Pressure rises in the platinum belt

Upturned cocopans are the only signs of vandalism at the quiet Amplats strike led by Amcu leader Johannes Moholo, where traders have begun abandoning their stalls. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Upturned cocopans are the only signs of vandalism at the quiet Amplats strike led by Amcu leader Johannes Moholo, where traders have begun abandoning their stalls. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Since the strike on the North West's platinum belt began four weeks ago the number of bread loaves sold at the Marikana Powertrade has dropped from about 500 a day to fewer than 200.

"We still keep an extra 80 or so around in case something happens," said shop manager Paul de Gouveia. "We have never had this," said owner David Neto.

"The only other time was in [the protracted platinum belt strike of] 2012 — we do have two new competitors in the area, but still … next month I think it is going to get ugly … People are getting hungry."

The strike at the world's three largest platinum producing mines —Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin, has seen attitudes between employers and labour continue to harden — all while families go hungry and businesses feel the pinch.

From street vendors selling fresh fruit and peanuts to those peddling traditional medicines out of a shack, all agreed that business has been slow since the strike began.

Cash-loan shops were eerily quiet — a marked changed from the previous strike when residents stood in queues to apply for loans.

Unlikely to keep doors open
Lulu, the manager of such a shop in Bleskop, said they were unlikely to keep their doors open for more than two months if the situation continued.

"In 2012 we closed three branches," she said. "Even before the strike started we didn't get payments, only about 50% of the repayments came through.

"We didn't survive the knock of 2012; now there's another," she said, smashing her closed fist into her other hand.

At another cash-loan business, Tshidi stared out glumly from a protected booth.

"There is no business, truly speaking," she said.
"You can sit here the whole day and see nobody … I don't know where they get money from. We are not giving out loans."

Platinum producers and the Association of Construction and Mineworkers Union (Amcu) have failed to agree on an appropriate wage increase despite negotiations with the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) beginning on February 3 and now there is a lawsuit added to the mix.

A joint ultimatum
On Wednesday, Amplats, Implats and Lonmin issued a joint ultimatum to the striking workers. The mining bosses said that their previous offer — one that guaranteed workers a 7% increase for each of the next three years — was "fair and reasonable".

"We cannot and do not contemplate anything above this," said the statement. "It is simply not possible to negotiate if one party moves and the other party maintains its position."

Outside Anglo American Platinum's Khomanani mine, Johannes Moholo, a local Amcu leader, said food was not a concern yet.

"We are not hungry, we are still strong," a crowd of members around him exclaimed in agreement.

On the sideline, however, a winch operator wearing an Amcu shirt who wished to be known only as Andries, said: "I am hungry. The people, they want some food. But I cannot live with this R5 000 a month."

One of Anglo American Platinum's biggest bargaining chips is the prospect of closing down shafts in response to labour unrest and rising input costs.

Taking a tough stance
Asked about this threat, Moholo immediately replied: "They must close them all. Every mine in the North West."

The first of the platinum miners to take a tough stance — as was the case when it was the first to dismiss striking workers in the devastating 2012 strikes — was the world's largest platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum, which is now suing Amcu for R600-million in damages.

But outside Amplats's Siphumelele shaft on Wednesday morning the atmosphere was calm, despite the crowd of striking workers that had gathered in anticipation of an update from their leadership.

Extra security, in the form of a handful of G4S security guards and an armoured vehicle, appeared out of place as the 150 or so strikers danced and sang festively.

If there was any vandalism to speak of it involved the large rusted cocopans that had been turned on their heads, and that framed the area where the workers gathered to hear from their leaders.

What they heard was that Amplats remained unwilling to bend on the demand of a R12 500 minimum wage and that the "arrogant" company would push on with its lawsuit.

Talking about damages
The announcement was almost drowned out by the hive of activity at the shaft as ore poured through the processing plant overhead.

The three platinum miners have stockpiled reserves to see it through eight weeks of strike. Lonmin and Amplats have 20% of staff reporting for work whereas Impala have put all non-striking workers on paid leave.

"They talk about damages, but there is nothing," said Thanks, a striking rock-drill operator and Amcu member working at Amplats. "They say cars were stoned, that is not true … There are too many [false] complaints from their side."

The reason the strike has been calmer this time around, said Thanks, is because it is protected — "we have a certificate" — and because Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa "told us to be calm".

He points out small groups of workers praying together to drive home the point.

But according to Anglo American Platinum spokesperson Mpumi Sithole, "various incidents of vandalism ... have occurred".

Seeking the payment of damages
The company is seeking the payment of damages caused by Amcu's failure to adhere to the law, which includes damage to property; increased costs to pay protection services' staff overtime; and losses caused by the loss of production that would not have occurred if non-striking workers had not been prevented from working.

Violence and intimation, especially of those trying to report for work, have been the primary concern for all mines.

According to Sithole, Amcu has "stated publicly that it has no intention of adhering to the picketing rules set out by the CCMA … Amcu's leadership has failed, for instance, to have marshals appointed to exercise control over striking workers, and has failed to distance itself from acts of criminality, intimidation and violence perpetrated in its name.

"To Anglo American Platinum's know-ledge, no disciplinary action has been taken by Amcu against any of its members for unlawful actions perpetrated during the strike."

An analyst, who asked not to be named, said Anglo Platinum had incurred huge costs in delaying its restructuring and had been "bending over backwards" to facilitate government's wishes and to soften the blow to labour.

Amcu's unwillingness to lower its demand had now seen the mine lose patience and perpetuated concern that the market believed it had bent to the will of other parties.

Lonmin mines come to a standstill
The restructuring was initially estimated to cut 14 000 jobs, but had settled on 5 000.

The analyst argued it could be Lonmin that had the most to lose, considering all of its mines had come to a standstill.

Impala and Anglo Platinum — where Amcu is not the majority union — were still operating at 50% of production capacity.

Peter Major, a mining analyst at Cadiz asset management said Anglo American Platinum was in worse shape than the others — "financially, cost-wise, grade-wise, capex [capital expenditure]-wise, labour relations-wise and shareholder-wise".

Although Impala and Lonmin are not much better, he said, they seem happy to let Amplats lead the charge.

"If Amplats wins, they will follow suit quickly. All our mining companies should have done this over the past 30 years, but better late than never. Plus, they now have government more on their side than ever in the past 10 to 12 years," Major said.

Zuma's Sona
In President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation Address last week he stressed the importance of the mining sector to the economy, noting that, "in no way can we have conflict that destroys the economy".

Business Day this week quoted an anonymous source as saying that Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu had told the chief executive of the three platinum companies that they "needed to take a much tougher line on Amcu and explore legal options against the union to end the strike".

Another mining analyst, requesting anonymity, told the Mail & Guardian that the minister had requested platinum miners to take a harder stance.

In response to questions from the M&G, the minister's spokesperson Ayanda Shezi would not confirm those comments, "but in line with what the president outlined in the State of the Nation Address last week, I think the minister would like the matter to be resolved speedily."

Unprecedented legal move

None of the major platinum miners have sued a union for damages before, making Anglo American Platinum the first to do so when it issued a summons out of the Johannesburg high court on February 14 claiming damages against its majority union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

It was a Constitutional Court judgment against the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union that set a prece-dent that liability for damages during a gathering can be imposed on the organisers — a move widely welcomed by business as a positive turning point.

According to Johan Theron, group executive for corporate relations at Impala Platinum, the company has been incurring damages.

"We were forced to send nonstriking workers away on paid leave to minimise the risk of workers being injured; we are obviously incurring the cost for these workers [damages] without having the benefit of their services as a direct result of the unlawful actions of Amcu," he said.

"The actions of Amcu and individual Amcu members in this regard are being addressed directly with the union and can hopefully still be resolved without the need for further legal action.

"We obtained a court interdict against Amcu on January 24 2014 with respect to intimidation, violence and picketing rules. While we are reserving all our rights in law, we have not commissioned any further legal action against Amcu at this stage and continue to seek a negotiated settlement. But the ball is in their court to a large degree," said Theron.

Lonmin did not experience damage to its property but with the loss of 3 100 platinum ounces a day, the strike continues to have a dramatic effect on its bottom line.

When asked whether it would consider suing Amcu, Lonmin spokesperson Sue Vey said: "Lonmin sought an interdict on Friday last week for Amcu's failure to abide by the picketing rules. This interdict has been granted. Lonmin continues to explore its options in respect of ensuring the viability of our business."

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

Client Media Releases

ITWeb, VMware second CISO survey under way
Doctoral study on leveraging the green economy
NWU's LLB degree receives full accreditation
Trusts must register as home builders
Making a case for prepaid water usage