Wage deal the result of enabling factors
When I got a call from Roger Phillimore, the then chairman of Lonmin, to invite me to become CEO, I was bungee-jumping at Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
My son answered the phone and said: “My father has just jumped off the bridge.” Roger was shocked, imagining the worst. I took the leap and joined Lonmin after the 2012 Marikana tragedy. Many of my friends wondered where I got the courage to confront such a beast. You could say my childhood prepared me for Marikana. It was spent in Bikita, in the Masvingo province of Zimbabwe. My father had 17 children.
One of my brothers, who has since passed on, was a fighter in the Chimurenga, the Zimbabwe Liberation War. Union leaders remind me of him, of how committed and daring he was. And of this notion: if a man is prepared to lose his life for a cause, your job as leader is to find a higher, more spiritual purpose to aspire to.
Another of my brothers is a church minister. He is the beacon of patience and compassion in the family.
When it was my turn to go to high school, my father ran out of money. I was sad, as I saw my dream of becoming a bus driver dissipate. So, for a year I herded cattle. It taught me humility. Once you’ve been there, you cannot look down on anyone.
I was only six months in my job as head of Lonmin, in 2014, when the mine workers embarked on a protracted strike that would last five months. It was a perfect storm: a fledgling union in the platinum belt, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), was flexing its muscle, angry that so many of its workers had been massacred in 2012. Now workers were sinking deeper into debt, and loan sharks were taking full advantage of their dire financial state.
My mining engineering degree did not prepare me for that. While I was comfortable underground, I now found myself having to solve sociopolitical issues.
I went into the situation knowing we were human beings first, before employers and employees, and that if there were human beings at Lonmin, we would find each other. And we did.
I knew that three enabling factors were crucial if we were to successfully end the strike and the underlying strife. First, it would take team effort. Second, although the different factions had different goals, the primary vision had to be the same for negotiations to succeed. And third, we all had to keep the mine going so that 38 000 workers could keep their jobs and feed their families.
The demise of Lonmin could have turned Marikana – and the entire Madibeng municipality in the North West – into a ghost town overnight. The effect on our economy would have been too ghastly to contemplate.
Negotiations are not a singular event, but the result of a lengthy process based on respect, trust, integrity and readily shared information to ensure we read from the same page. If any of these elements is missing, it will be impossible to reach agreement.
This week, we successfully concluded a three-year wage agreement with Amcu and, contrary to the expectations of many, it went smoothly and without a strike. It has not been easy, but absolutely worth it as it is in the DNA of our country. We Africans have a rare ability to build bridges across biological and social divides. Let us never cease to do so.
Magara is the CEO of Lonmin