South African Workers Continue Strikes at Marikana and Other Facilities: Scene of mass killings still not reopened while work stoppages spread
Bosses at Lonmin Platinum PLC in Marikana have still not been able to return to production at the facility where 44 workers died in August. On September 10, the company reported that only six percent of its employees were able to come to work while thousands of rock drill operators and others marched through the area surrounding the mine.
Holding sticks, spears and machetes, the workers maintained a stand-off with heavily armed police reinforced by armored vehicles. During the protest the workers chanted “The White Men are shaking!” and “The police who shot us are shaking!”(Reuters, September 10)
Just four days before another demonstration was held outside the Marikana mines as the workers demand more money in exchange for the ending of their wildcat strike. At present the rock drill operators, who hold one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs, earn less than $US500 per month.
A peace accord was signed on September 6 between those designated as stakeholders in the Marikana dispute. The parties who signed the document, which was a result of mediation by the South African Council of Churches, included the executives at Lonmin, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Solidarity and the United Association of South Africa (UASA).
Two key players in the dispute, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers Union (AMCU), who NUM says is responsible for the wildcat strike at Marikana, and the representatives of the rock drill operators, refused to sign the accord. AMCU leaders said that they had no mandate to represent the workers since most of them were members of NUM.
Joseph Mathunjwa, the president of AMCU, said of the accord that “Our position was never taken into account and this has got nothing to do with workers going back to work or not—this is about political power. Our position was never taken into account and the strike was never sanctioned by AMCU. To hold us responsible for this is wrong.” (Mail & Guardian, September 9)
AMCU was established over a decade ago when some leading members of NUM were expelled over disagreement involving labor practices. Mathunjwa said that the peace accord “flew in the face of fairness.”
The larger rival and parent labor organization, NUM, 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, September 9)
Baleni, reflecting the frustration of NUM, the largest affiliate of the dominant labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), also said that the mining union’s “hands were tied” if the wildcat strikers did not return to work. “People must embrace this peace accord and engage, enough people have died and we cannot let this continue.”
The NUM leader went on to say that “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, a representative of the striking miners, said of the talks leading up to the signing of the peace accord, that “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, September 10)
Another miner, Xolani Nzuza, pointed out that “We don’t want to hear anything about a peace accord. We want R12,500 (approximately US$1,500) and the closing down of (the Karee K3) shaft.”
More Unrest at Gold Fields
Another key sector of mining industry, gold, has also witnessed wildcat strikes over the last several weeks. Gold Fields International mines at its KDC East facility resolved a work stoppage by 12,000 employees in early September. At the KDC West operation, 15,000 workers shut down the mines on September 10.
Gold Fields spokesman Sven Lunsche told the media that “We haven’t been given any demands but the pattern is the same as KDC East. It is intimidation.” (Reuters, September 10)
Lunsche continued from management’s vantage point stressing that “The strikers went around from hostel to hostel yesterday (September 9) to prevent the others going to work.” These strikes are considered illegal because they contravene existing labor contracts signed between NUM and the mining companies.
The ongoing wildcat strike activity and violence in the platinum and gold mines have created turmoil inside the South Africa’s most lucrative export industry. In platinum, it is estimated that Lonmin, the world’s third largest platinum producer, lost $524 million in market capitalization since the strike at Marikana began in August.
Platinum prices have gone down in recent months due to weakened demand. Nonetheless, with unrest mounting at Marikana and other facilities such as Implats, the price of the strategic mineral used for emissions-capping catalytic converters in automobiles, has increased by 14 percent.
Government Defends Gains of the National Democratic Revolution
South Africa held its first non-racial democratic elections in April 1994 leading to the ascendancy of the first African National Congress (ANC) 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 social class divisions sewn by apartheid still run deep within South African society. A negotiated settlement between the ANC and the former white rulers of the now-defunct all-white Nationalist Party, which represented finance capital both locally and internationally, left the fundamental ownership of the means of production intact with the minority ruling class.
Affirmative Action programs and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) schemes brought African professionals and business people into administrative and ownership arrangements with the public sector and major industries inside the country. COSATU and other unions were able to win through negotiations and strikes wage increases and better working conditions for a larger section of the proletariat.
Nevertheless, these reforms were nowhere near what would be required to provide adequate standards of living for the majority of African workers. Official unemployment in South Africa stands at around 25 percent and the impact of the world economic crisis has resulted in a sharp rise in the cost of living and the escalation of household debt among the working class.
Conditions in many of the mining areas have not substantially improved. The paltry wages and environmental degradation around facilities such as Lonmin in Marikana only fuel the discontent and anger of the workers.
At a recent two-day national conference of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) in Midrand, the government of Jacob Zuma sought to defend the performance of successive ANC governments over the last 18 years. President Jacob Zuma in his address to the gathering on September 10 said that “We have made substantial progress in improving service delivery and extending services to our people, especially the poor who were marginalized in the past.” (South African Government News, Tshwane)
Zuma went on to note that “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.”
Acknowledging the tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, especially in the provinces of Eastern Cape, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Northwest, Free State and Mpumalanga, Zuma stressed that “These should be communities where residents have water, electricity, sanitation and roads as well as recreational facilities. It must be communities filled with the laughter of happy children.”
Zuma listed gains made since 1994 recounting that “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.”
According to Zuma, “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 ruling ANC is to hold its national congress in December at Mangaung where Zuma and other top party leaders will face elections from the provincial branches and auxiliary wings. There has been much speculation over possible leadership challenges to the current party officials, many of whom hold high-level positions within the government.
Unless there is a major shift away from the prevailing post-apartheid political and economic arrangements, the ANC government will not be able to totally fulfill its mandate set out in the Freedom Charter of 1955 and subsequent documents that call for the equal distribution of wealth throughout the country. Internal critics within the party say that the resolutions passed at the last congress in Polokwane have not been adhere to and that this is the source of growing factionalism within the organization.
By Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor, Pan-African News Wire