THE spread of labour action from the platinum industry to the gold industry suggests a spiralling problem in the South African mining industry overall in the wake of the Marikana massacre, and this spread requires an urgent response. But what should it be?
There is currently an interministerial committee involved in some intensive behind-the-scenes discussions to find political and economic common ground. There is, of course, also the judicial inquiry into the shootings at Marikana, which has a wide-ranging mandate.
The first initiative, although it is necessary and desirable, lacks transparency and excludes public participation. The government’s actions also seem focused on "normalising" the situation within the current parameters. It is arguable whether this is a sufficient response to the Marikana incident. But with the spread of the labour action, it almost certainly is not.
The government essentially has three options. First, it can allow the existing labour relations structure to attempt to deal with the issue. Second, it can expand the terms of reference of the judicial commission to investigate not only the shooting but also the circumstances of the industry as a whole. Or, third, it could call a mining indaba.
It is probably tempting for both the industry and the government to allow the existing labour relations mechanisms to deal with the problem. This temptation derives partly from the belief that doing anything different risks escalating the problem. And the consequences of this "escalation" could be unpredictable. However, the difficulty with this approach is essentially that the public is excluded. Working "behind the scenes" may seem constructive to those engaged in it, but to the general populace it is not apparent that anything is being done at all.
In the meantime, it allows all kinds of interest groups with conflicting interests to grapple for public profile and to subvert the process for their own interests, most obviously former African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema. Something has to fill that space, or at least compete with it for a slice of the public voice.
Another problem with trusting the existing labour relations structure is that it necessarily excludes the possibility of reforms. Clearly, we have entered a different phase of labour relations, with several unions competing for support. How labour legislation deals with that situation is as much part of the problem as part of the solution.
The second option, of expanding the judicial inquiry to look at the mining industry in general, is clearly a nonstarter. The commission has enough on its plate sorting out the circumstances of the massacre and who is responsible. Adding a broad, contextual mandate would probably overburden it.
What about calling a mining indaba? In a sense, this would be a great moment to do so. The topic of mine nationalisation has been circling the political system for four years. In its wake, there are now proposals for a state mining company and a new approach to black economic empowerment.
Fitch Ratings captured this context, and perhaps also alluded to foreign investor concerns, by describing the Marikana events as reflecting "broader structural problems that have long weighed on South Africa’s credit rating", and cited rising costs, policy uncertainty and nationalisation rhetoric. There are also issues of maladministration in the mineral rights regulatory regime.
But, most importantly, as mining lawyer Peter Leon pointed out in a speech to the South African Institute of International Affairs last week, what needs to be clarified is the precise nature of the social contract. As Mr Leon points out, mining laws leave this issue unworkably unclear and society seems confused about who is responsible for what.
The greatest, perhaps the only possible tribute to the miners killed in the massacre would be to pull society together towards a solution to myriad problems that have been festering too long. An open forum, quickly organised, widely consultative and tasked with listening and reporting as much as deciding, could help support the other actions of the government and provide a structured forum for not only the central players, but other interest groups too. It’s an idea worth serious consideration.
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