South Africa's mine owners flex their muscles

Andrew Harding
Africa correspondent
@BBCAndrewHon Twitter

Striking mine workers gather outside the Anglo American mine on 5 October 2012 in Rustenburg. South AfricaImage source, AFP

The mass dismissals by Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) appear to be the most assertive move yet by management in a wider industrial crisis that has sent shock waves through South Africa's vital mining sector.

In one sense Anglo American is simply reinforcing the tough line it has taken across the board against illegal, unsanctioned, and often violent strike action here.

It is a move that will enrage some.

The African National Congress's Youth League has already called it "irrational and illogical" and accused Amplats of spitting "on the graves of those who have lost their lives in the current mining climate".

But for others, the move may be seen as a bold - and strategically wise - attempt to defend the carefully constructed and heavily politicised system of collective bargaining, which has been at the heart of South African labour policy since the end of apartheid and which has, over the past few weeks, seemed on the brink of collapse.

The immediate priority for South Africa is to find a way to prevent the labour unrest becoming a contagion that could even spread to the country's vital public services sectors.

In the longer term, many analysts believe that mine owners will give in to higher wage demands, but only by laying off tens, or possibly even hundreds of thousands of workers in a country already struggling with dangerously high levels of unemployment.

As for the dismissals at Amplats - labour analyst Loane Sharp suspects there may be less to the move than meets the eye.

"It's a hollow threat… a not uncommon tactic in South Africa," he said.

"There's no way they could recruit and train another 12,000 workers.

"Anglo will try to rehire those it wants to keep. It won't reappoint everyone."

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