Johannesburg - The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said on Wednesday it would ballot its members this week on whether to go on strike after gold miners' wage talks stalled, raising the prospect of crippling stoppages in an industry in terminal decline.
"We will go and consult with our members and put it to a vote. We are going to strike, there is no question about it, I just can't say when," NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka told Reuters.
The Chamber of Mines said it was still in talks with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and union Solidarity, but NUM matters the most as it represents about 64% of the country's 140 000 gold miners.
Gold mine stoppages would inflict more damage on the country, which is already losing $60m a day to a strike by 30 000 workers in the car manufacturing sector that accounts for 6% of gross domestic product.
The auto strike entered its third day on Wednesday and has affected global carmakers operating in South Africa, including Toyota, Ford and General Motors.
The two opposing sides in the gold sector remain poles apart after the weeks of talks, with virtually no narrowing of the gap between employers, whose latest offer was a 6% hike for some categories, and unions.
NUM is seeking a basic wage for entry-level underground workers of R8 000 a month, a 60% increase.
Up to 150% hike in wages
"We are miles apart and so the only sensible thing to do is embark on a strike," NUM's Seshoka said.
NUM and the small Uasa union both walked out of the talks and applied for a "certificate of non-resolution" from the government mediator, which was granted. This effectively allows them to strike.
NUM's more hardline rival Amcu, with about 17% of the gold labour force, has submitted demands as high as 150%.
President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, criticised for their handling of violent mines unrest last year in which more than 50 people were killed, are keen to avert more labour strife ahead of elections next year.
South Africa's gold and platinum producers are still recovering from a wave of wildcat strikes in 2012 rooted in a turf war between NUM and Amcu. This cost billions of rands in lost output and triggered damaging sovereign credit downgrades.
But in contrast with last year, when illegal strikes spun out of control into violence, the wage talks process this year has followed standard legal procedures and has been generally peaceful, although there have been sporadic murders at mines.
The gold companies, which have slightly raised their starting offers, say the unions have failed to compromise.
"If you look at past years there has been a narrowing of the gap by this stage in the negotiations and we have not seen that yet," said Charmane Russell, a spokesperson for the gold producers which include AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields , Harmony and Sibanye Gold.
Inflation data released on Wednesday will do little to cool union demands as it showed headline inflation in South Africa accelerated to 6.3% in July from 5.5% in June.
Worryingly, food inflation rose by 6.8%, a trend which eats into the income of working-class households.
The chasm between the two sides underlines growing militancy among a black labour force that has seen few improvements in living conditions in the two decades since apartheid ended.
But companies have little room, with labour accounting for over 50% of costs and gold's spot price about 30% lower than the record peak of over $1 920 an ounce it reached almost two years ago. About half of the country's shafts are losing money at these levels, the industry says.
This spells big trouble for a South African sector that accounted for 79% of world gold production in 1970.
Thomson Reuters GFMS ranked South Africa sixth in global output in 2012, when it produced 177.8 tonnes of gold, just 6% of the world total. It was the country's worst year for bullion production since 1905.