Technology trumps tradition in the bid to end the mining strike

When the world’s top three platinum firms opted to tackle South Africa’s worst mining strike by sidestepping the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) union, they faced a huge logistical challenge: how to contact 70 000 men spread across the country and cowed by violence.

Many workers had chosen to sit out the four-month strike at home in rural areas such as those in the Eastern Cape, so the answer was a two-pronged approach combining ancient and modern in an apt reflection of the split personality of Africa’s most developed economy.

Besides SMS and email bursts and local language radio slots, the companies – Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin – called on tribal elders to help sell their pay offers to striking mineworkers.

“The miners want to go back to work but they are afraid of being killed,” said Xolile Ndevu, general secretary of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa and one of the intermediaries asked to negotiate after talks reached a deadlock.

The response from Amcu, which is accused of enforcing its will through violence and crushing dissent by taking decisions by a show of hands at meetings, was uncompromising and disdainful.

Leader snub
Amcu snubbed a meeting with Ndevu and management in March in Rustenburg and then humiliated the respected elder at a soccer stadium rally attended by only 100 people.

“Some of them were Amcu members and they sang and disrupted us and booed us. And those are the people who are supposed to respect us,” said Ndevu, a pained expression etched on his face.

Most of the workforce at the strike-hit mines are Amcu members. Others are members of traditional mining sector union the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) or Solidarity, which represents white-collar workers. Amcu ousted NUM on the platinum belt in a bloody turf war in 2012.

Yes-no question
The modern approach has borne more fruit for the companies than the traditional approach. A majority of miners have expressed a desire to return to work by means of technology.

Foremost have been mass cellphone messages in English, Xhosa and Sotho outlining the wage offers and asking for a “yes” or “no” reply.

“I want to go back to work but I have security concerns,” said one Lonmin Amcu member in a mine recruiting office in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.

He showed Reuters Lonmin’s April 30 phone message and said he had replied “yes”. He wished to return to work but did not want to give his name because of fears he would be assaulted or worse if Amcu’s leaders found out.

Four miners were killed in and around the platinum mines over the weekend and the three companies have reported 20 incidents of intimidation in the past two days. Police have made no arrests.

Amcu’s leaders deny the accusations of intimidation of members and say most of their members have rejected the wage offer.

Phone poll
But Amplats chief executive Chris Griffith said on Tuesday that the firms had polled miners using “interactive voice message” technology in a variety of languages and reached a definitive answer.

“It’s pretty much like a call centre that calls you and you can choose options one, two or three,” he told Talk Radio 702 in Johannesburg.

“We put out very simple messages: Do you want to come back to work? Do you want to accept the offer on the table? And the majority of employees in Lonmin, Implats and Amplats are saying to us ‘We want to come back to work,'” he said.

Amplats said many of its workers had already returned to Rustenburg, where police have deployed in force to try to prevent a bloody showdown with Amcu die-hards, and bus vouchers were being given to those still in the Eastern Cape.

Not everybody is taking up the offer.

“I must wait for Amcu to call me back,” said Implats employee Malibongwe Nodangala (29) outside an informal bar in his village.

Another Eastern Cape Implats worker, who declined to be named, was defiant. “It is not finished yet,” he said.

Family pressure
Those who choose to hold out are going to be under huge pressure from families that have now gone four months with no pay remitted from husbands, fathers and brothers working on the mines, often their only source of income.

For Nosandile Mnqotho (39), who has seven children between the ages of two and 21, that means having to use meagre government grants to support her husband, who came home from Implats in March but returned to Rustenburg last month.

“I send R400 a month to my husband,” she said.

The companies are offering wage increases of up to 10%, which they say would raise the overall minimum pay package, including cash allowances for expenses such as housing, to R12 500 a month by July 2017.

Amcu initially demanded an immediate increase of the basic wage to R12 500, excluding allowances, but softened that in March to staggered increases that would amount to R12 500 within three or four years – still a third more than the offer from the companies.

The strike is the longest and costliest ever to have hit South Africa’s mines and has halted 40% of normal global platinum production, although the platinum price has remained relatively static as the companies have run down reserves. – Reuters

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