S. Africa Mine Union Postpones Strike That Could Hurt Economy, Fuel Unrest

Times Staff Writer

The National Union of Mineworkers, South Africa's largest black labor union, Thursday postponed a threatened strike at major gold and coal mines in order to consider new management pay offers.

But Cyril Ramaphosa, the union's general secretary, predicted that the miners will reject the company offers and proceed with the strike, which had been set for Sunday. He said that at least 400,000 of South Africa's 550,000 black miners will go on strike Sept. 1.

A miners' strike, if accompanied by violence as in the past, could seriously compound South Africa's present unrest--the deaths of six more blacks were reported in incidents around the country Thursday.

A prolonged strike could cripple the already depressed economy. Half of South Africa's foreign exchange earnings comes from the sale of gold, and the country relies heavily on coal to generate electricity.

Rand Falls Sharply

"Bearing in mind the attitude of the mining houses," Ramaphosa said, "there is no doubt in our minds that the strike will go ahead."

Despite the postponement of the strike and company forecasts that agreement is near, the South African rand fell sharply on the money markets Thursday before recovering slightly.

The black miners' union, which has been seeking a 22% pay increase for all employees, received different offers from the five giant mining firms that own or operate the 29 affected gold mines and collieries. The average black miner is paid $175 a month, according to union figures, plus room and board.

Breaking ranks with the other members of the Chamber of Mines, the Anglo American Corp., the most likely target for a strike as the largest mining firm and the employer of three-quarters of the union's reported 230,000 members, offered a pay increase of between 17% and 22% and vacation pay equal to 50% to 60% of a miner's monthly earnings.

'Time to Unite'

Three of the other companies made new but more modest offers, and one, General Mining Union Corp., offered nothing beyond the increase of 14.1% to 19.6% that the companies implemented unilaterally at the beginning of July. The union saw the July move as an attempt to preempt the negotiations and undermine union militancy.

"Since these offers are so complex and could divide our members, the negotiating team of the union decided that these offers should be presented to our members on all the mines for their consideration in a democratic manner," Ramaphosa said. "The negotiating committee felt that this was the time to unite all our members against the mining houses . . . because of what appears to be a strategy to divide us and, ultimately, to break the union's bargaining power."

The Chamber of Mines' top negotiator, Johan Liebenberg, said the mine owners are prepared for trouble, given the history of violence in South African mine strikes, including two in the past year.

But labor relations specialists said they believe that both the union and the employers want to avoid a confrontation that could easily get out of control and lead to clashes with the police like those last September, when seven miners were killed and hundreds injured.

Economic Recovery Hurt

Anglo American, which prides itself on its progressive policies, is concerned not only about the impact of a long strike on itself and the economy as a whole--a week of lost production would cost the mines about $300 million--but also about the political ramifications at what its top executives see as a critical period for the country.

Gavin Relly, the Anglo American chairman, told the company's annual shareholders' meeting here Thursday that political pressure is already undercutting South Africa's long-awaited economic recovery. He called on other businessmen as well as the government to help "break the present spiral of confrontation."

Relly, one of South Africa's most influential businessmen, also called on the government to allow "all significant groupings from all communities"--including by implication the outlawed African National Congress--to "engage in debate about South Africa's political future."

He, like other business leaders this week, strongly urged President Pieter W. Botha to follow up his pledge of negotiations with black leaders on the country's future with quick and specific reforms that will convince blacks that peaceful change is coming and encourage them to participate in negotiations.

Reform Lobby Organizing

Raymond Ackerman, managing director of one of South Africa's largest supermarket chains, announced Thursday in Durban that he is organizing a business group to lobby with black businessmen, labor unions and community leaders for a faster pace of reform.

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