South Africa: Recent strike at Impala Platinum Mine in Rustenburg

The recent militant strike by the miners at the Impala Platinum Mine has highlighted how far the present NUM leadership is lagging behind the mood of the workers. The contradictions that had been brewing beneath the surface at Impala Platinum Mine, in Rustenburg, came to the public’s attention on the 12th January 2012 when rock drill operators (RDOs) refused to work. On the 24th January the mining company dismissed 5000 workers who went on strike without giving the employer a “formal notice”, and as the strike intensified the number of workers on strike significantly increased.

The workers were demanding better working conditions and a basic salary of 9000 Rands (from the current R3000 basic salary). The collective indignation expressed by the workers at Impala through the so-called illegal demonstration was also given an impetus by the employers’ selective salary adjustments. The massive action by the workers had been planned and executed without any assistance from the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), although the NUM has a 70 percent constituency/membership working at Impala.

The trade union leaders only saw this courageous mass action the workers as an “illegal strike” and thus an action that was undermining the relations between the trade unions and the bosses. The fact of the matter is that workers are tired and frustrated at these legalistic protracted procedures they have to go through before they can actually embark on a strike in defence of their legitimate demands. The manner in which the recent events unfolded at Impala have revealed more than what is apparently an illegal strike. They revealed how little backing there is among the NUM leaders for real militant action

Accord to Impala Platinum Holdings Limited (Implats): “Implats is in the business of mining, refining and marketing of platinum group metals (PGMs), as well as nickel, copper and cobalt. In the 2009 financial year, Implats produced 1.7Moz of platinum (approximately 25% of global supply) and 3.4Moz of PGMs. The group employs approximately 53,000 people (including contractors) across its operations and is one of the most efficient and lowest cost primary platinum producers in the world. The company is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the LSE. Its industry gold Headquarters are in Johannesburg, South Africa; its revenue is R26.121 billion ZAR.”

Events at Implats

The following is a strike timeline, noting important dates, reported by the Sunday Times’ business section:

“January 12: Rock drill operators (RDOs) refuse to work at the Impala Rustenburg 14 shaft. They demand that the dispute be settled without the involvement of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

“January 18: RDOs embark on a second illegal work stoppage, once again demanding a salary increase and insisting they will have nothing to do with NUM.

“January 20: The RDOs go on an unprotected strike. Implats management arranges a meeting between the RDO spokespeople and the NUM branch committee. The delegation representing the RDOs walks out of the meeting. Management apply for and are given an interdict declaring the work stoppage illegal and unprotected.

“January 24: The RDOs who have taken part in the illegal strike are dismissed, but are given the opportunity to reapply for their jobs on January 27.

“January 30: The strike has escalated, and most of the workforce fails to report for duty. Management applies for and gets another interdict declaring this second strike to be illegal and unprotected.

“February 1: All 17,000 workers are fired.

“February 16: One person is killed, and a policewoman and several civilians are injured.

“February 16: Implats CEO David Brown releases interim results with headline earnings up 67.8%.

“February 17: Implats and NUM meet.

“February 19: Re-employment appears to be on track with 7762 officially back at work. February 20: SAPS officers confront a group of 150 marching people in the early hours. A standoff ensues. Two former workers and one current worker sustain injuries while a third discharged worker is killed.

“February 21: NUM and Cosatu speak to the workers calling for them to return to work. About 8368 workers are re-employed, 1074 of which are RDOs.The total mine complement is now 24168.

“February 24: One man is killed and six others are assaulted.” NUM and Big Business, Worker his own

Although the workers’ resistance was noted by the employers as early as 12 January it is difficult to distinguish when the initial phase of defiance started, when workers realized the limitations of the NUM leadership; and where workers organized themselves in preparation for massive action. The planning phase by the workers could have taken place early in January or months before the actual demonstration. Workers have learned the tradition of organizing meetings for mass action from their Unions; this was evident when the media, particularly SABC, showed workers addressing their assemblies without any leadership in a disciplined manner. This, and the impact the militancy had on the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), who in turn put pressure on the NUM leadership, forced the leaders to shift from their initial “moderate” stance of not recognising the strike, a position which had only served to play into the hands of the employers. The bosses had no qualms about taking a hard line position and after two weeks the initial workers who had come out on strike had been dismissed. The NUM leaders had in fact been portraying their own members as being victims to immature unions seeking relevance by organizing an “illegal strike”. But of course this was not the case with the militant workers this time. [The NUM is an affiliate of COSATU]

After a week with the first wave of sackings, 13,000 more workers joined the strike, on the 1st February 2012. These workers were also then dismissed, bringing the total of dismissed workers to 17,000. The huge numbers taking part – displaying collective empathy for the militant workers by the mass of workers – is what served to seriously weaken the position of the mining bosses. Hence they quickly turned to the NUM leadership for help, getting them to reassure its members that their demands would be addressed at the negotiating table, and that there was no need for strike action and that the workers should therefore go back to work.

The NUM thus issued a statement through its spokesman Lesiba Seshoka: “The NUM is committed to a peaceful resolution at (Impala Platinum) Implats and appeals to all its members and workers in general to return to the operations next week when their issues are being addressed.”

On 19th February the process of re-employment of the 17,000 appeared to be on track with 7762 back at work. The re-employment process of 17,000 was seen as a great intervention by the leadership of NUM. This is a myth as it was Implats that intervened. Big business cannot afford to lose such a massive workforce. It always feels threatened by workers who are committed and resolute under the same banner of demands, determined to fight till victory for their common struggle. In their pursuit to divide and weaken the strength of the massive demonstration so that production and exploitation can resume as soon as possible they ,big business, have managed to convince the National Union of Mineworkers to disperse the courageous demonstration by the workers, and the leadership of the NUM has since taken mandate from the bosses without any resistance. In spite of this, even though alone, the workers continued to show their courageous defiance, informed by their genuine demands, till today (29/02/2012), when they final reported for work. Although the workers have reluctantly reported for work they have given the employer a warning, that they should address their needs immediately.

The General Secretary of COSATU, Vavi Zwelinzima, expressed his disappointment at the manner in which the NUM’s shop stewards have handled the strike. This prompted COSATU to intervene. Initially, workers had hope when they heard that Vavi was going to address them at a nearby stadium. On 19 February, the general secretary finally intervened but without a plan. Vavi only lamented about the poor conditions at the mines and ill treatment of workers and how he too was once under the same condition as a miner. He also tried to end the strike but his attempt was unsuccessful.

Media and Police

The media, the police and big business mounted a propaganda campaign aimed at the relatives and families highlighting the fact that the workers were on an illegal strike and that such action was irresponsible because it would lead to a decline in profits of the company, and that the workers’ spouses and progenies would bear the brunt of the strike. Since the inception of the strike the media was lamenting about the so-called illegal strike of mineworkers at Impala.

What they conveniently ignored is that it is the company that is making obscene profits out of the labour of the miners, and that the legal hurdles that the miners have to circumvent in order to take strike action are there to weaken the workers’ bargaining power. They also ignored the fact that the trade union leaders have been acquiescing to this situation, and in the process it is the miners who have suffered. And at a certain point the pot simply boiled over and all the pent up anger came to the surface e in this militant strike.

As Marxists we condemn uncalled for violence. However, while there have been reports of foul acts by workers against fellow colleagues and the destruction of property, the protective façade of the police conceals its inherent and disgusting disruptive nature. A police spokesperson reported the following:

“Many shopkeepers and residents in the immediate vicinity have left their homes and businesses for the safety of shelter with relatives or friends in other areas after businesses were looted last week, we are currently investigating these criminal acts.”

The fact of the matter is that the shops located near the mines depend on the miners for their custom. It was the violent reaction of the police to the militant actions of the miners that created the tense situation and forced many shop owners to relocate business to other areas.

The employer in this strike has also tried to make gains to reduce his production costs, unaware that these tactics which it implements will inevitably aggravate its lack of productivity. Initially it fired and then hired the same personnel but withdrew their initial pension benefits. As the strike intensified Implats was forced to change its tune, and workers retained their benefits. But Implats has been persistent in its pursuit to cut costs, as it plays the victim in this protracted strike which lasted for six weeks.

On the 16 February 2012 Implats issued the following statement through its CEO David Brown on Thursday: “Implats, which sources platinum from its own mines and others in South Africa and Zimbabwe, can continue to offer limited supplies to its customers. The company held back on sales late last year because of low prices and has an inventory of about 70,000oz. The strike-affected mines near Rustenburg, its key producing area, are unlikely to reach their 915,000oz-920,000oz target for the year to end-June. ‘We’ve been okay up to now, but the longer this strike goes on, obviously it will have a bigger impact.”

Today (29/02/2012) Implats has reported a loss of 2 billion rands, it also issued a statement saying it will only rehire 15,000 of the 17,000 that went on strike due to its financial losses.

What must be done

Workers need to maintain the rank and file bodies they threw up during the strike, but at the same time work with the NUM. Workers together with NUM must formulate a memorandum of demands and demand a response within a predetermined period by the workers. Workers need to elect their own representatives which will form part of the delegation negotiating with the employers.

Generally workers have common demands/struggle with other miners (in the gold sector or platinum sector and so on); therefore committees in future should link their demands with other working committees from different mining operations so that a massive action is strengthened. Through committees workers should put pressure on the popular union (NUM) to demand the re-employment of the 2000 workers who will not be rehired.

The NUM leaders must also break with their position of seeking compromise and agreement with the bosses. The nature and character of capital are not what they perceive it to be; they have lagged behind the objective situation. What they should have done was to link up the demands of all workers and fight with them till victory.

This recent experience highlights several points. The first is that militancy alone is not sufficient to win; the workers, while setting up their own rank and file committees must also strive to win the NUM as a whole to a militant stance. That requires systematic work within the union, to end any illusion in the idea that in present day conditions it is possible to sit round the table with the bosses and win improvements for the workers simply on the basis of dialogue and compromise. The days when that was possible are long gone. The NUM leaders must be decisive. The NUM is not a “broad church” as some would like to pretend. Its role is to represent the workers and take its mandate from the workers. Its role is not to unite the working class and capitalists in the debating chambers.

Forward with militant workers’ struggle!!
Educate! Agitate! Organize!