South Africa: Platinum monopoly threatens mining jobs

A major struggle is unfolding in the Republic of South Africa with the recent announcement that the Anglo American Platinum Corporation (Amplats) will lay off thousands of workers. Amplats, whose parent company is the Britain-based Anglo American, is the world’s largest producer of platinum. South Africa has deposits of 80 percent of the world’s known reserves of this strategic mineral.

After opposition to these plans from the African National Congress government and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the largest trade union federation in the country, Amplats reduced the number of proposed job cuts to 6,000. The planned downsizing could trigger a new round of labor militancy which could potentially shut down production throughout the entire industry.

Amplats claims that wildcat and official strikes during 2012 caused 70 percent of all mines to operate at a loss. Last August, strikes and other forms of class struggle in the Rustenburg area at the Lonmin facilities resulted in the deaths of 44 people. Among these deaths were 34 miners gunned down by South African police at Marikana on Aug. 16, 2012.

Militant actions by workers in 2012 prompted salary increases and pledges by the mining bosses to improve conditions of employment. Many within South Africa believe that the mine owners’ pronouncements are designed to discourage demands for higher wages and for companies to invest in improving the communities surrounding the facilities.

According to the May 10 Globe and Mail, “The decision is expected to cut production by about 250,000 ounces at the Amplats mines next year — about 11 percent of its total production — and it will be followed by further cuts of 100,000 ounces in following years. Three mine shafts in the Rustenburg area will be idled.”

The COSATU leadership has declared that it will not take these threats by Amplats without a response. A union in competition with COSATU that has made headway in the industry, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, is pledging to take industrial action in response to the proposed job losses.

“It is a spit in the face to the workers and people of South Africa,” said Patrick Craven, COSATU spokesperson. “Thousands of families face losing their only breadwinner, and communities around the mines and in far-flung rural areas will be devastated.” (COSATU statement, May 10)

Most of the mines in South Africa are owned by capitalists inside the country as well as firms based in Britain and Canada. Since the abolition of the apartheid system, some smaller African investors have taken control of shares in the industrial giants.

However, the ever-increasing drive to increase profits has resulted in very little improvements in workers’ wages. The high rate of unemployment and underemployment in the country is also a factor in maintaining the intransigence of the bosses when it comes to demands for better salaries and conditions of employment.

Calls for nationalization resurface

In response to the planned job cuts, leaders of COSATU and its largest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, have not only threatened strike actions, but are reemphasizing previous calls for nationalization of the mines. The trade union federation has a longtime alliance with the ruling African National Congress party as well as the South African Communist Party.

COSATU spokesperson Patrick Craven expressed the frustration of workers, noting that the policies of Amplats will increase class divisions within South African society and consign even more workers to abject poverty. “This illustrates why COSATU has consistently called for the nationalization of the mining industry, so that it can be run for the benefit of the workers … and not for the profit of shareholders.”

In a statement released on May 10, NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni said, “The union is highly perturbed by Anglo’s decision to bypass the stakeholder meetings scheduled for next week and go ahead with such an announcement. This is an indication that the Chief Executive Officer and his team are simply interested in pursuing their narrow career interests at all costs even at the cost of jobs.”

The statement stresses, “The company must hand over the mining licenses for the operations that it wants to mothball so that the state can put them to public auction. It is tantamount to holding the state and the workers for ransom to allow Anglo to simply mothball some of its operations.”

Over the last two decades inside the gold industry, large-scale downsizing has resulted in the closing of mines. Tens of thousands of gold miners lost their jobs when owners relocated their operations to other countries in Africa and Latin America to ensure an increase in profits.

South Africa is scheduled to hold national elections in 2014 in which the ruling ANC will be challenged to put forward a program aimed at improving conditions for the industrial and rural working class, the youth and the poor.