The time has surely come for the intervention of wholly independent private conciliation specialists in SA's mining industry.
The strikes that have paralysed the platinum mines in the Rustenburg area and Limpopo are entering their third month – and all the indications are that positions on both sides of the dispute are hardening. How can this increasingly hazardous impasse be broken?
The strike-bound mining companies – Amplats, Implats and Lonmin – clearly prepared for strike action by building up stockpiles and, with the platinum price still buoyant, they are probably the least hard-hit of the affected parties. But the longer the strike goes on, the greater the risk that shafts will be closed or, where feasible, mechanised. Enormous damage is also being inflicted on the regional economy, which depends heavily on mining.
Strike solidarity appears to be holding. Fear of breaking ranks may be a factor, but many strikers seem to be driven by a "do or die" approach. Dismissals and re-employment are not a legal option in this protected strike. Another option, of unilateral implementation of the mines' 9% pay offer, should also be avoided because it could heighten the risk of violence. But the inescapable fact is that the bosses are never going to agree to the strikers' R12 500 pay demand, which amounts to a more than doubling of the prevailing basic rate – even if it is phased in over three or four years.
So far the efforts of official mediators have been unavailing. This is hardly surprising: the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union appears to have no confidence in the government or government-linked structures. Whatever its virtues, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration is perceived as a state institution.
The time has surely come for the intervention of wholly independent private conciliation specialists, such as those who resolved the apparently intractable nurses' strike some years ago. Both sides would, of course, have to agree to this. But they can surely see the dangers of an indefinite standoff.