South African miners’ strike shakes big firms

Since Jan. 23, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has led 70,000 of its members in a strike in the platinum industry in South Africa, primarily over wages. The union is demanding a minimum wage for miners of 12,500 rand (US $ 1,163) per month.

Representatives of the three major world platinum producers announced on June 12 that they have reached a tentative agreement to end the strike that has threatened the South African economy with a renewed recession. However, it appears that the tentative agreement with the mine owners is for substantially less money than the workers are demanding.

In another threat to the platinum miners, company owners have been threatening to downsize the workforce by thousands due to their purported decline in profits and the workers’ struggles.

AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa traveled on June 12 to the Rustenburg area — the center of mining activity — to discuss the possible agreement with union leaders and rank-and-file workers.

Mine bosses are eager to have the situation in Rustenburg in the North West province return to normalcy after two years of militant, divisive labor struggles. In August 2012 the situation erupted with a wildcat strike over wages at Lonmin’s mine in the Marikana area. During that work stoppage, at least 10 people were initially killed due to actions by security forces.

Then, on Aug. 16, 2012, North West provincial police opened fire on striking miners, killing 34 and wounding many others. Dozens of other workers were taken into custody, but a national outcry led to their release.

Another factor at play at Lonmin was the riivalry between AMCU organizers and the National Union of Mineworkers, which is affiliated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor federation. Over the last two years, AMCU has won the membership of a majority of platinum miners in the North West. NUM is now a minority union.

Strike’s impact on the economy

Establishment economic publications maintain that the crisis has caused losses for the platinum mining companies, and is impacting the overall economy, which still relies heavily on the extractive industries for export. South Africa contains 80 percent of the world’s supply of platinum, an essential mineral for the global automotive and transport industries.

The pro-corporate Financial Times of London states, “The strike is the longest and costliest in more than 100 years in South Africa’s crucial mining sector. An end to the industrial action would bring huge relief to the industry, which was already struggling with rising costs and lower platinum prices.” The article reports that the strike’s end would boost the ailing economy, which had contracted “as mining input shrank by nearly 25 percent.” (June 14)

Anglo American Platinum, Impala and Lonmin, the three leading firms, issued a joint statement, saying, “in principle” agreements had been reached with the AMCU leadership “in respect of wages and conditions of employment.” Although no details were released on the potential settlement’s terms, the South African government has been attempting to mediate an end to the strike.

There are reports that most workers are ready to return to their jobs. Violence has escalated in North West mining areas, and workers are not able to carry out their family obligations.

Reuters reported on June 12 that AMCU miners and shop stewards have asked “leader Joseph Mathunjwa to sign a wage deal with three major platinum firms on [June 12] at a mass rally” after five months of protest. The article said that as the longest strike in the history of South African mines “showed its first signs of breaking, thousands of stick-wielding miners cheered as a senior union official” called on Mathunjwa to sign.

One worker was quoted as telling labor leaders, “This union has worked. We want this money. We come from hardships. AMCU has worked. We can’t take kids to school.”

Labor relations & post-elections politics

During the May 7 national elections, the ruling African National Congress won an overall 62 percent majority of the vote, maintaining its dominance in the post-apartheid government which came into being in 1994. The ANC, which led the national liberation movement against white minority settler-colonial rule since its founding in 1912, lost some support in the North West Provincial Government.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, headed by former ousted ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, became the main opposition party in the provincial government. However, it trailed far behind the ANC in the North West in the recent election. Malema had visited Marikana immediately after the August 2012 massacre.

When Malema was ANC Youth League president, he openly advocated nationalization of the country’s mining and agricultural industries. In the recent election campaign, the EFF worked in the province to obtain the votes of those who have criticized the ANC government for not moving fast enough on nationalization and land redistribution.

It should be noted that in recent months, the West African state of Nigeria has been designated the largest economy on the continent, having outperformed the Republic of South Africa, previously considered the region’s powerhouse. Nonetheless, both nations still suffer from 25 percent or higher unemployment rates, with stark class divisions that have prompted industrial actions and other forms of struggle.

The working classes of both countries have been hit hard by the ravages of capitalist globalization and the ongoing economic crisis. They have the power to set back the corporate exploiters — and they have the support of the world’s workers and oppressed in initiating militant actions to stand up for their rights.