By Zandi Shabalala and Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - In his spare time, South Africa's tough new mines minister, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, enjoys stalking game with a rifle in the wild bush of his native Limpopo province.
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 automobiles.
"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 set-up a government mediation team which includes treasury officials.
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 Impala Platinum and Lonmin.
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.
South Africa's labour-intensive mines are the deepest and among the most dangerous in the world, descending to depths of up to 4 kms (2.5 miles). Some 110 miners die each year on average in accidents. Many more contract lung ailments. Beginners earn a basic wage of less than $600 a month. AMCU wants to more than double that within three to four years. With eight dependents each on average, pitmen have received above inflation pay rises for a decade but starting from a low base.
A former premier of the rural northeastern province of Limpopo, Ramatlhodi 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.
This could create tensions with the mostly white executives in the mining industry, which for decades was based on the exploitation of cheap black labour.
"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 black majority.
"Tambo was a democrat, he understood and stood for the need for democracy. Democratising 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, Ramatlhodi said.
"We are going to begin to tackle the big issues in the mining industry, such as accommodation for the miners, and their health," he said.
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 sympathised 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)