South African miners demand higher wages

Conditions are driving more workers in the platinum sector of the mining industry in South Africa to engage in strikes over inadequate wages, benefits and job security. Since 2012, strikes against the mine bosses have resulted in the deaths of well over 50 people, including both rank-and-file workers and union organizers.

Despite the protracted struggles of 2012 — which started in the platinum areas but extended through all sectors of mining and then into the agriculture and automotive industries — the concessions granted by the owners of these highly profitable firms are still not enough to provide a living wage for the workers.

Earlier this year, the executives at Lonmin, one of the largest platinum mining companies in the world, threatened to lay off up to 14,000 workers.

Despite previous threats by the National Union of Mineworkers to engage in a general strike if this level of job cuts is carried out, the owners are still seeking to enhance the exploitation of their employees. The intransigence of the mining firms has increased tensions among the workers, leading to splits in some areas between NUM and the newly formed Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

At Northam Platinum Ltd., NUM began a strike on Nov. 3. The union is demanding substantial pay increases in order to address the specific housing and family obligations of its members. Ecliff Tantsi, NUM negotiator at Northam facilities, said, “There has been no invitation from the company [to meet], but we’ll be ready to see them. (Bloomberg, Nov. 4)

On Nov. 3, the company issued an e-mail saying that it would close its facilities in light of the strike and due to safety concerns. Yet no specific response was given to the demands of the workers.

Northam’s Zondereinde facility, which has the world’s deepest platinum mine, was hit by a strike after the bosses’ offer of a 7 percent to 8 percent raise was deemed unacceptable. NUM, which has more than 7,000 members at the firm and is the largest union representing miners in South Africa, is demanding an average salary increase of 61 percent.

Meanwhile, at other platinum mining centers inside the country another strike over wages is brewing, this time led by AMCU. The rival union said that two work stoppages could take place concurrently, which would have a crippling impact on the industry as a whole.

According to Bloomberg, “The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has also failed to reach an agreement over wages with Lonmin Plc (LMI), Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. (IMP) and Anglo American Platinum Ltd. (AAL), the world’s three largest platinum producers. It is the biggest labor group at those companies. A strike ‘could happen jointly’ with other platinum companies, AMCU Treasurer Jimmy Gama said on Oct. 30.”

Mine owners fear industrial action, nationalization

Strikes inside South Africa are reflective of the super-exploitation of African mine workers, which has its origins in the system of settler colonialism and apartheid. When the African National Congress took power in 1994 — culminating decades of mass struggle, armed actions and labor upheavals — the masses of youth and agricultural, industrial and service workers wanted implementation of a Freedom Charter, which mandated the nationalization of private wealth and land. The national elections in 2014 will mark two decades of ANC rule without the substantial transferal of economic power to the African working majority.

Discontent is simmering in South Africa, and vigorous debate is raging inside the Tripartite Alliance made up of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the South African Communist Party, in conjunction with the South African National Civic Organizations and similar groups. At present the legislative assembly, which is dominated by the ANC, is debating a revision of the 2002 laws governing mining operations.

Representatives of capital are complaining that some provisions within the draft law are too unfavorable to big mine owners and their executives. Nonetheless, the ANC-dominated assembly is compelled to take actions in support of the miners in an effort to maintain their influence among the electorate in 2014.

Anton van Achterbergh, director of the Chamber of Mines’ legal division and one of the major spokespeople for the bosses, recently said that the revised Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act “definitely is a better piece of legislation. … However, there are some very important areas in which our concerns have not been addressed.” (Bloomberg, Oct. 30)

This legislation will still not remove the fundamental contradiction between African labor and capital, which remains under the control of wealthy whites, many of whom are based outside the continent. The government must eventually move toward nationalization under the control of the workers and communities in South Africa.

The massive infrastructural development projects needed to raise living standards and to fulfill the national aspirations of the South African people cannot be satisfied under modern-day capitalist methods of production and ownership. Only through adoption of socialist planning and distribution of resources and wealth can the South African miners, along with their families and communities, achieve maximum earnings from their labor.