South Africa: as the miners’ strike spreads, the foundations of post-apartheid capitalist democracy are challenged

It is over a month since Lonmin platinum miners in Marikana, South Africa, walked out in a wildcat strike. They have been attacked and vilified; watching as 34 of their number were killed by police on August 16, a majority of them in cold blood, and 270 arrested, charged and often tortured while in custody. The leaders of the NUM, the bosses and the state have signed a “peace accord” behind the backs of the miners and they have been repeatedly given ultimatums by the company. Yet still the strike is ongoing and the miners are continuing to demand a wage increase to R12,500. They are an example of worker militancy and resilience and one which is spreading to other sections of South Africa's mining proletariat.

On September 12, there was a march by 5,000 Marikana miners and their supporters who went through the different mine shafts to make sure there was no one working. According to the company only about 1.8% of their employees had reported for work. Incredibly the miners have been presented as "violent" by the media. “Violence doesn’t solve anything. It is not in anyone’s interest” said Lonmin mine manager Jan Thirio, while Minister of the Presidency Collins Chabane said “the government has a responsibility to maintain law and order and, therefore, will not tolerate any irresponsible and unwarranted provocation from any quarters of our society.”

This is stinking hypocrisy after 34 miners were killed by the police, and another 78 injured. About 90 of the arrested miners have filed complaints against the police for torture. As part of their march the strikers went to the local hospital to protest against the fact that the hospital authorities were reporting the release details of injured miners to police who then went on to arrest them on hospital premises. That is the real violence of this story, the violence exercised by the state on behalf of the mine owners and shareholders. When the capitalists and the state, use violence against the oppressed (using live ammunition, armoured cars, helicopters and horses) it is classed as "self-defence" or maintaining "law and order", but when the oppressed dare to fight back (brandishing knobkerries, pangas and knives) they are classed as criminals and thugs.

The strikers correctly refused the so-called "peace accord", which would have meant going back to work without having achieved anything, on the basis of a vague promise of negotiations, after 34 of their comrades had been killed. Xolani Nzuza, member of the strike committee, said: “We don't want to hear anything about a peace accord. We want R12,500 and the closing down of (the Karee K3) shaft.” To their credit the leaders of AMCU also refused to put their name to the scandalous document. Another of the strikers' leaders, Anele Nogwanya said: “We have now buried all our fallen colleagues. Now is the time to honour our promise to them of getting the R12 500, if we go back to work without getting R12 500, our deceased colleagues will turn against us.”

On Thursday, September 13, finally Lonmin bosses made an offer to the workers, but in reality it can only be described as a provocation.  What they are offering is an increase of the basic rate of pay from R4,600 to R5,500! The striking workers have already rejected this “offer,” today, explaining that, the proposal is part of an already agreed 3-year wage increase due to come into effect in October.

One of the worker representatives, Molisi Phele, told the AFP about the reaction of the workers: "They just said 'No go' and tell those guys to put 12.5 on the table, (…) What they (the workers) say is that their offer is an insult, what you put on the table is an insult,” he stressed. Very significantly he added: “If they are unable to do that, thank you, let Lonmin take their bags and go back to London." Clearly, in the minds of many of the workers involved, nationalization is not some abstract debate, but a concrete issue related to the satisfaction of their basic demands.

The workers have elected their own committee and they have set up a “war committee” through which they are attempting to build links with other groups of miners who have also come out on strike .

Strike spreads to other mines

There have also been two separate strikes at the Gold Fields KDC gold mine. The first one at the KDC East mine started on August 29 involving 12,000 miners, who walked out protesting against a unilateral decision by the NUM local leadership to apply funeral scheme deductions from their wages.

The main issue in that strike seemed to be a build up of resentment against the local NUM branch leaders who were accused of being out of touch and acting against the interests of the workers. They were even accused of having private interests in the company which provides the catering contract for the workers. The strike ended on September 5 after the workers were satisfied that their demands had been met, the funeral scheme deduction reversed, all monies refunded and the NUM branch leadership suspended pending investigation.

Having seen the quick victory of their comrades, on September 9, another 15,000 miners at the KDC West mine also walked out. By the end of the day they had submitted a list of demands including the resignation of the whole of the NUM branch leadership, equalisation of pay across job categories in all mines and a minimum wage of R12,500 for all miners. Workers at a third Gold Fields mine, Beatrix, were also discussing going on strike. NUM leaders attempted to address the workers from one of the mine’s armoured security vehicles but were chased away by the strikers.

Meanwhile, the world's largest platinum producer Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) was forced, on September 11, to close down its operations in Rustenberg as a result of another wildcat walkout by thousands of miners.

The workers rejected allegations that the protestors were not employees of Amplats by showing their worker IDs. "All of us, we're going to close all the operations, starting from Rustenburg. We'll go even to the gold mines to stop the operations" one of the leaders of the Amplats strikers Evans Ramokga told Reuters. He added that on 13 September, they would have a joint meeting with Lonmin strikers to join forces: “We are going to combine efforts with the striking comrades at Lonmin mines. We want to assure you that by Monday next week there will be no mining operation in and around Rustenburg.”

Around 5,000 Amplats workers gathered in a stadium outside Bleskop mine to discuss their demands. Sphamandla Makhanya, a winch operator quoted in a Daily Maverick report, gave a breakdown of the wage package the workers demanded:

minerstrikenationalisationR12.500 or pack your bags and leave the country !VIVA GOLD VIVA!“a basic salary of R12,000, a R500 meal allowance, R500 for working underground, R60 a day for transport and other benefits, which added to R16,070 per month. (…) “If the company cannot do that we want a minimum of R12,500 a month. If they fail this demand then Anglo must go back to America and the government must take over this mine,[our emphasis - JM]”

"They can't say they don't have money. Look how much profit the stakeholders get and the whites at the mine are earning well," said Lucas Rapai, a winch driver, to the Mail and Guardian. Sfana Chauke, an underground supervisor added: "They may as well close this mine if they don't want to give us our money. I have too many who depend on me. I need R12500. I don't just want it."

Workers at the world's second largest producer Impala Platinum (who already went through a bitter labour dispute in January and February this year in which thousands of workers were sacked and later readmitted) have also submitted a demand for a fresh wage increase and are threatening to strike.

Interestingly the claim was submitted not through the official union structures but rather by an ad-hoc workers' committee involving members of both the NUM and AMCU. The mine workers involved in this movement are going back to the early militant traditions on which the NUM and other COSATU affiliates were founded: mass meetings, elected representatives and militant action to achieve their demands.

Julius Malema

malema-speak to minersJulius Malema speaks to a mass meeting of minersExpelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema has consistently visited the miners at the different sites and offered support and encouragement. He has correctly criticised the NUM leaders for being out of touch with the living conditions of ordinary mine workers, but has gone even further than that, pointing out that many ANC leaders have shares in the mining companies the strikers are fighting against and that for this reason they are unable and unwilling to represent the interests of the workers. Expelled ANC YL spokesperson Floyd Shivambu explained the situation by pointing out that "turkeys cannot vote for Christmas".

Julius Malema speaking to Aurora mine workersMalema has called for a "mining revolution" and for a national strike of mine workers to demand the resignation of the whole of the NUM leadership. "How can Frans Baleni know your problems if he doesn't address you, and hears about your issues on TV?" he asked a mass rally of Gold Fields KDC West strikers. "There must be a national strike around the country, demanding Frans Baleni and all NUM leadership immediately be replaced ... The problem is not with the NUM, it's with your leaders that take money from the mlungu [whites]," he said and added "our leaders have sold out South Africa! Our leaders are sleeping with capital!” As Malema has correctly pointed out when speaking to workers at the liquidated Aurora mine, Cyril Ramaphosa himself (former NUM general secretary and ANC national executive member), holds amongst his many business interests, shares in Lonmin, the company that the Marikana strikers are fighting against.

Divisions open up within the NUM

The role of the NUM leaders throughout this conflict has been despicable. Their main worry after the Marikana massacre was not to demand justice for the workers and the fulfilment of their demands, but to express concern about how the actions of the miners (in demanding higher wages) could scare off foreign investors! (See video of the press conference). NUM general secretary Frans Baleni has become the focus of a lot of the miners' hatred. He is paid an annual salary of R1.4 million, after being awarded a 40% wage rise this year, which means that he makes more money in a month than a rock drill operator takes home in a year! On top of this he sits on the board of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, which according to Businessweek means an additional $285,000 a year.

Political analyst William Gumede was quoted in an article in the Mail and Guardian describing the situation in this way: "The NUM leadership is now in top management. Its leaders occupy senior leadership positions in the ANC, business and government. After 1994, The NUM repositioned itself. It started as an investment arm [the Mineworkers Investment Company that is now valued at R2.8-billion], a bank and its members sit on the boards of blue-chip companies." The same article quoted a former leader of the NUM explaining how "members look at the luxury life of their leaders. We discussed the implications of our salary increases before. We represent the sector that is the lowest paid and skilled. But you have leaders who go home with a staggering R1.4-million salary [a package equivalent to the deputy president's salary]. When they [workers] see this, members ask if the leaders pay themselves with our own money. They [union leaders] are beginning to compete with the capitalists."

The situation is such that the movement is inevitably starting to have an impact within the NUM itself. Many of those involved in the strikes are card carrying members of the union and the slogan for the resignation of the NUM leadership encapsulates the feelings of many. A meeting has already been called in the Highveld region of the NUM in Mpumalanga. The meeting will look into the "challenges facing mine workers" and the question of the NUM leadership "which has since neglected mineworkers and workers in the energy and construction sector's interests and only obsessed with ANC factional politics and business deals."

The leaflet refers to illegal suspension of members and leaders and warns that: "mineworkers, workers in the energy and construction sector and their genuine leaders will never sit back and watch when they are being misrepresented by Career Unionists who sit in air conditioned offices whilst workers are exposed to dangerous and difficult working conditions." Any serious program for dealing with the question of the bureaucratisation of the NUM leadership needs to include demands like the right to elect and immediately recall leaders, officials and representatives at all levels of the union. And above all the demand that no NUM official be on a wage higher than that of the workers they represent. Such a demand would be met with enthusiastic support throughout the industry.

ANC leaders terrified

The right wing leadership of the ANC, the NUM and the SACP are all up in arms blaming Malema for the developing movement of the mineworkers. There has been censorship in the state-owned media on any reference to or interview with Malema. Even the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union (Bemawu) has now confirmed these instructions exist, adding that “The instruction went as far as to say that even if he is assassinated, or he dies in any other manner, it should not be reported until top management has instructed otherwise.”

Some of the tortured Marikana strikers declared that they had been interrogated as to whether Malema had played a role in their strike, and when Malema announced that he was going to meet a group of soldiers with grievances, the Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa- Nqakula (who ironically was in the United States receiving an "honor cordon" from the US State Department) denounced him as being involved in "counter-revolutionary activities" and put all military basis in the country in high alert!

The soldiers Malema addressed on September 12 were dismissed for participating in a strike over wages in 2009 which was organised by their union, SANDU – a union which is not recognised by the South African National Defence Force. Despite having won their case in 2009, these soldiers have not yet been readmitted. As one of the organisers of the meeting, former SANDU official Private Sipho Swelinkomo, expressed it very clearly: "We didn’t fight for liberation to continue suffering." (See video report of the meeting.)

The representatives of capital are rightly worried as they can see how the ideas advanced by Malema are finding a ready audience. "People who believe that Malema does not present a danger to South Africa have missed the point," said Richard Farber, a fixed income trader at Johannesburg brokerage Worldwide Capital, to Reuters "it is his ideology that presents the danger and that is gathering momentum." He added. President Zuma is already preparing to use further repression, in order to prevent the spreading strikes and defend the interests of capitalist mine owners. South African daily The Times reports that “a high-level security clampdown in the platinum belt of Rustenburg will be announced, including the possible arrests of high-profile instigators.” The report also mentions “a special police task force, backed by the army, (…) expected to be announced and will move into the area as soon as this weekend.” In reply to this “outside agitators” conspiracy theory, Floyd Shivambu said: “Jacob Zuma and those around him should begin to appreciate that mineworkers are human beings and can think and act on their own without any form of agitation. If there is any action to be taken, it must be against Mines bosses who disregard the provisions of the Mining charter and underpay mineworkers.”

Justice Minister, Jeff Radebe, issued a strong warning that, the state would, again, use repression to deal with the mineworkers. “This is not a state of emergency,” Radebe told reporters in Pretoria. However, those gathering illegally will be “dealt with” (…) We want to bring back public order in those areas so that the economy can continue to run normally. “They are going to be dealt with very swiftly, without any further delay,” said Radebe. “Our government will not tolerate these acts any further.” However, the government is playing with fire. Any attempt to repress the movement with violence will only cause a bigger explosion of anger.

Limits of capitalist democracy exposed

Despite all the hysteria, Malema is only voicing legitimate concerns of the mine workers themselves. The miners work in the most difficult and dangerous conditions in an industry which gives its bosses massive profits. Meanwhile the workers themselves earn very low wages, in many cases live in shacks or very poor hostel accommodation with outside toilets, no electricity, and often they are the sole breadwinners in large families back home in the regions or countries of origin (see for instance this CNN report). Added to this is the fact that many are not even directly employed by the mining companies but through labour brokerage companies (some of them linked to the Zuma family and business associates and other prominent ANC leaders). At the same time they can see how the leaders of the union, and the leaders of their own movement who are now in government, live luxurious lifestyles, some of them having joined the capitalist class while their own conditions have remained more or less the same since the victory over apartheid which was itself the result of a revolutionary struggle in which mineworkers played a crucial role.

However, a similar story can be told for every single section of the workers, the youth and the poor which compose the mass constituency of the ANC, COSATU and the SACP. The last 18 years since 1994 has been a catalogue of failed expectations, broken promises and dissipated illusions. There have been many general strikes, bitter labour conflicts, splits and internal strife within the SACP, the YCL, the ANC YL and the ANC itself, as well as repeated spates of angry and militant protests by local communities over the lack of service delivery. Time and again the working masses have tried to achieve basic rights to housing, education, access to water and electricity, decent wages and trade union rights. In the process they have attempted to push their own organisations to the left. The limits of capitalist democracy have been exposed and with them the limits of the negotiated settlement of 1994. This movement which has been growing and gathering force for the last 18 years has now reached the key section of the South African proletariat and the one which has the potential to make the whole set up break down.

The struggle of the miners therefore goes to the core of the class and racial contradictions of post-apartheid South Africa and the character of the negotiated settlement through which the apartheid regime came to an end. The mainly white ruling class conceded formal democratic rights to the mainly African majority as a result of fear of the revolutionary struggle of the workers and of having trust and confidence in the ability of the pro-capitalist ANC leaders to contain the movement within the safe limits of bourgeois democracy. This trust and confidence was sealed in the so-called "sunset clauses" which inserted in the constitution a strong safeguard of private property against the idea of nationalisation which was contained in the Freedom Charter.

The revolutionary struggle against apartheid in South Africa combined democratic and national elements with a social content which went beyond the limits of capitalism. The pro-capitalist leadership of the ANC, with the help and collaboration of the former Stalinist leaders of the SACP (who abandoned the "first democracy, then socialism" Stalinist stageism for the reformist gradualism of a "strong developmental state"), managed to contain the movement within the limits of capitalist democracy. Democratic rights were won for the majority while economic and political power remained firmly in the hands of the capitalist class (which remained basically unchanged, apart from the addition of a few token Africans, preferably with connections to the former liberation movement). But for the majority of the workers who fought in that struggle nothing fundamental has changed, their living conditions, if anything, have worsened.

The only way forward is to adopt a genuine socialist program starting with the nationalisation of mining, banking and all the key sectors of the South African economy under workers’ control in order to allow for the democratic planning of the economy so that the people as a whole can share in the country’s wealth.