SA needs bold new thinking to forge a win-win era in mining

29 June 2014 - 01:45 By Jay Naidoo
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now
SWEAT EQUITY: Mineworkers in the platinum belt return to work after their marathon wage strike Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
SWEAT EQUITY: Mineworkers in the platinum belt return to work after their marathon wage strike Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

'We need some way to deal with this rivalry between us . .. We are divided; we don't hear each other," states an excerpt from community consultations in the Mining Dialogues 360° project, a platform under the auspices of the Southern Africa Institute for Mining and Metallurgy to facilitate debate about the sector.

"We experience the same challenges even though we come from different places; we won't succeed unless we stand together. We have no common business. If we could get together, we could even buy shares in the mine."

About 70000 Association of Mine-workers and Construction Union members have ended their strike that began in January, the longest in South Africa's history and one that knocked a hole in the economy. We should all welcome the settlement because it is in the national public interest and also, of course, because the miners have improved their working conditions. But given the social, humanitarian and economic costs incurred, it does raise the question: Is a new deal in mining possible in a platinum belt that holds 80% of known world reserves?

There is widespread acceptance that mining as a whole, and the platinum industry in particular, is at a crossroads. Commentators from every political standpoint have argued that it is time to move away from the old economic model, which was based on cheap migrant labour, and old ways of organising.

The practice of collective bargaining, negotiation and agreement has existed since the rise of trade unions during the 18th century. It is enshrined in the International Labour Organisation constitution and in article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In South Africa, it has been a cornerstone of democracy.

But at the beginning of the 21st century, what do we face?

The number of workers belonging to trade unions has declined in many industrialised countries as global economic integration has tipped bargaining power in favour of employers. Across the developed world, real wages have remained flat for decades and employment has stagnated. Unions need a new approach to collective bargaining.

So what does a post-Marikana mining opportunity represent?

For a start, it must surely mean lifting our attention away from a narrow preoccupation with wages and work conditions. In the aftermath, it is the duty of the current generation of leaders across the spectrum to inspire hope. There are no quick fixes. We must take a long view. As workers prepare to start their shifts, we must start thinking about the lessons for the future and how we ensure that history is not repeated.

Tackling the multiple social issues on the mining belt is a precondition and a catalyst for a new mining deal that falls in the Framework Agreement for Sustainable Mining. The state owns all mineral rights on behalf of the people. In theory, the rights of community social and economic development are catered for in the social and labour plans that are a foundation of mining licences.

We need to question why these commitments have not changed conditions in the platinum belt communities before new proposals are tabled for approval at the end of July. Do mining houses work together in pursuance of a common vision shared with community actors as well as local and national government? Is there a joint strategy for sustainable development, or just a set of worthy but isolated projects that do not make much impact?

The chasm of strife between communities and miners on the one side and the mining companies and government agencies on the other suggests there has not so far been any kind of shared vision or working agreement. Bargaining goes beyond a simple wage agreement. It affects every facet of our society and our daily lives.

Central to building a social consensus and trust is the role and voice of civil society, including human rights NGOs, churches and development organisations. Traditional structures, too, will play a role in creating peaceful communities, monitoring service delivery and launching initiatives for social reconstruction such as literacy classes, crèches and community safety and violence prevention programmes.

We have done this in the past under the National Peace Accord.

The Mining Dialogues 360° consultations recognise that reliance on a single employer ("the mine") and social grants - in the platinum-belt villages as well as in the labour-sending areas - means increasing pressure on miners. In many cases, a miner supports more than 20 dependants. Their desperation as they fail to meet the obligations of a breadwinner drives wage pressure and is reflected in indicators such as high levels of alcohol and drug abuse (which lead to high levels of interpersonal violence) and the spike in youth delinquency.

A solution is to stimulate the non-mine economy in mining areas and the labour-sending rural areas. With the ending of the strike comes an opportunity to design and implement a platinum belt spatial development initiative. This could identify the short-, medium- and long-term priorities and build a collaborative platform.

The needs of mining communities are reasonable and guaranteed under our constitution. But the political will of leaders across the spectrum is essential. Already much of what needs to be done is provided for in government policy and law. But the government needs to work well, mining companies need to go beyond workplace issues and the unions need to reconnect with their members (in both the workplace and where they live). These stakeholders will find local communities keen to contribute their sweat equity.

As communities participating in the Mining Dialogues 360° consultations said: "We don't need tar roads; gravel roads will do. And we can make it ourselves. The mines must work with us and so must the government. We need to be united. We need to stand up and work. We need projects, and work, like in the community works programme."

The positive action by the new minister, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, to initiate new talks, even though this appeared to stall, was an important signal that a solution was imperative. This is the leadership I would expect.

Now, together, we have to address the damage done to investment sentiment. There are some tough choices to make, but we need an agreement on this. And we need to embrace transparency to build a way forward, building from below.

Mining is here to stay for many decades. While we await eagerly the outcome of the Marikana commission of inquiry, we know that our society has the capacity to learn the hard lessons. We again must all rise to the occasion to build a new chapter that inspires hope for the next generation.

We dare not fail. The whole world is watching.

  • Naidoo was the founding general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and a minister in the Mandela government
  • For more information on the mining dialogues, go to


subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now