JOHANNESBURG – (Reuters) – Forty-eight hours after talks to end South Africa’s longest strike hit a brick wall when the mining minister suddenly pulled out, a bishop and an anti-establishment corporate lawyer engineered a deal at a secret meeting in a ritzy hotel.
The events, revealed by interviews with key players in the five-month platinum strike, expose the impotence of the bargaining structures that have underpinned labour relations since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.
They also cast a shadow over the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which admonished the minister for inviting the lawyer to the talks after he had left the ANC to be elected to parliament for the ultra-leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
The chastened minister then withdrew from the negotiations, almost scuppering an agreement between the world’s three biggest platinum firms and the striking Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has informal ties to the EFF.
“They did not tell me how to withdraw,” the minister, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, told Reuters. “They just told me: ‘We think you have done enough. We want you to go slow on this.'”
With its share of the vote waning 20 years after the end of apartheid and a key political ally, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), threatened by AMCU, the ANC was keener to avoid conceding political points than resolve the worst strike in the 130-year history of the mines, analysts say.
The ruling party wanted the strike to end but in a way that did not mean the NUM bleeding more members to AMCU, William Gumede, head of the Democracy Works Foundation think-tank, said.
“We’re now getting into a self-preservation period in the politics of the ANC alliance which potentially could destabilize sections of the labor market and polarize the country,” he said.
The strike claimed five lives and dragged Africa’s most advanced economy to the brink of recession but the CCMA, South Africa’s main dispute settlement agency, said it was largely toothless in the face of politically tinged union militancy.
Nerine Kahn, director of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), said other countries allowed agencies such as hers to force parties to stop striking for a period to allow for mediation.
“We don’t have that right,” she said.
WING AND A PRAYER
After countless rounds of failed talks, many South Africans thought only divine intervention would end the stand-off between the 70,000-strong AMCU and Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin.
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