South Africa: Mine Strikes Showdown Looms

South African miners
Mine strikes have continued across S.A.

Gold Fields said miners striking at its Free State operations would be sacked this week if they don’t report for work. The miners remain defiant. Where this conundrum might take those involved is anybody’s guess, but the precedent set by Marikana, where a similar clashing of heads happened, is chilling.

In the Free State, far from the platinum mining belt, striking miners and management at Gold Fields were set on a collision course after the company announced Tuesday that all workers who didn’t report for duty on Thursday would be sacked. The miners are furious and defiant, and have promised not to budge on their demands.

It all started in August at the KDC East operation of Gold Fields in the West Rand, when thousands of miners downed tools to demand higher wages.

The strike soon spread to KDC West, where the majority of the 14,000 workers joined the unprotected strike action. The strike rapidly spread to the Beatrix Mine in the Free State near Welkom. Faced with widespread action and a failed negotiation among the Chamber of Mines, unions and striking workers, Gold Fields CEO Nick Holland issued an ultimatum to the tens of thousands of workers: return to work by 18 October, no later than 14:00, or face summary dismissal.

Reading from a prepared statement, Holland said, “Gold Fields Limited regret to advise that approximately 11,000 of the 14,300 employees at KDC West (formerly Driefontein Gold Mine) on strike since 9 September; the full employee body of approximately 2,800 employees at the number 4 Shaft of the Beatrix Gold Mine (formerly Oryx Gold Mine) on strike since 21 September; and approximately 8,500 of 12,400 employees at KDC East (formerly Kloof Gold Mine) on strike since 14 October; remain engaged in unlawful and unprotected strikes (a total of 23,540 out of 35,700 employees).”

The ultimatum comes after Gold Fields, the world’s fourth-largest gold producer, obtained a court interdict declaring the strikes unlawful. The company said it had tried to communicate this to the striking workers, but they chose to ignore the warnings.

Holland said the ultimatum was informed by financial losses that the company has suffered and concern for the safety of workers.

“Particularly disturbing is that in the past few days we have seen a significant escalation in lawlessness, including damage to public and private property, widespread intimidation, including many cases of personal violence and several of attempted murder,” he said.

“Over the weekend we saw strikers invade and ransack the police station in Westonaria and as recently as last night the driver of a company vehicle was stopped, pulled from his vehicle, seriously assaulted, and the vehicle set alight. Security personnel who attended the scene were fired on with live ammunition. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable,” he said.

A wage proposal tabled by the Chamber of Mines, which negotiates on behalf of AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony, was rejected last week and no further deals were proposed. According to a report, the original deal included doing away with the lowest-paid wage level and adjusting workers’ pay in that category to the next level; an allowance for rock-drill operators, a new category for locomotive, loader, winch and water-jet operators, including better pay; and some adjustments in pay for other employees to preserve the integrity of the current job-grading framework.

Holland was careful to point out that the company would not go outside of existing collective wage agreements, but those workers who chose to come back would be party to the deal as tabled by the chamber. In other words, those who chose to return to work would be signalling they accepted the deal.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said the union wanted to see workers return to the mines, “but we feel that threats and ultimatums is not the way to get people back at work”.

However, a member of the strike committee at Gold Fields, who identified himself as Pro, said that they had met on Tuesday and vowed not to budge on any of their demands, which not only include a rejection of the wage deal, but of NUM’s representation too.

“We took a decision today. We will not back down on our demand of R12,500 after deductions and we do not want the local NUM leadership reinstated,” Pro said.

He said it was disgraceful that “the Boers” (a reference to the White management of the company) were pushing the workers “on the land of our forefathers”. He vowed that if management continued to hold out on them, the striking miners would “chase them back to Holland and make them leave their mining licences here in South Africa.”

Pro said that the time had come for all workers at Gold Fields to stop being lapdogs and slaves for “the Boers”. He did not promise violence, but was adamant that they would not budge on their position.

The parallels between the Gold Fields situation and Marikana before the 16 August police massacre are disturbing. The company is not willing to budge on its demand, and neither are the increasingly militant workers.

NUM, the union that is supposed to be the go-between and negotiator, has been cut out of the equation and discredited by the workers. Mr. Pro said another worker demand is that they should be represented at collective bargaining councils by people who went underground every day, and not the mineworkers union which he said was completely out of touch.

Like Lonmin before it, Gold Fields claims it is taking on a lot of water and probably cannot actually afford to immediately meet the wage demands put to it. The cumulative impact of the wildcat strikes has been about 65,000 ounces of gold production and R1.2 billion in revenue.

Furthermore, besides the vandalism, mining equipment that stands idle without being serviced falls into disrepair, meaning that even more costs have to be incurred to fix it.

The Lonmin/Marikana impasse was broken because the workers needed money to survive, and may have ended sooner had it not been for the 112 people shot by the police, of which 34 died. Even though the Gold Fields workers appear to be less organised, the threat of violence is a real one.

Without knowing what will happen Thursday, we now know for a certainty that the serious unrest that began at Impala Platinum and Lonmin has spread as far as the West Rand and the Free State. there is a workers revolution in South Africa and nobody seems to be able to stop it.