Ramatlhodi: Straight into the platinum fire
On Tuesday, Statistics South Africa told us, and investors, that our economy shrank in the first quarter. Broadly, we want our economy to go the other way. One didn't have to look far for the big contributor: mining GDP was down a whopping 24%, thanks to the platinum mining strike led by the Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu). The strike is biting down hard. It is having a dramatic impact on our economy. It is a culmination of broken systems, broken politics, and broken lives. On Sunday night, advocate Ngoako Ramatlhodi was put in charge of finding a solution.
I have two strong memories of Ngoako Ramatlhodi; fairly contradictory ones, come to that.
The first is from 2009. Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe was gunning for a spot in the Constitutional Court. There was some suspicion that he wanted the job of Chief Justice itself. He had been accused of trying to interfere with two cases in that court relating to the corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma. And just a few months before, the Judicial Service Commission had concluded, quite irrationally, that it could not proceed with the case against him. Its reasoning was that while both he and the two judges of the court who made the claim had given some testimony, there was nothing to be gained from subjecting them all to cross-examination. (Obviously they had not heard of Gerrie Nel.)
Hlophe's interview came quite late into a Sunday evening. The meeting was chaired by then-Chief Justice Pius Langa. An advocate from the Eastern Cape, Izak Smuts, subjected Hlophe to the best cross-examination I have ever seen. He made Nel look like a nursery school teacher. What was so startling was that he didn't ask any questions about the complaints against Hlophe. He asked about comments Hlophe had made about another judge, and about an incident in which an advocate had lent him a small amount of money. But it simply showed how Hlophe was not at the time fit and proper for a job in the country's highest court.
Time and time again, Ramatlhodi, as one of the ANC's representatives on the JSC, tried to intervene. He claimed questions weren't proper, that Hlophe wasn't being shown appropriate respect, that the chair should "clear the house". He acted as a protector - a defender of someone who the JSC in the end decided was not the right person for the job. He came across as exactly the person who wrote what could have been an ill-advised article suggesting the ANC should change the Constitution.
My second memory is of an interview I did with him, face to face. The setting was the less-than-quiet FNB stadium. Ramatlhodi was head of elections for the ANC at the time, and voting day for the 2011 Local Government Elections was just two days away. We sat, slightly uncomfortably, on bar stools around a tall coffee table.
Ramatlhodi was insightful, honest; funny even. He was truly accessible, critical to an extent of his own party in the way only the ANC can be at times. I came away from the experience having thoroughly enjoyed myself, thinking that he was an impressive figure.
So it's with that in mind that one has to confront Ramatlhodi in his new job.
He has been honest immediately, telling journalists, as he was being sworn in, that his first priority was to end the strike. The problem is that he has been handed a hospital pass.
Part of the crisis in the platinum sector is simply that government is tied, in the minds of Amcu, to the National Union of Mineworkers, through Cosatu and the ANC and the alliance. There is no way that
Ramatlhodi can be seen as independent. One has to have some sympathy here: there is really no one in the ANC who could become the minister in this portfolio and then be seen as neutral - it is a structural problem. The ANC has chosen to remain in the alliance; the strike is about more than wages but the very economics and politics that underpins the current regime on the mines themselves.
And, of course, don't forget that the Secretary General of the ANC itself is a former general secretary of the NUM. Who was the one who chucked Mathunjwa out of the NUM in the first place? The fight that is going on here has been going on for a very long time, and looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.
One way for Ramatlhodi to make a start is to bash the one enemy he as the ANC and Amcu have in common - the employers. This he has appeared to do, by saying they have not done enough to improve the living conditions of miners themselves. At the same time, he says government needs to treat all unions with respect.
Where he does have a slight advantage is that he is not his predecessor. Susan Shabangu simply did not seem to show much interest, in public at least, in resolving the strike. Perhaps that was because she knew there was little she could do. Perhaps she felt, wisely, that getting too involved would make things worse, because she's from the ANC. But Ramatlhodi did not have anything to do with the Marikana shootings, which means that he is at least reasonably distant from all of that.
So if Ramatlhodi is going to make a go of all this, and if one of his preferred methods is to attack the employers, what does that mean for the filthy capitalists themselves? To be blunt, Ramatlhodi is not a cuddly figure. He is not someone from the Madiba era of holding hands and singing Kumbaya in all of our different accents. He does seem to firmly believe that whites have it too easy. There's plenty of room for debate here, and there are many points on which it would be difficult to oppose his argument.
But it does mean it's going to be a rougher ride for mine owners.
One of the real issues facing the mining industry is that of licensing. Because of the strike, it's gone to the back burner, but it's a real problem. In 2009, the Kumba Iron Ore ICT case revealed exactly how complicated and dangerous this can all be when it goes wrong. That case showed that sometimes a mining right isn't a mining right. Or, if you prefer, a mining right is only a right to mine if the right official says it's all right.
In an environment in which investors need certainty before sticking a billion dollars into the ground,
Ramatlhodi is going to have to provide some of that. If he doesn't, there will be no investment, and the current investment in the ground will simply run down. And that will dramatically affect our balance of payments, hurt the rand, and deeply wound our economy.
Ramatlhodi can be tough. He is pretty honest about what he believes and why, and he doesn't hide behind nice words. Maybe that will help. Maybe it will make him more of a liability. He is now in the terrible political position of having all the public responsibility, and not much immediate power. There are simply no levers for him to pull to end the strike. He cannot just click his fingers. He will be lucky if Mathunjwa even agrees to see him face to face.
What he should do is try to support every single outside intervention there is. He should be the one making sure those talks at the Labour Court under the supervision of Judge Hilary Rabkin-Naiker have all the coffee they need. He should be in daily contact with the people who will talk to him, nudging them along.
Quite frankly, there is very little else he can do.
Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes
This column appeared on Daily Maverick .