After the platinum strike: We dare not fail now

An excerpt from community consultations in the Mining Dialogues 360˚ Project provides a stark illustration of the divisions within the mining belt communities. But it also points to a roadmap to success.

"We need some way to deal with this rivalry between us… we are divided; we don't hear each other," it reads. "We experience the same challenges even though we come from different places; we won't succeed unless we stand together. We have no common business. If we could get together we could even buy shares in the mine."

Some 70,000 AMCU members have ended their strike that has lasted since January, the longest in SA history and one that knocked a hole in the economy. We should all welcome the settlement. It is in the national public interest, and of course because the miners have improved their conditions of work. But given the huge social, humanitarian and economic costs incurred, it does raise the question: is a 'new deal' in mining possible in a platinum belt that holds 80% of known world reserves?

There is widespread acceptance that mining as a whole, and the platinum industry in particular, is at a crossroads; commentators from every political standpoint have argued that it is time to move away from the old economic model, that was based on cheap migrant labour and old ways of organising.

The practice of "collective bargaining", negotiations and agreements, has existed since the rise of trade unions during the 18th century and is enshrined in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) constitution and in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental human right. In South Africa it has been a cornerstone institution for democracy.

But at the beginning of the 21st century, what do we face?

The number of workers belonging to trade unions has declined in many industrialized countries as global economic integration has tipped bargaining power in favour of employers. Across the developed world real wages have remained flat for decades and employment has stagnated. Unions need a new approach to collective bargaining.

So what does a "post-Marikana mining" opportunity represent?

For a start it must surely mean lifting our attention away from a narrow preoccupation with wages and work conditions. In the aftermath, it is the historic duty of the current generation of leaders across the spectrum to inspire hope. There are no quick fixes. We must take a long view. As workers prepare to start their shifts, we must starting thinking about the lessons for the future and how we ensure history is not repeated.

Tackling the multiple social issues on the mining belt is a precondition and a catalyst for a new mining deal within the Framework Agreement for Sustainable Mining. The State owns all mineral rights on behalf of the people. In theory the rights of community social and economic development are catered for in the Social and Labour Plans that are a foundation of mining licenses.

We need to question why these commitments have not changed conditions in the platinum belt communities, before new proposals are tabled, for approval at the end of July this year. Do mining houses work together in pursuance of a common vision, shared with community actors as well as local and national government? Is there a joint strategy for sustainable development, or is it a set of worthy but isolated projects that do not make much impact?

The chasm of adversarial strife between the communities and the miners, on the one side, and the mining companies and government agencies on the other side, suggests that there has not so far been any kind of shared vision or working agreement. Bargaining goes beyond a simple wage agreement. It affects every facet of our society and our daily lives.

Central to building a social consensus and trust is the role and voice of civil society, including human rights NGOs, churches and development organisations. Traditional structures too will play a role in creating peaceful communities, monitoring service delivery and launching initiatives for social reconstruction from literacy classes, crèches, community safety and violence prevention initiatives.

We have done this in the past under the National Peace Accord.

The Mining Dialogues 360˚ consultations recognises that reliance on a single employer ("the mine"), and on social grants, in the platinum belt villages and settlements as well as in the labour-sending areas, means that there is increasing pressure on miners. In many cases a miner supports more than 20 dependents. Their desperation, as they fail to meet the obligations of a breadwinner, drives wage pressure and is reflected in high levels of alcohol, drug abuse (which lead to high levels of interpersonal violence), the spike in youth delinquency, amongst other indicators.

A solution is to stimulate the 'non-mine' economy, in mining areas and in the labour-sending rural areas. With the ending of the strike comes an opportunity to design and implement a Platinum Belt Spatial Development Initiative (SDI). This could identify the short-, medium- and long-term priorities and build a collaborative platform that involves the public, unions, private and community sectors.

The needs of mining communities are reasonable and guaranteed under our Constitution. But the political will of all leaders across the spectrum is essential. Already much of what needs to be done is provided for within the government policy and law, budgeted for by different government departments or under the CSI budget commitments made by the corporate sector. But government needs to work well, and mining companies need to go beyond the workplace issues and the unions need to reconnect with membership at both workplace and where they live. These stakeholders will find local communities keen contribute their sweat equity.

As in the MD 360˚ consultations residents pledged, "We don't need tar roads; gravel roads will do. And we can make it ourselves. The mines must work with us, and so must the government. We need to be united. We need to stand up and work. We need projects, and work like in the community works programme."

The positive action by the incoming Minister, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, to initiate new talks, even though this appeared to stall, was an important signal to union and company bosses that a solution was imperative for all parties. It did create a roadmap to the solution we have. This is the leadership I would expect.

Now together we have address the damage done to investment sentiment. And a social contract between the social partners will be the most important signal. There are some tough choices to make, but we need an agreement on this. And we need to embrace transparency and accountability to build a way forward, building from below.

Mining is here to stay for the next many decades. While we await eagerly the outcomes of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry into the conduct of the various parties which led to the tragic deaths of 44 human beings; we know that our society has the capacity to learn the hard lessons. We again must all to rise to the occasion and work towards ensuring that arising from this tragedy, we can build a new chapter that inspires hope for the next generation.

We dare not fail. The whole world is watching.

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.