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Wage negotiation season returns to South Africa’s Mines

June normally sees the start of the wage negotiation season in South Africa.  After the disastrous events of last year, when 34 striking platinum miners were killed by the police, and another 10 were hacked to death in earlier incidents, the country holds its breath, hoping and praying that the protagonists will tread very carefully this year.

The eventual settlement last year was a 22% increase in pay for some grades of striking workers, which was considerably less than the 300% they were demanding.  However, the settlement gave hope to workers in numerous other industries, who also tried to obtain such high increases.  Of course, this kind of raise is unsustainable, and in January this year, some of the mining companies started to close up shop and pay off some 14 000 employees.

While the platinum industry is one of the most profitable in the country, and South Africa has some of the world’s largest reserves, its budget allows only so much for the wages of the miners.  The labour-intensive industry has enormous workforces which can constitute a majority of any small mining town.  If one mine is closed, that has repercussions for an entire society.  Many migrant workers return to their towns or countries of origin, but those workers who have invested in property in a mining town are often left hanging out to dry.

South Africa has a young democracy and a young labour union movement.  For much of the apartheid, era workers were not allowed to unionise.  In 1982 the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was formed, and in 1987 it led a successful protracted national strike. However 50 000 miners were laid off as a consequence of the strike.  Over 30 years the NUM has learnt the ropes of negotiation and has become the strongest union in the sector.  Some maintain it has carved out a niche for itself and is in a cosy relationship with the mine owners. Ironically its first national president, Cyril Ramaphosa is now a multimillionnaire on the side of the owners, with stakes both in some of the mines themselves and in labour brokerage firms.  He is also the deputy president of the ruling ANC to which the NUM is allied.

Last year’s strike at Marikana was led by the competing Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Founded in 2001 and still a relative newcomer to high-stakes negotiations, some would say its opportunitistic and adversarial style led to the tragic confrontation.  Leading workers to expect and hold out for a 300% raise was simply irresponsible and completely unrealistic.  Politcally aligned with more left-wing interests, the AMCU is able to attract great popular following.

In Laborem Exercens 20 Pope John Paul II reaffirms the right of workers to strike, as justice is an issue of the common good for the whole of society.  However, a strike should be seen as an “extreme means” that should not be abused for “political” purposes.  He reminds us that labour unions should not have close links with any political parties, because they can then “easily lose contact with their specific role which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole society.”

As South Africa braces for another round of wage negotiations, following these basic prinicples of labour relations may avert another Marikana-style tragedy.