Platinum Mining Strike Analysis with Vic Van Vuuren, Director: ILO

A week or so ago on the way to Mafikeng I decided to call a General Manager of one of the large Platinum mines on the platinum belt. The conversation lasted at least an hour and was an eye opener for me. I was prompted to place this leadership issue on Leadership Platform, our infant show on, and look at it from all angles together with Vic Van Vuuren, Director International Labour Organisation and Gareth Armstrong from the Leadership Platform team.

I also felt obligated to incorporate some of this General Managers observation on the show and in this piece, though unfortunately he has to remain anonymous.

It seems this strike is unprecedented and smells not only of egos and extraordinary hunger for power, but also leadership and societal failures that stem in large measure from our mining and even political history. And what’s worse is that our labour regulations prohibit politicians from getting involved in a meaningful way, according to Van Vuuren. They actually have to let this entire nightmare take its course. This is our democracy; this is how we may have thrown the baby out with the bath water while bending over backwards in an attempt to rectify our discriminatory past.

According to my GM friend, leadership failure one is: Satisfaction with unskilled labour against the need for better technology. He says: “We as mining leaders in this country have over many decades been reliant on and content with the abundant unskilled labour supply under apartheid conditions to get the job going on the mines. Over many decades we failed to adopt advanced technologies to achieve better labour productivity which would obviously come with a better paid workforce and better working conditions.”

Vic Van Vuuren in studioHe raised a sound argument that if the Canadians or Australians had our narrow tabular ore bodies they would have long ago mechanised their mining, simply because they would have had no option of abundant cheap labour. Van Vuuren added context by pointing to our reality in South Africa, which is one of a labour intensive economy and we have to accept this and navigate around it, unlike some other countries. It sounds like a catch 22 – our ore bodies require more advanced technology, but our reality of a labour intensive environment can’t allow this – in short, unions won’t allow it. In a modern day, super competitive, global economy, does this take us on a road of eventual irrelevance?
Not to mention that this contradictory situation is exacerbated by our history of cheap labour exploitation, which has compounded over decades and is now coming back to bite us in the form of an almost unbridgeable chasm between employer and employee, leading to near unmanageable distrust.
It is worthwhile to note that those mines where strikes are not happening are mechanised, with highly efficient and productive employees where a remuneration system is commensurate with their efficiency, education and skills levels. The result is that their life styles are better, hence their lack of interest in the strike.

Leadership failure number two: Managing of expectations by union leaders. The GM says: “Union leadership has failed the workers. How will workers trust union leadership in future when unrealistic promises are made, baseless wage increase demands made and hopes are raised so unrealistically.”
The demand of R12 500 basic per month was made by Workers Committees, following the 2012 illegal strikes. Management teams on various mines attempted to explain the unrealistic nature of their demand. However, it seems during this process miners found a home in AMCU who “seems to have taken this demand as it was and ran with it”, says the GM. Should union leadership have allowed such high hopes and expectations to go unmanaged? Or should they have carefully and patiently chosen their battles rather than causing irreparable damage to their constituency, driven by who knows what motives? Van Vuuren clearly explained that no union should ever allow a strike to pass that pivotal point where their members suffer irreparable damage. At a recent international conference he attended all his peers were astounded at how a union could get away with such actions.

And herein is the dilemma. Should AMCU fail at this drastic attempt at getting what workers want and call off the strike, who takes responsibility for the damage? Workers will accept whatever the offer is, even if it falls far short of promises, and simply go back to work. Van Vuuren explained that this is simply the risk of a democratic system where workers decide on or reject their union, and at this stage they continue to follow their unions lead. However, the “small” factor of intimidation comes into this argument. It is the view of some that had the meticulously crafted tactic of life threatening intimidation been removed from the equation, the strike would have stopped long ago.

The third leadership failure is laid at the feet of government: Senior government officials rubbishing AMCU. It simply wasn’t acceptable for senior government ministers to rubbish AMCU and be derogatory towards it, especially because the workers chose it as their home. This was short sighted and immature leadership. In fact such arrogance speaks to a bigger challenge of acceptance for an alliance to exist between government and certain unions. The GM says of this: “Such relationships are in my view very toxic in a democratic and free society and visionary leadership should be able to see that they are not sustainable.”
Recent comments by the newly appointed Minister of Labour that AMCU must be respected are mature and a good start to somehow positively influencing this spectacle in the right direction.

For this kind of situation to never be repeated government will have to act from a legislative point of view. Van Vuuren explained that in other countries legislation makes provision for government to step in when it becomes clear that strike action starts causing that irreparable damage to parties.
After all the dissecting and debating, what is needed is extraordinary leadership where the wellbeing of workers and the country become paramount. It will take visionary symbolic actions from leaders in all corners of this battle, which somehow will have to include the other elephant in the room of executive pay. There may be enough “fat” in these packages for top leaders to demonstrate willingness of wanting to build a bridge over our unbridgeable chasm.
In the end it really calls for Mandela leadership. It might be a cliché, but leaders might do well to ask: What would Mandela do?



Gareth Armstrong: There are two points I would like us to look at and learn from around this very complex challenge. The first is regarding company culture. Whether your organisation has been around for decades, you are turning around a division, or you are a small start-up, a question that must be asked is what behaviours and feelings are being cultured in the petrie dish that is your office and organisation? Make no mistake, we as leaders have a direct influence over this process, and the results that will come, whether we are involved or not, will impact every aspect of our business and further ability to lead. Doug Conant, former CEO and President of the Campbell Soup Company, says it this way: “To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace.”

The second point is that of motivation and remuneration. Dan Pink, author and former Chief Speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, in a talk entitled The Puzzle of Motivation, shares that “traditional rewards are not always as effective as we my think”. The studies and data reveal that money motivates to a point and no further. In fact, he states that we must pay only enough to take the conversation around money off the table. Beyond money people want three things: (1) People want AUTONOMY – the ability to direct their own lives and time. (2) They want to enjoy the MASTERY of a particular discipline or within a particular field. (3) People want to do what they do in the service of something larger than themselves. They want PURPOSE.



“It’s one thing to be right, it’s another to be right at the right time.”

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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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