A One-Eyed View

September 16, 2009

If I was a Deputy President in any organisation remotely associated with the ANC Alliance, I’ll be afraid, very afraid, as the saying goes. First, Petrus Mothlanthe, Deputy President of South Africa and the ANC, has a dicey experience during a scheduled landing in Bangui, en-route from Libya. What was he flying in that couldn’t manage a non-stop flight? A single prop micro-light, fitted with a second-hand lawnmower engine? I suppose we must be grateful for small mercies. Didn’t his predecessor, the fat lady with the funny name, charter a Gulfstream to fly to Dubai to watch the “Dances of Cranes”?

Mothlanthe’s reported “mishap” resulted in the arrest of the air-traffic controller in Bangui. Makes you wonder. Could the controller be a Zimbabwean with close ties to Robert Mugabe? Could Mbeki be calling in favours?

The most astounding event however, remains the unfortunate and unplanned removal of the NUM Deputy President’s eye by striking NUM members. The botched operation, which was somehow kept out of the media for more than 24 hours, was apparently, like many botched circumcisions, performed by an unqualified witchdoctor. In this case, a Xhosa rock drill operator who was kicked out of Witchdoctor School after three failed attempts at the anatomy exam. A lecturer, wishing to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, said the man could not tell his backside from his elbow. Despite his inability to pass, the examination authority continued attempts to close the knowledge gap—that is the gap between the student’s knowledge and the examination standards—a process, uniquely South African and commonly known as “dumbing down”. Apparently, training authorities reached the end of their tether when the candidate failed to hand in a clean sheet of paper in his final chemistry exam.

The unfortunate aspirant witchdoctor, Doktela Coldset Uthuli, found a job on the mines but never abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor. It is here where he stole some stone-age cutting tools and other “magical” artifacts, from a display cabinet in the Geology Department, which he used in the operation on poor Piet’s eye. In the meantime Piet told associates he now has a different view of the world, a lot less complicated with fewer dimensions…a lat earth view so to speak.

To crown an eventful week , the Deputy President of the South African National Taxi Council, said to be instrumental in the MOU signed on Friday, was murdered. The Piccanin President, Juliaas, was quick to ride the BTI in honour of the fallen hero, and great ANC hope in deliberations aimed at solving Taxi/BRT fracas.

Patrick Craven, having seen the violence and mayhem, expressed his dismay at the violence perpetrated, an un-expected reaction in itself, coming from a leader who, in the past, was unable to find any indication of violent tendencies amongst COSATU members. It may just be possible that there are some unhappy people lurking around, expressing their displeasure in the only way they learnt during the struggle, and, as prominent leaders of the Alliance often reminds us, “The struggle continues, the revolution is alive and so is its methods”.


NUM Humiliated

September 14, 2009

The humiliation suffered by the National Union of Mineworkers because of their unsuccessful strike action at Rustenburg platinum mines, Aquarius and Impala was long overdue and couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of people. The bloody nose they received may bring sanity back to the workplace. The strikes, like the other strikes and service delivery protests we had to endure over the past months is largely because of expectations created by the governing ANC and it’s partners in the run-up to the election. In most of the strikes to date unions and their members embarked on strike action, despite receiving wage offers well in excess of the inflation rate. In most cases, the strike action was rewarded with additional small, token, yields by the employer, which inevitably amounted to less than the ultimate losses in earnings suffered by the happy, dancing strikers. NUM, propagators of the construction industry strike and the Crocodile River hostage debacle, have been cock-a-hoop about their successes in holding the country hostage and their successes, which amounted to very little more than victory for the union leaders. 

The Aquarius and Impala strikes were however different and can prove a turning point. In both cases, the union representative created expectations of a high increase—reflected in the extreme nature of the demands—with members. In both instances, union leaders eventually agreed to management’s final offer only to find they could not convince their members to accept the offer. Members embarked on strikes at both the mines and NUM leaders found they had no control over the members. A matter of concern to the mining companies because of the threats to life and property. 

At Aquarius, fourth biggest platinum producer in the world, the 2700 strikers were dismissed and a process of re-engagement commenced. This created the opportunity to streamline the workforce, still slightly bloated by the feeding frenzy during the last platinum boon. As a result, the union action will probably be 300 -350 job losses. NUM leaders at Aquarius suffered a total loss of credibility with some beaten up and others having to go into hiding. The dismissed workers who are lucky enough to be re-engaged, will probably lose some of their benefits whilst the less lucky ones will go home without so much as handshake, never mind a severance package. 

The strike at Impala involved 25 000 people and the situation was slightly more complex. When the Union, after agreeing to management’s final offer, failed to convince the workers to accept the 10%  offer, they embarked on a strike. Impala wanting to box to Queensberry rules, applied for a court order to force the workers back to work. The attempt failed, the strike went ahead accompanied by the obligatory intimidation and associated violence. A minority of workers never went on strike, a fact denied by NUM, in a vain attempt to convince the world that solidarity was unaffected. After a few days, it became clear that deep divisions had developed within NUM, acknowledged by an insider after the strike ended. The divisions manifested itself when it culminated in a vicious attack on the deputy president of the union by members,  resulting in him losing his eye whilst trying to convince them to go back to work. A branch leader was badly beaten in the same incident. Again, NUM tried to white wash the incident by blaming criminal elements for the attack. They were of course correct in their assertion, the attackers are criminals but they are also members. The divisions became deeper and the disillusionment with NUM grew, so much so that on Monday, a regional representative was held hostage at one of the Impala mines, his clothes were torn from his body before he managed to escape and go into hiding. Following the incident, the entire branch committee was kicked out and a new committee was elected. The new committee went to the rest of the mine and convinced workers, supporting the strike action, to go back to work. 

The miners returned to work on Tuesday and the CEO of Impala issued a statement outlining the cost and losses suffered because of the two week strike. He made it clear that attempts will be made to recover cost by cost cutting which will inevitably lead to the closure of marginal shafts and the commensurate job losses. Fortunately, for Impala workers, now facing the prospect of retrenchment they will, unlike the Aquarius workers, receive severance packages, not that they deserve it. Despite this, NUM having to save face declared that the strike action was a worthwhile exercise and a victory for the union. 

The divisions, so clearly illustrated in these two cases, mirrors the state in which the Broad church of the ANC in North West and other parts of the country finds itself. Divisions, between the executive, the branches, the regions, left, centre, right and ordinary members, run deep. People are becoming disillusioned by the empty promises and mindless rhetoric. The events in Rustenburg, was a heavy blow to NUM, especially when they hoped the wounds, left by the rift between Mantashe and Palane had healed This time however, the divisions  go beyond NUM and extends into the heart of the ANC. 

Unfortunately, because of this shortsighted action, the innocent will suffer but that has never a consideration with unions and its members. Because of job cuts to be implemented to compensate for losses suffered and to maintain profitability, some NUM members, who refrained from participation in the strike will lose their jobs. Some loyal workers, middle management and senior management, employees who never strike and have already agreed to zero increases, because of the low commodity prices and thin margins, will be retrenched because of the action of the NUM members. Many of the retrenched managers and senior officials facing retrenchment employ domestic workers who will now lose their jobs swelling the ranks of the unemployed. 

Despite the facts staring us in the face, NUM claimed the strike was a positive action. The truth is, there are no winners here. We can only hope those, who selfishly caused this tragedy, learned from their folly. I doubt that though. Subsequent to these strikes, COSATU defiantly defended absurdities such as soldier mutinies and threats by the desperate textile industry to strike, despite being closed down by cheaper and better Chinese imports. 

Given our past, this lesson will be forgotten by the time we enter the next election when the next generation of madmen will subject us to new lies and empty promises.

Mining…Killing for Profit?

July 22, 2009

The tragic accident, in which nine miners were killed, hangs like a shadow over an industry, which, for many reasons, has become less and less competitive over the years, an industry that can now only be described as an industry in crisis. The sad part is that, before any investigations were done the fingers were pointing and blame was apportioned, mostly to management and owners. In reality, the South African culture of risk-taking and the low value placed on life by sectors of the population are, with the inherent risk of mining, the main causes of fatalities in SA mines. To suggest mine owners “Kill for Profit” is ridiculous and a reflection the intelligence of those prescribing to the idea.

 Apportioning Blame

Solidarity was quick to point to the poor safety performance of the South African mining industry in comparison to mine safety performance in developed countries such as Australia, Canada and the USA. Such comparisons do show that mining in South Africa is eighteen times more likely to kill you than it is in Australia. It also shows that we are ten times more likely to be killed on the road, driving to the killer mine, than in Australia. However, the likelihood that you will be murdered before you get into your car is 60 times higher than it would be in Australia. It is ironic that we measure mining bosses against the highest safety standards in the world but we are quite happy to compare our road safety and crime with against the worst standards. It is quite in order for Ministers, Government Officials and others responsible for Transport, Road Safety, Safety and Security and Health facilities to be compared against lower standards

Why are we surprised when we hear about another mine death?  How does the owner’s desire to profit from mining contribute to the death of the risk takers in underground ‘’accidents’’?  How will the call for imprisonment of owners and/or management prevent accidents caused by people with such attitude to safety and risk?

What is surprising in all of this is the denial of any responsibility and accountability, for any accident or injury of any kind, by workers representatives, in particular the NUM. We never hear of the union member who took a shortcut thus putting his colleague in danger. The recent hostage drama orchestrated and executed by reckless Union members, placing lives in danger, yet exonerated by NUM is a prime example of poor attitude. Media reporting of fatal injuries in mines has become emotional and sensational thus making reasoning around mine safety issues emotional and not analytical.

Because of these relentless attacks on management and mine owners, we have reached a situation where the call by unions, for draconian measures such as exorbitant fines and imprisonment, are actually considered by the Minister. When gross and deliberate negligence exists, any reasonable person will accept the suggestion of drastic measures against anyone found to be negligent. This rule should however, not only apply to management and owners, but also to workers who cause injury or death. Perhaps a worker killed as result of his own risk taking and negligence, should forfeit any insurance payouts to his family. A draconian measure? Most certainly, but so is putting someone in jail because someone died on a mine for which he is responsible because of the negligence of another. As it is, mine owners have taken drastic measures against senior executives in response to poor safety performance. Unions on the other hand, will fight the sanctions against their negligent and reckless members with everything in their power.

Mining is Risky

What is largely being ignored in the media and in the public domain is the simple fact that Mining is inherently risky. Deep level labour-intensive mining as practiced in South Africa is particularly hazardous and the best way to make these places perfectly safe is to stay the hell out of there and opt for subsistence farming. The main risk attributing factors are the physical operating environment, which include geological features, geophysical and geothermal factors. Other, often more critical and manageable, factors include skill, culture and behaviour of employees (including management, supervisors and workers) and finally engineering factors such as machines, chemicals and tools.

Certain pursuits are inherently more dangerous than others, an undeniable truth, to expect mines to be comparable to a bank, as a place of work, is absurd. To expect police work to be free of risk to life is equally absurd and people accept it as such.

The impact of people factors, experience, training and culture, on our poor safety performance, are largely ignored and are therefore not adequately addressed. The reasons why these issues are seldom highlighted are legion. Suffice to know, due to affirmative action, global skills demand in the resource sector, coupled with poor education and sub-standard training; we have a dire shortage of technical skills at all levels. Given the inexperience of supervisors and managers, we should consider ourselves lucky that we do not kill more people in our mines. The South African mining industry operates in one of the most challenging mining environments in the world and does so with a poorly equipped human resource pool. Even China, with their atrocious mine safety record; operate their mines utilising a higher worker skill base.

Risk Takers

South Africans have a death wish and no respect for life. We see it in everyday life. Driving from Pretoria to Rustenburg, a while ago I noticed, at an informal settlement, the concrete fence separating it from the N4 to safeguard and prevent inhabitants from making dangerous road crossings. Despite the erection of four pedestrian bridges, the inhabitants have chosen to break the, very substantial, fences and now cross the busy highway in the face oncoming traffic. Most of the people living in Majakaneng are employed by the surrounding mines and the person employed by a mine in the area is, most likely, the person that makes the hole in the fence and takes the risk to make the dangerous and illegal crossing of the road.  I cannot think of any reason why this risk taker will change his behavior when he goes underground to work.

High-risk behaviour of South Africans is inexcusable. People doing this, can only be stupid and lazy.  The second reason could be that there is a lot of truth in the perception, that South Africans have a “life is cheap”-culture.  A third reason is a culture of risk taking that can be linked to the “life is cheap” culture.  We see this behavior in many aspects of the daily life of South Africans.  It is evident in the way they use the roads, the risks taken when people make illegal electrical connections to the power grid. We see it in schools where violence is the order of the day with children attacking each other with the intent to kill and the popular “Train surfing” in the township, which is a dangerous equivalent of Russian roulette. Many South Africans do not value life and they show scant respect for their lives and the lives of others.

We see risk taking and a total disregard for life beyond the workplace and the roads. Only in South Africa do people, diagnosed with Multi-drug Resistant TB (XDR-TB), escape from hospital to go home and effectively deliver a death sentence to family and friends. Only in South Africa do they pass HIV/Aids on with gay abandon. Only in South Africa do witchdoctors kill hundreds of teenage boys in traditional initiation rituals.

 The Way Forward

The South African mining industry spends more money than any other South African industry on training and education. It is in training and education where government and labour can contribute greatly to the reduction of risk to life and limb in mines by becoming party to genuine training initiatives put in place by the mining companies. It is however important that their participation are based on genuine desire and not political agendas and ideology of a few individuals. The role of government should be one of coordination and legislation whilst labour should assist in pressurising the freeing up of funds tied up in ineffective Setas and assist management in setting up workable and effective training programs after effective and valid analysis of industry needs. Establishing proper training will add more to mine safety than astronomical fines and criminal charges.

To continue to blame mine deaths on an owner/management drive for profit is mischievous and counter productive. It impacts negatively on the problem and efforts to improve the situation. The current approach of apportioning blame, by the unions and the DME, are counter-productive. Mine owners, for many years, have been monitoring the cost of accidents.  They have concluded long ago that the cost of accidents erodes profit and impacts negatively on the image of mining as an investment option.

Kill the Company…Kill the Job

June 25, 2009

Living in a country governed by slogans, we may as well join in. My contribution, “Down with Work…Give me Money”, seems fitting enough amidst rising unemployment and an increase in unrealistic wage demands.

The South African economy, which was hailed as relatively unscathed by the global financial crisis, according to vote hunting politicians as recently as three months ago, when Trevor Manuel denied South Africa was in a recession, miraculously imploded. This rapid collapse must therefore be quite a shock to the naïve believers, arc-optimists and proud carriers of good news stories. In the last few weeks “no recession” became the worst recession in years, manufacturing output dropped dramatically, mine output dropped and South Africa became a net importer of food.

The three biggest employers after the state are struggling to remain competitive and jobs are being lost at alarming rate, making the Presidents promise of 500 000 new jobs by year-end meaningless. With nearly 200 000 jobs lost in the first five months of the year, the target, sucked out of our President’s miracle producing thumb, must now be seen for what it is, another empty and unattainable promise. It will require very creative mathematics to get to the target. However, with the “Math Literacy” skills, combined with the warped logic displayed by “nieu-economists” in the ANC government, we could end up with an interesting and surprising claim to success come year-end and time to account.

All the job losses in these critical industries are conveniently attributed to the global economic crisis, obscuring the fact that our unemployment woes are entirely attributable to misguided economic policy and mismanagement. The mere fact that the South African economy was outperformed by most emerging economies in the years prior to the “Great Global Economic Crisis” bears proof. The gold mining industry, which, at current prices, should be booming but because of high costs, it remains marginal, output continues to fall and with it jobs. Volkswagen, whilst announcing cutbacks in South African manufacturing are opening new manufacturing facilities in India. Commercial farmers, whilst selling farms in South Africa for coastal residential development, are increasing production of products such as sugarcane elsewhere in Africa. The employment of domestic servants is falling rapidly. I can site many more examples.

Why is this happening? The problem must be laid at the feet of the ANC government and its partners COSATU and the SACP. Our employment woes can be attributed to laws, regulations and policies related to labour, land ownership and mineral rights and the insecurities arising from it. To complicate matters the emphasis on decent meaningful jobs has given rise to the perception that gardening and house-work are inferior jobs which, combined with regulated and unrealistically high minimum wages, resulted in a large number of job losses. People who used to earn R1800 per month plus accommodation and food are now lying idly about, doing nothing but breed in order to increase their share in social grants. Whilst people are retrenched and companies go belly-up, trade unions are encouraging their members to demand wage increases,  in most cases, considerably higher than the current inflation rate, with no prospect of improved productivity.

The president of NUM, Senzeni Zokwana, recently stated unequivocally that the unions do not strike at the drop of the hat, this whilst they were holding a gun against the heads of the employer leaving him little option other than to capitulate and hope for a miracle. So much for Zuma’s pre-election call on his supporters to follow the example of unemployed “poor white” Afrikaners, who after the great depression, took their picks and shovels and worked for a pittance. Instead of following basics, the government will proudly point to their prize-winning job destroying social plan which makes South Africa proportionally the highest payer of social grants in the world, not realizing this is one of the evils causing our high unemployment and low productivity levels. Their misguided and warped sense of depravity, results in the firm believe that social spending equals upliftment. Any intelligent psychologist worth his salt will tell you social hand-outs in most cases discourages the will to work, not that some of the unemployed and even employed need too much encouragement to lie around idly at home. Some would say certain people would strike, kill and wreak havoc for the opportunity to be unemployed. This brings me to the next, and certainly, the main reason for South Africa’s employment dilemma.

COSATU, whilst people are wallowing in misery, are instigating the destruction of jobs by demanding unjustifiable wages. To them it is not about the protection of the worker, it is all about doing less for more. It was therefore rather almost laughable when that brilliant economist of our time, Zwelinzima Vavi, solemnly declared, in an interview yesterday referring to people losing jobs, “COSATU are standing with you in this troubled time”. Pity they do not stand with the unemployed masses, the “worthless” people out there that have no hope of ever working as a result of restrictive labour practices forced on the economy by the government and COSATU.

My call on those union members who lost, or will lose their jobs, think back and count the hours and days lost by the company you work(ed) for as a result of your right to strike. As you count those days and hours, realise this; those were nails in the coffin of a dead or dying company. Many of you are probably delighted with your retrenchment package, which will enable you to lie around at home, drinking beer. Soon however, the money will be gone and you will be in the same leaking boat as your unemployed, starving neighbour. When you start to suffer the hunger pangs, and your family and begs for food, when you turn a darker shade of black because of your malnutrition, spare a thought for those loyal workers who worked when you and your union friends were wreaking havoc on the company and the economy in the name of your inalienable right to strike. Once your confused mind and empty tummy, allows you to make sense of the suffering you brought on those dear to you, go to Mr. Vavi and thank him for what he did to you, your dear ones, the country and the economy. I doubt you will have the guts to do that. Generally, your brevity and that of your ilk only exists when you are part of a mindless mob receiving suitable incitement from the likes of the Vavis of our world.