By Mia Slabbert
“It only seems impossible until it is actually done.” This is the philosophy of Johan Burger, former CEO of Highveld Steel in Witbank (Emalahleni). And it is this philosophy that helped the Highveld Steel-dream come to life again.
A section of Highveld Steel is now permanently in operation after the major retrenchment tragedy that hit the plant in 2015. The Highveld Steel plant is once again a source of income for many of those who had lost their jobs at the time.
The plant was finally shut down in July 2015 after a major retrenchment process.
Around 2 200 people, of which 1 753 were from Highveld Steel and 434 from Vanchem Vanadium Products in the Emalahleni area, were retrenched. Among the retrenched counted 300 Solidarity members.
The retrenchments followed after alternative measures, including a deal involving a Chinese company, International Resources Limited (IRL), fell through. Moreover, Highveld Steel’s agreement with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to apply a training layoff scheme for Highveld’s employees had to be called off as a direct result of the UIF’s not paying over money that was key to the process.
“Following the forced shutdown it did not take us long to decide not to shed tears over the tragedy and not to be beaten by it. We therefore came up with a plan,” Burger said.
According to Burger, the plant is now managed in terms of a novel business plan which include that the plant will be used as a business park. The Highveld Industrial Park, as it is known from now on, sets out to be home to small enterprises that will rent business properties on the plant.
The industrial park’s location is ideal as it falls in the heart of South Africa’s coal producing area. It also boasts established infrastructure, including a road and rail network. For example, the Highveld rail network links up with the Transnet network and features two electrified railway lines that can accommodate 100 goods wagons to ensure seamless deliveries, making the premises very attractive to small businesses.
The industrial park offers office space of 8 000 m2 which will be fully self-sufficient. Businesses already based there include an HR company, an engineering firm and a training centre.
Also, Highveld Structural Mill Proprietary Limited (HSM), a sub-division of Highveld Steel, will be setting all out to manufacture heavy structural steel, such as steel for railway lines and steel pipes. HSM is the only plant on the African continent that can manufacture structural steel of this kind.
Over the past three months HSM has been dismantled and all equipment was serviced and cleaned. The refurbishment involved minute detail work such as oiling gearboxes and the maintenance of machines.
Just less than two years after the closure of Highveld Steel, this part of the plant is coming to life again. “If it makes progress and brings in money we will try to expand and to appoint more staff,” Burger said.
Burger added that when filling positions on the plant preference would be given to those who had been retrenched in 2015.
“As things stand now, we have the right people with the right kind of passion in place to get us going and we hope to create around 1 700 job opportunities in the process,” Burger said.
Apart from the resurgence Highveld Steel is currently experiencing and the fact that jobs are again being created, relationships are being formed with companies that have been previously considered to be rivals.
“To make this thing work we have to think out of the box. It calls for fresh thinking and innovative approaches so as not to make the same mistakes as before,” Burger said.
More than 600 people are currently working at the plant.
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