South African workers’ stoppages spread
The Lonmin Platinum PLC in Marikana, South Africa, has not restarted production at the facility where 44 workers died in August. On Sept. 10, the company reported that only 6 percent of employees came to work while thousands of rock-drill operators and others marched near the mine.
Holding sticks, spears and machetes, the workers maintained a standoff with heavily armed police with armored vehicles. Miners chanted, “The white men are shaking!” and “The police who shot us are shaking!” (Reuters, Sept. 10)
Four days earlier, workers demonstrated outside the Marikana mines and demanded more money in exchange for ending their wildcat strike. The rock-drill operators earn less than $500 per month for difficult and dangerous work.
Lonmin executives, the National Union of Mineworkers, Solidarity and the United Association of South Africa — the designated stakeholders in the Marikana dispute — signed a peace accord on Sept. 6. The South African Council of Churches mediated.
Two key players in the dispute — the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers Union, which NUM holds responsible for the Marikana wildcat strike, and the rock-drill operators’ representatives — refused to sign it. AMCU leaders said they had no mandate to represent the workers since most were NUM members.
Joseph Mathunjwa, AMCU president, said the peace accord “flew in the face of fairness. … Our position was never taken into account. … [T]his has got nothing to do with workers going back to work or not — this is about political power. … [The strike was never sanctioned by AMCU. To hold us responsible for this is wrong.” (Mail & Guardian, Sept. 9)
AMCU was established in 1998 after some leading NUM members were expelled over a disagreement involving labor practices.
The larger rival and parent organization, NUM, the largest affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, condemned the violent atmosphere surrounding the mines. NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni said, “The level of intimidation is getting out of control. If needs be, Lonmin must deal with the workers threatening violence against those wanting to work.” (Mail & Guardian, Sept. 9)
Baleni, reflecting NUM’s frustration, said its “hands were tied” if the strikers did not return to work. “People must embrace this peace accord and engage; enough people have died and we cannot let this continue. … We are really worried that this situation will spread and turn violent again. There are already reports of similar labor disputes at mines around the area and we need to normalize the situation as soon as possible.”
Zolisa Bodlwana, representing the striking miners, said of the talks prior to the peace accord signing, “We felt as if we were in a wrong meeting because they kept on insisting on signing the accord. We left because an accord does not help us in any way.” (Daily Maverick, Sept. 10)
Another miner, Xolani Nzuza, stressed, “We don’t want to hear anything about a peace accord. We want R12,500 ($1,500) and the closing down of the (Karee K3) shaft.”
Unrest at Gold Fields
Gold mining industry workers have recently gone on wildcat strikes. Gold Fields International resolved a 12,000-miner work stoppage at its KDC East facility in early September. On Sept. 10, 15,000 workers shut down the KDC West mines.
Sven Lunsche, representing Gold Fields, said, “We haven’t been given any demands but the pattern is the same as KDC East. It is intimidation. … The strikers went around [Sept. 9] from hostel to hostel to prevent the others going to work.” (Reuters, Sept. 10) These strikes are considered “illegal” because they contravene labor contracts signed between NUM and the mining companies.
Lunsche stressed that the wildcat strikes and violence in the platinum and gold mines have created turmoil in South Africa’s most lucrative export industries. Lonmin, the world’s third-largest platinum producer, lost $524 million in market capitalization since the Marikana strike began in August.
Government defends National Democratic Revolution’s gains
South Africa’s first nonracial democratic elections in April 1994 led to the first African National Congress government in the post-apartheid era. The ANC and its allies earned the overwhelming support of the working class, youth and the poor through decades of mass and armed struggle against European settler-colonialism.
However, the class divisions sown by apartheid still run deep within South African society. The ANC’s negotiated settlement with the now-defunct all-white Nationalist Party Party rulers who, represented finance capital, left the ownership of the means of production with the minority ruling class.
Affirmative action programs and Black Economic Empowerment schemes brought African professionals and businesspeople into administrative and ownership arrangements with the public sector and major industries. COSATU and other unions won — through negotiations and strikes — better wages and working conditions for a larger section of the proletariat.
However, these reforms were nowhere near enough to provide an adequate standard of living for the majority of African workers. Unemployment is officially 25 percent. The world economic crisis has caused a sharp rise in the cost of living and household debt among the working class.
Conditions in many mining areas have not substantially improved. The paltry wages and environmental degradation around facilities such as Lonmin only fuel workers’ discontent and anger.
President Jacob Zuma’s government sought to defend the ANC government at a recent national conference of the South African Local Government Association in Midrand. On Sept. 10, Zuma told the gathering, “We have made substantial progress in improving service delivery and extending services to our people, especially the poor who were marginalized in the past. …
“No country could have produced the delivery we have made in 18 years. There is a common tendency to look at government at all levels as if those who are governing have brought the problem, instead of deep seated challenges from the past. … The reality of apartheid is that large parts of the country had never had any form of local government and, as a result, the backlogs are still glaring.” (South African Government News, Tshwane)
Zuma emphasized, “Over two and half million houses have been built for the poor giving shelter to over ten million people. Six million households have gained access to clean water since 1994 and electricity has been connected to nearly five million homes.”
Yet Zuma acknowledged the tremendous amount of work to be done, especially in Eastern Cape, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Northwest, Free State and Mpumalanga. He stressed, “These should be communities where residents have water, electricity, sanitation and roads as well as recreational facilities … [and] filled with the laughter of happy children.”
The ruling ANC will hold its national congress in December at Mangaung. There, Zuma and other top party leaders will face elections from the provincial branches and auxiliary wings. There may be leadership challenges to current party officials, many of whom hold high-level government positions.
Internal critics say that resolutions passed at the last ANC congress have not been adhered to, which has led to growing factionalism within the organization.
Unless there is a major shift away from post-apartheid political and economic arrangements, the ANC government won’t be able to fulfill the mandate of its 1955 Freedom Charter and later documents that call for the equal distribution of wealth throughout the nation.