Wildcat strikes of platinum, gold miners reflect deepening economic crisis in South Africa

Miners at the Marikana Lonmin Platinum PLC facilities returned to work on Sept. 20 after a bitter six-week strike that left 45 people dead and many injured. Lonmin bosses agreed to a 22 percent pay increase to get the striking workers back to the mines.

The work stoppage and Aug. 16 police massacre shook up the political and economic structures in South Africa, which is led by the African National Congress. The National Union of Mineworkers, the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ largest affiliate, opposed the wildcat strike led by the rock-drill operators.

The Marikana labor unrest sparked wildcat strikes at other platinum mines as well as gold and chrome facilities. Some Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) workers are still out; they have elected their own negotiators, bypassing the NUM. Alathus Modrsane, who is on that team, said, “We are no longer with the NUM because we saw that they are failing us.” (Associated Press, Sept. 21)

Miners are still out at AngloGold Ashanti Kopanang, where 5,000 are employed. Workers striking the Gold Fields mine near Carletonville want the same raise won by the Lonmin workers.

According to the same article, Sven Lunsche, representing Gold Fields, claimed that the company can’t afford the workers’ demands; he urged the strikers to resolve their issues through NUM structures. He said the wildcat strikes worry the industry, “since … these issues have gone beyond the collective bargaining forum. They are happening outside … an established and orderly forum.”

But the gold mineworkers complain that NUM is not representing them. NUM representative Lesiba Seshoka said, “If they want to recall or remove [union representatives], they must … [have] a vote of no confidence or [tell] us the allegations and we will launch an investigation.”

Although miners’ salaries have improved, many jobs have been lost in massive industry restructuring. Workers and their families say their living conditions in mining towns are pure hell and they need modern housing, electricity, water and sanitation.

Historically, South Africa had been the world’s leading gold producer; however, Ghana and Mexico are now outstripping the country in gold production. South African industry has downsized its workforce and production. After mines were closed there since the ANC took governmental control in 1994, COSATU has less power to demand concessions from the bosses.

Economist Dawi Roodt said, “COSATU has moved away from its roots to become a political organization, while it’s supposed to be a labor movement. Because of the separation between the grassroots and leadership, the mineworker feels his interests are not being protected anymore.” (Radio Netherlands, Sept. 24)

Reportedly, South Africa is only producing 7 percent of the world’s gold supply compared to 65 percent 30 years ago. U.S.-based Exploration Insight Director Brent Cook said that the South African gold industry is aging and no longer attractive to investors, and that “gold mining [there] will decrease … because it is becoming increasingly difficult to mine those ore bodies at deeper depths, higher costs and among social unrest.” (bdlive.co.za, Sept. 22)

These capitalists’ intransigence toward the workers’ needs cannot be separated from the overall world economic crisis. Lower wages and horrible working conditions are being forced on the global workforce.

With the South African union movement’s strength and militance, mine owners and bankers are seeking avenues in other regions where they can earn higher profits without organized labor’s and political parties’ interference. The bosses’ attitudes necessitate a different approach by the ANC government where mines and other national assets are viewed as the property interests of the workers and the people.

South Africa still has the most mineral wealth on the planet, with the largest deposits of platinum, magnesium and chromium reserves.

Former ANC Youth League president indicted

Internal problems within the ANC and the union movement have hampered the national democratic revolution from transitioning to a noncapitalist path of development. This year’s purging of the ANC Youth League’s top leadership reflects the tensions inside the ANC, COSATU and South African Communist Party alliance.

Julius Malema, former ANC Youth League president, was accused of fostering division in the party. He and the ANCYL advocate nationalizing the mining industry and redistributing land to the majority African population.

ANC governments have not expropriated capital or agribusiness interests. This, coupled with large-scale unemployment and poverty due to apartheid’s legacy and five years of economic crisis, has worsened conditions for many in the majority, while many middle-class and business sectors have grown wealthy.

Malema, who championed the miners ’cause, has been indicted on corruption charges; the South African Revenue Services has assessed him for $ 2 million in unpaid taxes. He and his attorney, Nicqui Galaktiou, say the charges are politically motivated. Although Galaktiou had not seen the warrant as of Sept. 21, she said, “[Malema] will hand himself over voluntarily at a court appearance next week.” (guardian.co.uk, Sept. 21)

The ANC’s congress in December will debate their guidelines for the next five years and will select the leadership that will run in the 2014 national elections. South African President Jacob Zuma will seek another term despite criticism that he has turned his back on the country’s workers, farmers and youth. Zuma and the ANC leadership say, in their defense, that they have improved services in the cities and rural areas, but there is still much work to be done.

The ANC’s upcoming congress will be followed in South Africa and around the world. The question is whether that will lead to fundamental changes inside Africa’s most industrialized state.

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