THE calamitous events in the platinum sector last year are having the paradoxical effect of placing the sector at the forefront of a new labour dispensation. The reason is obvious: platinum mining is the first major sector to navigate the difficult transition from a single-union-dominant labour-relations environment to a new, multi-union scenario. What that scenario will be may be influenced by these negotiations, and that in turn may change the nature of labour relations in South Africa. Or possibly not. It is hard to tell.

In this time of flux, it is appropriate to ask what kind of labour-relations environment would be most suitable. The priority, at least from the perspective of business and the state, is to reduce the number of strikes, their length and the violence associated with them. It is clear that the frequency of strikes is affecting South Africa’s reputation as an investment destination. Although it often does not seem that way to workers, once that reputation is undermined, the argument moves from working conditions — which labour can win — to whether there will be work at all, an argument labour is bound to lose.

In a way, the new and better labour-relations scenario would logically be a simple reverse image of the situation that existed in the platinum sector before. In a nutshell, the strikes arose from a section of the labour force, rock drill operators, seeking and winning a wage increase from management at Impala Platinum outside the formal negotiation process. That made workers on other mines and in other categories feel they were being shortchanged. Although the wages of Impala rock drill operators were simply being increased to the industry standard, others felt excluded. And that made workers at Lonmin feel they were being left behind, and so on.

This whole process, in which one strike sparks another and another, seems to have been one of the causes of the escalating tension that culminated in the Marikana massacre. Hence, employers in the platinum industry are seeking to move to sector-wide wage negotiations in future, similar to the way things are handled by the coal and gold industries.

The other problem is the question of competing unions. It is a truism that the turmoil in the platinum sector is, at least in part, a consequence of competition between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Amcu is now the majority union at Impala and some other mines, and is growing in influence in other sectors too. This creates a conundrum. When the NUM was dominant, the union was supported by a legal and practical labour-relations framework that favoured a single-union scenario. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the government, and often business too, preferred this scenario, each for its own selfish reasons — the government to support its political allies, Cosatu to cement its dominance, and business in the belief that it would provide a more stable framework for negotiations.

Yet the single-union bias of legislation and practice was premised on a largely single-union scenario. Now that Amcu is starting to dominate, it understandably wants that situation to continue. Company representatives have been telling the union for years that it could not negotiate with them until it had more than 50% representation. Now it does and the company suddenly wants to recognise all comers. Unfortunately for Amcu, the new approach may not seem fair, but it is inevitable and desirable. It is also in line with the freedom of association guaranteed by the constitution, even if labour laws are not yet in line.

These are only two of a host of issues affecting the labour regime in South Africa, and it has become critical that they are handled quickly and effectively. South Africa cannot afford to be crippled by its fractious labour relations for much longer.