The source of the magical figure of R12 500 a month for which many mine workers risked their jobs and lives before and after the Marikana massacre in August was revealed at the Farlam commission this week.
The information was revealed when Lonmin's legal counsel, Schalk Burger, pre-emptively mentioned the testimony of Karee mining operation vice-president Michael Gomes da Costa during his cross-examination of Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).
Karee is one of three Lonmin mining operations at its Marikana platinum complex. It became an Amcu stronghold following a 2011 unprotected strike in which workers deserted the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for Amcu.
It was at the other two Marikana mines, Western Platinum and Eastern Platinum, that the violent strikes began in August this year.
The Farlam commission is investigating the culpability of various role players in the deaths of more than 40 people in the days leading up to and on August 16 in the area called Wonderkop, near Western Platinum.
This week, when Burger unexpectedly introduced Da Costa into the record, observers said that the mining giant's case looked its most tenuous so far.
Line of sight
Da Costa's statement, which defines the first evidence of the R12 500 wage demand as coming in the form of handwritten posters placed around the Karee operation in June this year, seems quite damning insofar as it explicitly reveals the company's reasoning in engaging a group of striking rock drill operators outside of bargaining structures.
Da Costa gave several reasons for this, namely that the drill operators' demand for a higher wage appeared confined to those working at Karee; their delegation had specifically asked him not to involve trade unions; and it seemed to have the support of the majority of rock drill operators at Karee.
Da Costa also couched the company's approach as part of its "line of sight" strategy with which the company sought to "communicate directly with employees" to resolve problems and issues "at the lowest possible level".
Aware that it was paying drill operators comparatively lower wages than Implats or Amplats and properly trained and competent drill operators were scarce, Da Costa said he "deemed it prudent to give careful consideration to the rock drill operators' request", a consideration that culminated in pay increases of R750, R500 and R250 respectively for drill operators, assisted drill operators and assistant drill operators.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Da Costa's statement was the response of the unions when the proposed "rock drill operator allowance" was first broached. The United Association of South Africa and Solidarity, two unions that represent supervisors, supported the proposal, although they warned that it could potentially "upset the collective bargaining structure" and have a "knock-on effect on other job grades". Da Costa said the NUM, although it pointed out that the idea was "outside of the wage-negotiation protocol", was not averse to it. Amcu, Da Costa said, gave him the distinct impression that "it [as a union] was not involved in the matter".
"Exco [the executive committee] simply advised me that, pursuant to a benchmarking exercise conducted by [Lonmin executive vice-president of human capital and external affairs Barnard] Mokwena, it had decided to pay these allowances to the rock drill operators," said Da Costa. The decision was ratified on July 27 2012.
Although Amcu, as a union, appeared to distance itself from the R12 500 demand and the decision to grant the increases, the call did emerge from its ranks because it had recently overtaken the NUM to attain a majority and organisational rights at Karee.
The impact of Lonmin's cross-examination of Mathunjwa, Amcu's lone witness, is arguable. Exactly a week ago, as Burger focused on Mathunjwa's utterances on his August 16 visit to the koppie where workers had gathered, commission chairperson Ian Farlam turned to a somewhat rattled Mathunjwa and said something to the effect that "I get the impression that Amcu was using the situation to negotiate when it had no bargaining rights … but we are listening to all sides. I can still be swayed".
Lonmin will probably focus on the police and it looks as if the police will, in turn, put pressure on the company. Police legal counsel Ishmael Semenya came across as unprepared when cross-examining Mathunjwa in the previous week. Semenya was not present for the two days Amcu was being led in evidence.