Labor militancy is continuing in the Republic of South Africa, which has the largest industrial working class on the continent. Some 20,000 coal miners have been involved in an intense standoff with their bosses, demanding pay increases and better working conditions. The workers are represented by the National Union of Mineworkers, the largest labor organization in the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Negotiations between NUM and the coal mining firms, including Anglo American and Glencore Xstrata, continued on Sept. 30. Offers of a pay increase between 7 percent and 11 percent were designed to avoid a strike. These pay increases are above the rate of inflation, now at 6.4 percent.
NUM had demanded a 15 percent wage increase for veteran workers and 60 percent for entry-level employees. A strike would have impacted the country’s energy industry along with coal supplies to Europe and Asia. Eskom, the South African energy company, relies on coal production for 85 percent of its power source. Overall the country produces 68.3 million tons of coal for export from the Richards Bay Coal Terminal.
South Africa is the world’s fifth-largest producer of coal. This sector, along with gold, platinum and iron ore, constitutes the bulk of the country’s gross domestic product.
AMCU walks out
In the Rustenburg area, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union led workers in a strike that began Sept. 27. The AMCU has achieved a majority status among miners in the area and has become the principal workers’ representative, outstripping NUM.
Rivalry between NUM and AMCU has been a source of struggle in the Northwest province. AMCU leadership rejected the 8 percent pay hike won by NUM in the mining areas in other regions of the country and embarked upon a separate strike.
A major issue in the Rustenburg strike is the announcement by management that 3,300 jobs would be lost in the Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) mines in the region. Since early 2013, the mine bosses have threatened cutbacks that initially would have involved over 14,000 employees.
With threats of strikes and further unrest, the company’s retrenchment plans were reduced to lower numbers. Nonetheless, the threat of layoffs has been a major source of tension for members of both NUM and AMCU.
Amplats CEO Chris Griffith said in a statement on Sept. 27 that the firm would continue to engage AMCU. He later renewed threats of downsizing by claiming that the corporation could not afford the demands of the workers: “We have previously stated that the company is under tremendous economic pressure. Strikes and work stoppages will result in further losses that will hamper plans for future sustainability and further threaten the future of our 45,000 employees.” (bdlive.com.za)
Settlement reached with injured workers
In a landmark legal decision, 23 miners from South Africa and neighboring Lesotho have won a settlement against Anglo American for injuries that occurred on the job. The amount of the settlement is undisclosed and the company was not required to admit guilt.
This was the first such compensation settlement in South Africa. The settlement could open the way for compensation claims by thousands of other miners who contracted lung diseases while employed by Anglo American.
These claimants were represented by attorney Richard Meeran of the London-based firm Leigh Day, which brought the initial case in 2004. Most of the injuries stemmed from apartheid-era conditions that prevailed in the mines. Since the collapse of apartheid and the rise to power of the African National Congress, many say that conditions have improved in the mining industry.
“In a technical and legal sense it’s currently the first settlement of this type in South Africa,” Meeran said. “After this settlement you’d have to wonder why Anglo or other companies would contest similar cases — it would defy logic.” (Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 27)
Socialism needed in South Africa
These developments in South Africa illustrate the need to continue the national democratic revolution in the direction of socialism. Because the mines are privately owned, mine owners in the gold sector have been able to close facilities and downsize their workforce.
Anglo American, which was formed in South Africa under settler colonialism in 1917, relocated its headquarters to London in 1999, just five years after the African National Congress came to power. The corporation sold off its South African gold mining interests to other capitalists, though it still has substantial interests in the platinum, iron ore and thermal coal sectors.
Under socialism the mining companies and their facilities could be nationalized by the government and turned over for full management and operation by the workers. As the capitalists continue their predatory actions aimed at maximizing profits and disempowering workers, the issue of workers’ control of the mines and other means of production in South Africa will become the only solution to preserve jobs and improve working conditions.