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Unions

Silke: Agreement won't end unrest in South African mining sector

South Africa's mining trade union AMCU refused to sign a government-brokered pact on Wednesday aimed at curbing the 18 months unrest in the mining industry.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, AMCU, blamed the government saying it had come up with new preconditions that were not negotiated in advance. The union said it would sign the agreement at a later stage. Other trade unions, mining companies and the government signed the agreement on Wednesday (03.07.2013).

DW: What is known about this agreement?

Daniel Silke: I think the idea is for the government to intervene at the highest possible level, between mine owners and increasingly competitive trade union movements in the sector. This would restore confidence in the mining sector within South Africa that has taken a severe knock over the last year as a result of the Marikana massacre and of course, the ongoing labor unrest in the mines. The government wants to try and alleviate some of the excessive demands that the new trade union movements - and one in particular which has sprang over the course of the last year or so - are making. In other words the government is saying look, the trade unions will have to curb some of their lofty ambitions when it comes to the very heavy wage increases that they are demanding. In some cases they are demanding wage increases of up to 100 percent. Secondly the government is saying if the trade unions want to play a part in the mining industry they will have to act responsibly, in other words, they can't engage in wildcat or illegal strikes, that has been the characteristic of the mining industry in the last year or so.

Will it be enough to end the mining unrest in South Africa?

This is a million dollar question. I think there have to be some sort of movement towards reconciliation. I think the world is looking for that. Foreign investors are also looking for some sort of indication that the unions are prepared to work more responsibly, but there is an internal battle between trade unions in South Africa for power and ascendency. And this internal battle between a new upstart trade union called AMCU versus the more traditional trade union that has been the more dominant trade union in South African mining sector over the course of the last number of decades, the National Union of Mineworkers, NUM.

This intra-union strife really threatens to derail any such agreement or pact that is signed. The new trade union has sprang up literally out of nowhere, it is now the majority union in some of the mines, particularly in the platinum belt. If this union feels like it wants to continue to build upon its power base, it might be very reluctant to perpetuate any pact that might be signed. So there is a contradictory position in South Africa at the moment as to whether this pact will have any legacy or will get lost in time.

Will this pact resolve the rivalry between the trade unions?

I am not sure if this agreement will be able to successfully resolve conflicts between the trade unions. I think the idea here is to restore confidence broadly speaking in the mining sector as a key foreign exchange earner in South Africa and as a potential key earner of foreign direct investment. So, it is a much more sort of a macro idea behind this pact, call it what you will, but I don't think that it will be able to even attempt to provide some sort of a peaceful reconciliation to the union rivalry that is taking place in South Africa, which also to a degree has a political base to it. You must also remember that the new upstart trade union AMCU, which is in rivalry with the National Union of Mineworkers is fighting itself for recognition within the platinum mines in particular at the Lonmin Platinum mine. This fight for recognition as the main trade union is very much ongoing and there are legal actions pending in courts on this issue. So any pact signed could very well find itself in trouble, depending on the machinations of the trade union movements themselves.

How do you explain this speedy rise of AMCU?

I think there is a dissatisfaction on the ground amongst many mineworkers in South Africa who find that they simply do not have enough money to make ends meet on a monthly basis. I think that AMCU, the upstart union, has offered miners a quick fix solution to their problems. They are the most populist, we might want to call them radical but lets call them populist and they are demanding anywhere between 60 percent and 100 pay increases for a broad sector of a category of mineworkers. I think for an impoverished mineworker, who finds that he can't make ends meet, the idea of the new trade movement who is potentially offering him a major advance in salary when compared to the older more established trade union, is an attractive option. I think this level of populist rhetoric coming out of the new trade union movement, is what enabled a movement like AMCU to gain so many adherents so quickly.

How much of a victory is this pact for the government ?

This is very important. I think much of the negativity about the South African economic performance from a global perspective in the last year or so has been centered around the deteriorating conditions in the mines. South Africa still hasn't successfully shifted its economy away from mineral extraction towards manufacturing. We have been still largely concentrating on what we take out of the ground. The country is still associated with mineral riches and its ability to extract. So from a sentiment point of view, getting the mining sector up and running, or at least stabilizing this negative perception that has been at the sector, is critical.

Daniel Silke is an independent political analyst specializing in South African and International politics.

Interview: Chrispin Mwakideu

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