South African strike wave comes up against ANC and unions

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In the last three months in South Africa 80,000 miners have been involved in a wave of wildcat strikes in gold, platinum and coal mines. In WR 356 (“South Africa massacre of miners: The bourgeoisie uses its police and union guard dogs against the working class”) we looked at the massacre of 34 miners in Marikana. We showed how unions and government acted together against the working class. At the time it was not clear what direction events would go. Since then we have witnessed the largest strike wave since the ANC came to power in 1994.

South Africa is portrayed as the ‘economic powerhouse’ of Africa, leading the continent in industrial output and mineral production. And yet, if you look at the conditions in which the majority of people live, with, officially, 25% unemployment, and more than 50% of children living below the official poverty line, in a society commonly described as the one of the most unequal in the world, the fact that workers have been struggling is no mystery. Behind every ‘economic miracle’ there is growing poverty and there are conflicting class interests. The struggles in South Africa show that country is no exception.

The continuation of the struggle

The Marikana miners continued their strike for six weeks before a deal was signed. A light shone on the condition of all workers in South Africa, the poverty and deprivation of the townships, the misery of the mining camps, and, above all, on the lie that the ANC government represented something other than a capitalist government prepared to shoot down striking miners just like the previous apartheid regime.

The Marikana miners pay deal was for increases between 11% and 22% along with a one off bonus of 2,000 Rand ($240). Rock-drillers (the most dangerous operators in the mine) received the biggest pay rise.

In other workers’ actions, at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), the world’s largest producer of platinum, a strike that has so far lasted for seven weeks shut five mines in the Rustenberg area. At one point the firm sacked 12,500 workers – 40% of its work force. In unrest at Amplats nine people have been killed. There have been a number of clashes between workers and the police – on at least one occasion with the police using teargas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and live ammunition. As South Africa’s Mail and Guardian (2/11/12) put it: “The strike has so far yielded about three dozen arrests and nothing more than a one-off offer of R2000 as well as a R2500 loan, which was to be paid back in January.”

Alongside the activities of different unions there have been strike committees and shaft committees formed. When the latter meet it’s “to discuss a way of giving impetus to the strike”. There has been a great deal of anger directed at the unions, in particular when a secret deal was struck with the company. The main strike committee rejected the deal. Anger at the unions can be seen in the report that “a NUM office was set alight at the Khuseleka shaft, possibly as a show of anger at management’s response and the NUM’s insistence that it had secured the reinstatement of the Amplats strikers” (op cit).

When the South African Communist Party leader, along with leaders of the Mineworkers’ Union (NUM) and the COSATU union federation attempted to hold a rally in the Rustenberg Olympia Stadium they found that “over 1,000 striking Amplats miners arrived early and took over the venue” (Daily Maverick 27/10/12). “They marched into the stadium … After desecrating ANC and Cosatu hats, scarves and other paraphernalia, they moved back out.” The protesting strikers wore T shirts saying “Remember the Slain of Marikana” and “Forward to a Living Wage R12,500” and carried placards saying, “We are here to bury NUM,” and “Rest in Peace NUM.” The police who proceeded to attack the strikers and protected union figures clearly demonstrated that workers and unions are on different sides.

Meanwhile, Amplats is currently struggling to get 30,000 workers back to work after intimidation and various settlements have ended other strikes. They have offered “hardship allowances” to those who have been on strike, and “loyalty allowances” to those who did not strike.

At AngloGold Ashanti (the world’s third largest bullion producer) 35,000 workers downed tools in an illegal strike that started in late September and continued for almost a month. And after the settlement there were further sit-in protests over early payments of a bonus that involved hundreds of workers.

At the Gold One’s Aurora goldmine at Modder East near Johannesburg security guards shot four picketing miners when they fired on 200 workers. This mine is said to be owned by the nephew of Jacob Zuma and the grandson of Nelson Mandela.

One Gold Fields’ mine remained shut after a strike as the company processed the appeals of 8,500 workers sacked for an unlawful strike. These were from twelve thousand miners at Gold Fields’ KDC East goldmine who were dismissed for refusing to return to work.

Among the more than fifty people killed were two who died after they were shot by security guards employed by Forbes Coal. Striking miners had been chased into a township in KwaZulu-Natal where the guards fired on the workers. This showed the familiar repressive side of the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, following the higher increases agreed at Marikana, Coal of Africa agreed to a 26% wage rise (including allowances) for workers at its Mooiplaats colliery. The warnings that higher wage rises could further increase unemployment are made at every opportunity.

False friends – in the unions and beyond

The South African ruling class is not bluffing. There has been genuine concern over the impact of the strike wave. The mining industry was already seeing share prices plummet due to the world recession, and then dive even lower. The South African economy is not immune to the current recession. The worldwide recession has seen the production of platinum and palladium, precious metals essential in car manufacture, cut back drastically. Even during the recent mineral boom, production of these metals has diminished by 1% a year. Output has now dropped to its lowest level for 50 years.

In the face of the crisis the ANC and the NUM have entered into a tripartite alliance with the mine owners. It’s not just that ANC and NUM leaders have considerable investments in the mining companies and want to protect that investment. It’s an integral part of their social role to do everything in their power to protect the interests of their fellow bourgeois, to oppose the spread of strikers’ actions, and try and prevent it becoming contagious.

Right from the start of the strike wave the unions involved have sought to divide workers attempting to struggle for a living wage. After the Marikana massacre a meeting was set up. As SABC news (28/8/12) reported “One of five delegates chosen by Lonmin mineworkers, Zolisa Bodlani says workers are skeptical about tomorrow’s meeting between Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, unions, management and worker representatives. The workers believe unions have failed them and have misrepresented their interests, as well as management which Bodlani has accused of not wanting to meet workers before the fatal tragedy last week that lead to the deaths of 44 people. Bodlani was speaking in an interview on SAfm’s AM Live this morning.

‘We are not sure that we are going to attend tomorrow’s meetings. They promised us today that we will meet the labour minister - we have questions to ask her – we want to know why they decided to call us together with the unions. We are not willing to work with the unions. We have reasons why but we don’t want to disclose that now. We also believe our unions failed us big time. We are not going to use any one of them. We don’t want to be affiliated to any of the unions,’ says Bodlani.”

As well as the unions, other false friends that workers need to beware of include ex-ANCers like Julius Malema who claim to be putting forward an alternative. He has used the miners’ strike for his own ends. On one hand saying that there should be a national miners’ strike, and that a ‘fight to the death’ was needed, while also pushing nationalisation. He declared “They have been stealing this gold from you. Now it’s your turn.” But nationalisation does not mean an improvement in the wages and conditions of miners. It just means state control – control by the capitalist state.

With Malema, it’s not that he turns up to address miners in his Mercedes Benz SUV that makes him a spokesman for the bourgeoisie; it’s the ideology he puts forward. You can see how he has “portrayed Lonmin director and ANC heavyweight Cyril Ramaphosa - who was a leading trade unionist during white minority rule - as a puppet of whites and foreigners” (BBC News 12/9/12). In this view ‘whites and foreigners’ are the enemy. In reality, in the case of Ramaphosa, his call for action against Lonmin workers was in continuity with his activity in the ANC and trade unionism – in defence of the national interest against the interests of the working class.

The current wave of strikes in South Africa appears to be coming to an end. For future strikes a consciousness of the need for workers to rely on their own efforts will be essential.  

M/C/ElG 3/11/12

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