South Africa’s mines minister: from hunter to strike buster – by Zandi Shabalala and Ed Stoddard (Reuters India – May 29, 2014)

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JOHANNESBURG – (Reuters) – In his spare time, South Africa’s tough new mines minister, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, enjoys stalking game with a rifle in the wild bush of his native Limpopo province.

Hunting season is in full swing but Ramatlhodi has his eye on bigger game: a solution to a crippling platinum strike, the longest in the history of the country’s mines, which threatens to tip Africa’s most advanced economy into recession.

“I am focused on the strike. It’s my breakfast, lunch and supper,” Ramatlhodi told Reuters in an interview. Sworn in on Monday, he has waded straight into the fray, dragging the mining union and platinum firms back to the negotiating table after the latest round of talks collapsed.

Ramatlhodi looks determined to bring an end to the 18-week strike which has hit 40 percent of global production of the precious metal used to make catalytic converters that reduce pollution from automobiles.

“He summoned the parties back and said we are going to talk,” a union source familiar with the matter told Reuters after talks again stalled on Wednesday. Ramatlhodi has set-up a government mediation team which includes treasury officials.

The committee is to meet on Thursday with the striking Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the world’s three top platinum producers, Anglo American Platinum Impala Platinum and Lonmin.

Ramatlhodi, a 58-year-old lawyer known for a no-nonsense, sometimes gruff manner, has a reputation for getting his own way. A keen jogger with a shaven head and stocky physique, he likes to project a rough and ready image.

But he said he would rely on diplomacy rather than strong-arm tactics to resolve the impasse in the platinum belt.

“I would rather solve it without bashing together heads,” he said in the telephone interview.

South Africa’s labour-intensive mines are the deepest and among the most dangerous in the world, descending to depths of up to 4 kms (2.5 miles). Some 110 miners die each year on average in accidents. Many more contract lung ailments. Beginners earn a basic wage of less than $600 a month. AMCU wants to more than double that within three to four years. With eight dependents each on average, pitmen have received above inflation pay rises for a decade but starting from a low base.

SPEECH WRITER

A former premier of the rural northeastern province of Limpopo, Ramatlhodi is a seasoned African National Congress political operator and former speech writer for Oliver Tambo, the party’s leader in exile when it was banned during the apartheid period of white minority rule before the 1990s.

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