Recently appointed Mining Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi’s quick dip into negotiations in the platinum sector is not the first time that government officials have become embroiled in mining labour disputes in recent years.
But the minister appears to have shown a softer stance towards the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), in comparison to several other government officials, and some speculate this could be the reason for his hasty exit from the wage talks that were hoped could end the nation’s longest strike in mining history.
Ramatlhodi took on the task of resolving the 70 000 strong, 18-week long Amcu strike in the platinum sector as one of his first responsibilities in his new role. “I am asking business and the miners to back me up to find a solution that can break this deadlock,” he said on the night he was sworn in as mineral resources minister about two weeks ago. “It can’t be business as usual.”
The following day, the minister said in a radio interview that the government should “begin to treat Amcu with respect” and “give them the dignity that is due to any trade union that qualifies”.
Ramatlhodi met with Amcu as part of the consultative process almost immediately and union president Joseph Mathunjwa said last week that he was “pleased” with the progress of the talks. This was a first for the Amcu leader, who is better known for publicly bemoaning government antagonism shown to his organisation.
In March, Mathunjwa accused former mining minister Susan Shabangu of urging the mines to seek legal avenues to stop his union’s strike.
“The minister has chosen to collude with foreign companies, to sue Amcu for millions,” he said of Anglo Platinum’s attempts to sue the union for R600-million worth of damages to its property incurred during protests.
Shabangu was at times openly critical of the union and other high-ranking government officials have shown similar disdain. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande previously called Amcu a “vigilante union”, for which Mathunjwa demanded an apology. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa urged the union’s rival the National Union of Mineworkers to “take back” its majority on the platinum belt in the aftermath of the Marikana tragedy.
But a week after Amcu made some of the first signs of being pleased with progress made, Ramatlhodi has made an exit from the talks as hasty as his entrance. It seems to be a backtrack from his original pledge, wherein he promised to “receive a briefing from my team so that I have a sense of the issues that are holding the agreement back and then begin to mediate”.
Some analysts have speculated that Ramatlhodi’s hurried retreat may have been a response to pressure from the ANC to back off. But the minister has denied such claims. Speaking to the press on Tuesday afternoon, Ramatlhodi said he had not abandoned the wage negotiations. Instead, he said, he had made enough headway in his two weeks of involvement to allow the parties to come to their own conclusions.
“I strongly believe we’ve done enough work … for the parties to be able to move forward,” he said. “It is a misperception that I am abandoning the talks.”
Finding a solution
Five months earlier, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant had convened meetings between Amcu and the Chamber of Mines in an attempt to find a solution to the same strike. Back then the work stoppage was just a week old, but the outcome of these talks was the same: a deadlock in negotiations and the ultimate ineffectiveness of government intervention.
Oliphant, in turn, was responding to months’ worth of seemingly futile efforts made by former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe to broker a solution to these and similar deadlocks in the industry.
According to Ramatlhodi, the two parties had moved “closer” to an agreement during his two weeks of intervention. Talks had collapsed when negotiators failed to reach an agreement around the time frame of the implementation of a wage deal, he said.
“Our role was to create an environment conducive to the parties … I sincerely believe we achieved that,” he said.
The fact remains, however, that he has followed in the footsteps of his governmental predecessors: pulling out from the talks while the mines and the union continue to battle it out to an unknown conclusion.