/ 21 September 2012

Marikana: How the wage war was won

Lonmin miners return to work at the platinum mine after agreeing to pay increases.
Lonmin miners return to work at the platinum mine after agreeing to pay increases.

The odds were against it, but a series of improbable alliances between unlikely partners this week finally produced a wage deal at Lonmin's Marikana mine. Here is what happened behind closed doors.

If you are looking for a hero in the fraught talks that resulted in Lonmin workers returning to their shafts this week, there are many to pick from: the worker delegates who convinced their comrades to step down from a demand they had vowed to die for, the company that accepted a deal it may not be able to afford, the mediators who kept the wheels turning, the clergy who broke through the deep mistrust of workers, the traditional leaders who wielded their authority, the unions that helped those who threatened their authority, the government that stepped aside instead of asserting its authority.

Some of those groups will even claim a piece of the glory for themselves.

But as with so much that has happened near Marikana over the past month, the truth is as complex as the situation was unique, as those who may try to recreate it in search of better pay will likely discover to their peril.

So unusual were the negotiations that even the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) – which does nothing but deal with disputes – was caught by surprise more than once. Such as when one of its mediators was threatened with forceable circumcision, or when the workers reduced their demand by 0.008%.

"We didn't know what we were walking into," said CCMA director Nerine Kahn, who was intimately involved in the process. "I like to say that it was like people who are invited to a party and some come in black tie and some come in rags. They come to a different party expecting different results."

Workers were demanding the now-famous R12 500 a month, but were unclear (and even disputed among themselves) whether that meant in net pay or total salary package before deductions.

Restarting production
Lonmin, at least at first, focused solely on restarting production and was unwilling to make concessions until that happened. Although it initially agreed to speak on the record, the company did not make its negotiators available for this article.

Established, recognised unions were keen to keep the process within the bounds of labour laws and regulations and to ensure the safety of their members. And the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) was, according to several other participants, primarily interested in not taking responsibility for the violence that had preceded the talks. Then there was the elephant in the room: the social circumstances of the miners, especially those who choose not to live in company hostels so as to claim the extra cash in their pockets from a living-out allowance.

"When I came down from the mountain [at Marikana], I realised that this was a not a labour dispute. It was manifesting as a labour dispute, but it was all about frustration with living conditions, inequality, poverty,'" said Afzul Soobedaar, who acted as the CCMA's mediator for most of the negotiations.

"I wondered, how are we ever going to resolve this? At that point in time, it was clear in my mind that they wouldn't come down for anything less than R12 500 because the employee delegation wouldn't dare to go back there to propose anything less than R12 500."

His single trip up the mountain (as those involved often refer to the koppie near Marikana where striking workers routinely gathered) shook him profoundly, Soobedaar said, not only because of the accusations that he was a government stooge or the threats of violence. And his fears seemed justified when worker representatives finally agreed to lower their R12 500 demand – to R12 499. That, they said, was as low as they would go, because anything else would be an insult to the spirits of those who had died, deadlocking the negotiations in irrationality.

Soobedaar argued that the blood spilt at Marikana demanded respect from the workers, but so too did the blood spilt in pursuit of democracy, so a lawful process had to be followed.

Different approach
The South African Council of Churches (SACC), at various times player and referee in the talks, took a slightly different approach.

"We said to them they cannot hold on to the past, that those people were dead, but they had families and the living have families and must be mindful of their own needs," said SACC president Bishop Joe Seoka.

Those arguments seemed to fail, just as the arguments for disarming the striking group had failed.

"We said to them: 'It is normal for a man in a village to carry a stick, because of dogs or whatever, but if you are not fighting anyone it is not necessary to carry a spear or a machete'," said chief Phathekile Holomisa, the leader of the Congress of Traditional Leaders (Controlesa), who was also involved in the talks. "Emotions were too high for them to understand that."

In fact, no amount of agreement between the CCMA, the SACC and Controlesa on peace or process, or the need for achievable demands, or the real threat of Lonmin going under and all the workers losing their jobs seemed to succeed. Some participants blamed the inexperience of those representing the workers, others believed they were simply afraid of being killed by those they represented if they were seen to have failed. Things looked grim.

Then, improbably, those representing the workers who refused to be represented by unions turned to those very unions for help and the unions agreed. In a caucus that excluded Amcu, the established unions tried to explain how easily those involved in an unprotected strike could be dismissed, how badly Lonmin was faring, how a higher settlement would mean job losses and how salary structures worked. That, it seems, was the crucial breakthrough and one that came at a substantial cost for the unions, setting a precedent for workers to break ranks with their official representatives to seek extraordinary increases.

Some participants disagree, saying the breakthrough came thanks to an alliance between workers and the SACC, or because Lonmin and its employees found a common purpose in survival, or because the fear of being fired finally trumped the fear of those waiting on the koppie. What they do agree on, however, is that impossible negotiations suddenly turned into simple wage talks and a resolution was ­easily found.

Which left only the problem of selling the deal to the thousands of striking workers, a problem overcome by perhaps the most unlikely alliance of all: a tacit agreement between all involved to allow the workers to believe that a minimum gross entry wage of R12 500 would be implemented within two years.

Is that dishonest? "I'd rather call it sleight of hand," said one participant. "Sometimes you have to think of the greater good."