of Amcu's appeal against the deal's approval by the tribunal.
Mathunjwa described his relationship with Magara as a working one. "It's an employer-union relationship, regulated by recognition agreements; there is nothing under or below.
"It's a simple, working relation that we have and for us to oppose the merger is about the job losses . 'Mr Fix-it' has said he is going to retrench over 12,500 workers."
In a career spanning more than 20 years, Sibanye CEO Neal Froneman has built a reputation in the industry as a hardline negotiator, earning the monicker "Mr Fix-it".
Similar to Froneman, Mathunjwa has a reputation as a patient and unwavering negotiator, whose five-month platinum sector negotiations have made him a legend.
Earlier this week, Amcu announced that it would be embarking on a secondary, sympathy strike at Sibanye's platinum operations in Rustenburg.
The strikes and the Lonmin merger have seen Mathunjwa go head to head with Sibanye as they both dig their heels in and take a hardline approach to negotiations.
"Froneman is a very stubborn person," an insider said. "When he has made a decision it is not easy for him to alter his position. On the other hand, you have Mathunjwa who wants to win over potential members [by showing them] that 'I can do it'."
The fraught relations between Sibanye and Amcu come as the platinum industry prepares for wage talks set for the middle of the year. In that industry, Mathunjwa's union is the biggest.
"Whatever the enmity between the two elephants, I think it's not relevant to the platinum sector" because of where the wage levels are currently, said a platinum executive who wished to remain anonymous.
After the Marikana tragedy of 2012 and a five-month strike that took place two years later, platinum sector workers have seen their wages close in on the R12,500 mark.
With regards to the coming platinum negotiations, Mathunjwa said any discussions about them were premature.
For now, the union's focus was on its workers who have downed tools for about nine weeks.
"The fact that workers are still on strike today from last year, it shows that the money they have been receiving isn't significant, it doesn't make a difference. We're not even going to call it a salary or wage. That is a supplementary wage."
Independent analyst Ian Cruickshanks said mineworkers would not be any better off if the strike continued, considering how long it had been going on for.
"The strike is likely to drag on a while longer. It's a tragedy," he said.