South African police crack down on wildcat strike activity

South African police have arrested striking workers in an effort to stem protests and violence in the areas surrounding platinum and gold mines. Since rock-drill operators walked off the job in August at the Lonmin Platinum facilities at Marikana, 45 people have been killed.

On Sept. 15, police raided miners’ hostels in Marikana and said they seized spears, machetes and other traditional weapons from strikers. Despite management threats and appeals from the African National Congress-led government of President Jacob Zuma, Lonmin workers had not returned to their jobs as of Sept. 17.

Labor unrest is spreading to the chrome facilities. On Sept. 14, workers at Samancor walked off the job demanding R12,500 ($1,500 per month), the same salary sought by the Lonmin miners.

Mining operations at Aquarius Platinum’s Kroondal and Xstrata’s chrome facilities in the Rustenberg platinum belt around Marikana reopened on Sept. 17. Some workers had returned to the job; however, there is still tension as other workers refuse to return to the mines.

Police arrested 42 people on Sept. 17 at an Anglo-American Platinum (Amplats) mine for engaging in an “illegal” strike. Amplats workers have shut down four mines in recent days. Company bosses said they were determined to reopen the facilities on Sept. 18. Some workers objected to Amplats’ pledge to force them back to work.

Mametlwe Sebei, a community leader, said that these mine bosses were “whistling in the dark” for thinking that the mines would reopen on Sept. 18. Sebei asserted, “They can deploy the army, they can shoot people, shooting old men in their shacks, tear gassing young kids … but let us be clear there will be repercussions.” (Reuters, Sept. 17)

Expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema was prevented from entering a rally at Marikana where workers had gathered at a soccer field to hear him speak. He has been highly critical of Zuma and the party leadership for not taking measures to nationalize the mining industry and redistributing farmland to African workers and farmers.

Malema defended jailed miners who had been charged with murder stemming from the Marikana massacre. Reportedly, the Hawks, a division of the South African police, are investigating him over allegations that he deliberately incited workers, a charge supposedly brought by Solidarity, a largely white mineworkers’ union.

Speaking before striking workers at the Gold Fields’ KDC West mine near Carletonville, Malema called for a general work stoppage in the mining industry. He has been traveling to mining areas where industrial unrest is taking place.

South Africa contains 80 percent of the world’s known platinum reserves and is the largest platinum producer. Lonmin’s Platinum operation in Marikana is reputedly the world’s third-largest producer of this strategic mineral utilized to produce catalytic converters in automobiles.

Hundreds of thousands of workers are employed in the mining industry. In 2011, platinum sales were valued at R82 billion ($10 billion); gold sales were estimated at R66 billion ($8 billion).

The ongoing unrest in the mining sector, the largest and most profitable in South Africa, has sparked a nationwide debate on the future of the ANC-led government, which has been in power since 1994.

Zuma has defended his administration’s efforts to quell unrest in the mining areas. He told journalists: “[The] government respects the constitutional rights of Marikana residents but has to promote peace and order. … Government cannot allow a situation where people march in the streets carrying dangerous weapons. We cannot allow them to intimidate others or incite violence, and we also have to protect the rights of those who do not want to be part of their protests or the strikes.” (Botswana Gazette, Sept. 17)

Zuma addresses COSATU congress

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor federation, held its national congress beginning on Sept. 17 at the Gallagher Estate in Midrand. The organization reelected the existing leadership, including Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi and President Sidumo Dlamini.

The COSATU congress is being closely watched inside the country because its 2 million members are politically indispensable to maintaining the ANC as South Africa’s ruling party. COSATU’s support for Zuma and other party leaders will be important at the ANC congress in Mangaung at the end of the year.

Zuma addressed COSATU delegates and defended the ANC government’s track record under his leadership. He also sought to build support for the government’s efforts to bring stability to the mining industry. Zuma acknowledged that R4.5 billion ($548 million) was lost in the recent wildcat strikes at several platinum and gold mines.

Zuma also spoke to the indirect impact of the strikes on other sectors of the national economy:

“We cannot afford to go into recession and revert to the 2008 and 2009 period where the country lost close to one million jobs, which we are still battling to recover. We have to find a way to restore workplace stability and labor peace. Violence cannot become the culture of labor relations.” (Financial Times, Sept. 17)

A rival but smaller union, the Association of Miners and Construction Workers, has sought to compete with COSATU’s largest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, for the workers’ loyalty. NUM expelled several AMCU leaders more than a decade ago, and this animosity continues in the present crisis.

COSATU President Dlamini recognized the challenges facing the federation. He pointed out, “We cannot hide the fact that the plight of workers is being used by some to weaken strategic components of the alliance seen as a threat towards Mangaung.”

The ANC along with COSATU and the South African Communist Party have maintained a close working alliance since the days of the former white minority apartheid regime. Debates over the handling of the current economic crisis have brought about strains within the relationship among the organizations.

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