By Tom Castle
The massacre of at least 34 striking miners at the Marikana platinum mine in South Africa was profoundly shocking, the single most lethal use of force by the South African state since the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. And it stands in stark contrast to the promise held out by the release of Nelson Mandela and democratic South Africa under the leadership of the ANC.
The killings, and the spread of strike action to other parts of the mining industry, has exposed the failure of post-Apartheid South Africa to address the appalling low wages and poor conditions of the country’s miners, who contribute a large share of the wealth of the country.
The impact of the global rise in commodity prices, which rose a staggering 20% from June-August, have particularly impacted food and petrol prices which particularly affect the cost of living for those on low incomes. The overall inflation has been made worse by fears for the impact of the drought and failed harvests in the US cornbelt and by the impact of the US policy of trying to drive down the value of the dollar, leading to this summer’s spike in cereal prices this summer. In South Africa this has clearly put a squeeze on miners living standards and driven the militancy among key sections of the population.
The Marikana mine is owned by Lonmin, a London-listed mining company with a turnover of $2bn in 2011. Lonmin employs 27,000 mineworkers, 10,000 of whom are ‘outsourced’ workers working often below the minimum wage for the industry. Outsourced rock drillers at the centre of the dispute can earn as little as R 2,500 per month and no living allowances.
Previously the NUM had won a 2-year wage agreement offering 8 to 10% annual increases. But this has been eroded entirely by sharply rising prices, especially of basic foods, with bread prices rising by 12% and maize by 56% in the last year alone. And ‘outsourced’ workers often receive less than the agreed minimum.
In August, rock drillers at the mine went on strike for a pay raise from 5000 to 12,500 rand per month, (from approx. £375 to £930). The company responded by declaring that the strike was illegal, issued threats that all those who did not return to work would be sacked, and called in the police to break up picket lines.
With the attempts by the company and the police to break the strike by force, violence rapidly escalated, with several injuries and deaths in the early days of the strike.
On 16 August a mass demonstration by the striking miners was met with tear gas and stun grenades. As the protest turned more violent, the South African police opened fire on the protesters, killing 34 – several of whom were shot in the back as they ran away – and wounding at least 78 others.
The outrage at this slaughter was compounded when 259 of the striking workers were arrested under ‘common purpose’ laws that originated under Apartheid and charged with the ‘murder’ of their fellow workers. These charges have now been set aside and the miners released, but perhaps only temporarily and other serious charges against the strikers remain.
President Zuma has called for an inquiry into ‘all the events surrounding the violence’ as well as the massacre itself. This implies an inquiry that gives equal weight to the role of the police and the mineworkers themselves in the massacre. The focus of any inquiry should be on justice for the murdered strikers and their families, examining the role of Lonmin and the state apparatus, including finding out who sanctioned the level of force that was used.
The failure of ‘gradualism’
Since the end of the reactionary Apartheid system in 1994, the ANC government’s policy has been based on a ‘gradualist’ approach to improving living standards. But even prior to the global economic crisis this in reality left the position of large swathes of the population untouched. The late 1990s and up to 2007, in the midst of a commodities boom, actually saw labour’s share of national income fall, while the official unemployment rate stands at 24%.
The renewed slowdown in world trade combined with soaring basic prices means even tiny advances have been eliminated. So, for example, in the platinum mines the strategy was to gain agreement with the mine owners to redistribute a fraction of their rising profits to the miners. This met resistance anyway, but in the context of falling platinum prices – down 25% from their peak of over $2,000 per ounce before the global crisis – became entirely undeliverable without taking over the mines.
A key source of demand for platinum is its use in catalytic converters for car exhausts to reduce pollution. It is also used in a number of industrial processes, glass manufacture as well as in jewellery. This vital role as a production component across a range of sectors means output could be maintained and supply restricted to bring it back into balance with demand. Since South Africa is home to 80% of the world’s known reserves, this is in the power of the government if it chose to take control of the mines. It could then direct investment and production, as well as a resolving all matters of pay and conditions for the miners.
Instead mineworkers have faced a precipitate fall in their living standards.
The 3,000 mine workers at Marikana remain on strike and the industrial unrest has spread to other mines including those owned by rival Anglo American. At current prices for platinum the lost production is costing Lonmin $3.5m per day.
The political challenge
These developments present a challenge to the leading political forces of the liberation struggle.
A joint statement by the ANC alliance, comprising the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party is right in saying that insufficient focus has been on the role of the companies in fanning hostilities between mining workers and their unions. But this does not address the key question of the role of the police, who gunned down the miners, and who are part of the state in the control of the government, but who acted like the armed thugs of Lonmin and the mine owners in general.
Nor is the ANC prepared at present to radicalise its policy on the economy and take control of the mines.
As a result the ANC is facing mounting criticism for its extensive links to big business. Zuma is accused of capitulating to the business interests represented in the government. Particular fire is directed to Cyril Ramaphosa, former general secretary of the ANC and of the NUM, and now a prominent businessman. Among his extensive business interests, he is a member of the Lonmin board!
The ANC’s most prominent left critic is Julius Malema, the expelled former leader of the ANC Youth League, who was invited by the strikers at Marikana to visit the mine a few days after the massacre, and urged an extension of the strikes. He has also called for nationalisation of the mines and land redistribution.
He has used the platform offered him by the striking miners to re-establish a national position following his expulsion from the ANC. While he is widely denounced in the South African media for whipping up further strikes, and is well-known to be opposed to Zuma, his interventions begin to address some of the key issues raised by the dispute and the backdrop of widespread poverty and unemployment.
At the same time, the political parties opposed to the ANC, all of them either former supporters of or apologists for Apartheid, are trying to capitalise on the unrest by posing as champions of the mineworkers. There is a possibility that if there is no clear response from the ANC and the pro-liberation forces that these right-wing parties could take some advantage, but these parties are not in a position to take the leadership of the country.
These mass struggles are also shaking up the trade unions. In the wake of the massacre the trade union confederation COSATU has talked of being at a ‘strategic crossroads’. COSATU’s congress will consider replacing its policy of campaigning for sectoral wage agreements with a demand for a national minimum wage to replace current industry wage agreements. Collective bargaining along these lines would, if implemented, effectively put an end to the ‘outsourcing’ of workers used by mine owners and other large employers to keep down wages.
A mass movement is emerging in South Africa that is challenging the level of exploitation of workers for the key mining companies, that has provoked a ferocious response by the state in the form of the police attempts to violently crush the strikes. President Zuma has laid the classic reactionary charge that it is all the fault of ‘outside agitators’ and in the most recent development miners homes have been raided by the police. The government seems set on a course of confrontation with the strikers and their families, using the state apparatus to defend the interests of the mine owners.
This has so far back-fired and simply led to an extension of the strikes and an even greater rise in militancy that is beginning to pose a political challenge for the forces that arose in the liberation struggle and which lead the South African state and society – the ANC and COSATU and their junior partner in the SACP.