Hunting season is in full swing but Ramatlhodi has his eye on bigger
game: a solution to a crippling platinum strike, the longest in the
history of the country's mines, which threatens to tip Africa's most
advanced economy into recession.
"I am focused on the strike. It's my breakfast, lunch and supper,"
Ramatlhodi told Reuters in an interview.
Sworn in on Monday, he has waded straight into the fray, dragging
the mining union and platinum firms back to the negotiating table
after the latest round of talks collapsed.
Ramatlhodi looks determined to bring an end to the 18-week strike
which has hit 40 percent of global production of the precious metal
used to make catalytic converters that reduce pollution from
"He summoned the parties back and said we are going to talk," a
union source familiar with the matter told Reuters after talks again
stalled on Wednesday.
Ramatlhodi has already set-up a government mediation team which
includes officials from the treasury.
The committee is to meet on Thursday with the striking Association
of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the world's three top
platinum producers, Anglo American Platinum <AMSJ.J> Impala Platinum
<IMPJ.J> and Lonmin <LMI.L>.
Miners risk their lives for less than $150 a week when they start
work. The AMCU wants to more than double the entry-level wage to
12,500 rand ($1,200) a month within three to four years. With eight
dependents each on average, pitmen have received above inflation pay
rises for a decade starting from a low base.
Ramatlhodi, a 58-year-old lawyer known for a no-nonsense, sometimes
gruff manner, has a reputation for getting his own way. A keen
jogger with a shaven head and stocky physique, he likes to project a
rough and ready image.
But he said he would rely on diplomacy rather than strong-arm
tactics to resolve the impasse in the platinum belt.
"I would rather solve it without bashing together heads," he said in
the telephone interview.
A former premier of the rural northeastern province of Limpopo, he
is a seasoned African National Congress political operator and
former speech writer for Oliver Tambo, the party's leader in exile
when it was banned during the apartheid period of white minority
rule before the 1990s.
Ramatlhodi said he would draw on his experience in Limpopo, where he
engaged conservative whites to win their acceptance of his drive to
rename towns with African names.
"I do have the ability to persuade people. We changed the names of
all the towns in Limpopo, without exception," he said.
The mining strike may prove harder to crack as the sides are deeply
divided over wages with few signs of compromise, although Ramatlhodi
said there had been movement this week.
The minister is seen by analysts as part of the "Africanist" wing of
the ANC, which believes that more of the economy should be
transferred from white to black hands.
[to top of second column]
This could create tensions with the mostly white executives in the
mining industry, which for decades was based on the exploitation of
cheap black labor.
"He is a nationalist, he believes strongly in transformation from a
racial transfer of power and resources perspective," said local
political commentator and author Richard Calland.
Ramatlhodi told Reuters a mining charter adopted a decade ago which
holds the industry to targets, including 26 percent black ownership
by 2014, might need to be revised.
He said he prefer a "better" target for black business stakes but
gave no figure. Industry has been scrambling to meet the current
target, set in 2004, while the government is conducting audits. The
result will be known later this year.
His agenda bears the hallmarks of Tambo, whose politics were forged
in the long struggle against white rule.
Ramatlhodi said the late leader wanted to see a total transformation
of society, including a redistribution of resources to the poor
"Tambo was a democrat, he understood and stood for the need for
democracy. Democratizing the whole of society ... You can't limit it
to one sphere, the political sphere," he said.
When the strike is over, issues such as the living and health
conditions of miners would be high on his list of priorities,
"We are going to begin to tackle the big issues in the mining
industry, such as accommodation for the miners, and their health,"
Although a novice to the industry, he said he had been down mine
shafts when he was premier of Limpopo, home to some of the platinum
operations, and he sympathized with workers after seeing the tough
and hot conditions they toiled in.
"With the mining industry, it is very important that they begin to
validate the human dignity of those who are going down there to the
belly of the earth to bring out these minerals."
($1 = 10.4987 South African Rand)
(Editing by Joe Brock and Paul Taylor)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.