South Africa miners’ strikes, poverty and upcoming elections

Platinum mine workers in South Africa, Jan. 30.

Platinum mine workers in South Africa, Jan. 30.

National elections will be held in the Republic of South Africa on May 7. The ruling African National Congress, after two decades in power, hopes to maintain control of the post-apartheid state.

The ANC, a liberation movement turned into a political party, has held enthusiastic rallies in various parts of the country. An election manifesto calls for creating 6 million jobs and accelerating land reform, which has been stalled since 1994.

Meanwhile, there are attempts to build electoral opposition to the ANC. The Democratic Alliance, headed by Helen Zille, is the largest opposition bloc in parliament. It organized a march to the national headquarters of the ANC in Johannesburg, which led to tense confrontations between supporters of the DA and the ANC, especially its youth wing.

Zille, the former mayor of Cape Town, has sought to recruit Africans into the opposition party, which is perceived as a white-dominated alliance between former Nationalist Party members, liberals and opportunistic elements disgruntled with the ANC.

The DA had announced it would include on its ticket the former Black Consciousness Movement activist Dr. Mamphele Ramphele — a comrade of BCM founder Steve Biko, who was killed by the apartheid state in 1977. Ramphele’s Agang Party recently merged with the DA. However, this short-lived political marriage of convenience ended before it started, when acrimony surfaced between Zille and Ramphele.

Role of workers and youth in election

The ANC is seeking to appeal directly to the so-called “born free” generation that grew up after the first nonracial democratic elections of 1994. It also seeks the majority of the working-class vote throughout the country.

A strike in the world’s main platinum-producing region in the northwest is a major factor in the upcoming elections and the overall economic future of South Africa. Some 80,000 miners, members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, have been on strike for nearly four weeks.

Recently, the owners of Anglo-American Platinum (Amplats) filed court papers against AMCU to end the strike.

An article in the Feb. 17 Financial Times says there is a worldwide glut of platinum, which is used in the production of catalytic converters for automobiles, and that Amplats and other platinum owners are preparing for a protracted struggle with organized labor. These developments will test the ANC’s ability to resolve the current crisis, as the bosses have threatened to lay off up to 14,000 workers.

Referring to the ANC’s bid to remain politically dominant in South Africa, the article notes, “Concerned by job losses set against a backdrop of an unemployment rate that is close to a quarter of the working population, the ruling African National Congress has kept pressure on companies to keep mines open.”

AMCU is a staunch rival of the National Union of Mineworkers, previously the largest affiliate of the 2-million-member Congress of South African Trade Unions. Allied with the ruling ANC, COSATU was formed at the height of the liberation struggle in 1985.

In August 2012, police shot dead 34 striking AMCU miners at Lonmin’s Marikana mine. On Feb. 16 the British news service Reuters called it “South Africa’s bloodiest security incident since the end of apartheid in 1994,” but revealed its true concerns in the very next sentence: “The killings spooked investors and hit the country’s credit ratings.”

Another miners’ union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, currently the largest COSATU affiliate, has announced it will not support the ANC in the upcoming elections.

This union has said that the interests of the working class are being subordinated to the maintenance of state power by the ruling party. NUMSA is demanding a special national congress of COSATU to address the suspension of the union’s former secretary-general, Zwelinzima Vavi, who has been accused of violating union rules.

Upcoming elections raise questions

These divisions within COSATU and the role of AMCU in the platinum sectors raise a number of questions regarding the upcoming elections and the future of working-class politics. Will NUMSA eventually call for the formation of an independent labor party as an alternative to the ANC-COSATU alliance, or is it prepared to stay within the coalition and fight for its views?

In addition, what impact will the AMCU-led strikes have on the mobilizations by the ANC for the May 7 vote? Will the votes of the working class in South Africa, which is 70 percent unorganized by any union, be influenced by the political struggles taking place within the labor movement and the attacks on the ANC by the DA?

These debates and political struggles within the union movement are coupled with continuing unrest in the townships over service delivery issues. Millions still remain without adequate housing, public education, utility services, living wages, land and environmentally safe communities and municipalities. The DA is attempting to channel this unrest into its electoral campaign to weaken the ANC’s two-thirds majority within the national parliament.

The ANC is seeking to run on its record of home constructions, affirmative action within government and private industry, building a rapid transit train system, healthcare reforms and its influence in foreign policy areas — such as the Southern African Development Community, joining four other nations in the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and hosting the World Soccer Cup in 2010, among other developments.

President Jacob Zuma said recently, “When 95 percent of households have access to water, the 5 percent who still need to be provided for feel they cannot wait a moment longer. Success is also the breeding ground of rising expectations.” (Reuters, Feb. 13)

South Africa has the largest economy and working class on the continent of Africa. The outcome of the May 7 elections will portend much for the immediate future of the class struggle in Africa.