Zambia: Strike wave continues, workers on the offensive

In Zambia the lightning offensive of the workers has thundered on as the strike wave rolled into the New Year, drawing in broader layers of the class and demonstrating the strength of the workers in action. Undeterred by attempts to victimise striking workers – including the sacking of 200 miners by China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Group (CNMMG), who were reinstated under government pressure the very next day – the strikes have continued

All the while the PF ministers try to skin the capitalist tiger one claw at a time, their attempts to sweet talk capital into the smallest concessions walking down the same blind alleys. Brushing aside appeals for calm and patience from union bureaucrats and government ministers alike, not only the miners but also postal and transport workers have brought work to a standstill, demanding 100% pay raises and the implementation of an eight-hour work day

While the superb mass action of the Nigerian general strike has become the focal point of the African workers, the labour movement has stepped into action across the continent. In West Africa the strike of transport workers in Senegal paralyzed the country’s major cities, with pickets of entire cities enforcing the strike. On 11th January in Uganda, market traders began a three-day strike against an increase in the interest rate on loans taken from the nation’s main banks from 20 to 30 per cent. Isah Sekitto, head of the Kampala City Traders Association, made an appeal to “workers in all departments” to join the strike action – in effect, a call for a general strike against the parasitic behaviour of finance capital! Finally the campaign developing in Zambia is having an impact across the artificial border with Zimbabwe. Public sector workers came out on the 19th January with demands echoing those of the Zambian workers, including 100% pay raises and an end to the abuses

Struggles continue

The strikes let loose following the election of the Michael Sata government continued through December and into January. This particular peak in the movement of the Zambian workers has continued for almost six months now. On the 7th December at the Luanshya copper mine – owned and operated by China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation – 2,600 workers came out on strike demanding that their wages be brought into line with those won earlier at other mines. They called for a wage increase of at least 40-100% as well as the removal of two Deputy CEOs of Luanshya Copper Mines (subsidiary of CNNMG): Wang Jing Jon, whom they cited for abuse of workers, and Fredrick Chola, accused of holding up the negotiating process. The struggle lasted for around five days, bringing production in every part of the mine to a halt. The strike came to an end only when Deputy Minister for Labour Rayford Mbulu ordered the mine owners and union negotiators to resume discussions to reach an “amicable solution to whatever challenges the company was facing” and directed workers to return to their jobs while those negotiations continued. The mineworkers would have worked up copper to the value of $1.5 million dollars in the same period as the strike according to the claims of the Chinese owners. Compare this to the demand to double the K200-300 thousand per month wage of the workers (approx US $40) to K400-600 thousand ($80) - or a little over US $200,000 a month for the entire workforce working up anywhere between US $6-8 million worth of copper!

With the strike over, Mbulu, along with Oswell Munyenyembe and Adam Zulu (general secretary of the Miners Union of Zambia and VP of the National Union of Miners and Allied Workers, respectively), expressed the hope that the workers would be kind enough not to express their views or take action on the issues that directly affect them. The Chinese mine owners responded to the weakness of the minister and union leaders with aggression. Within a few days of the strike ending and a “memorandum of understanding” being signed to “improve communication to prevent misunderstanding”, 11 miners who led the strike were sacked. Mbulu intervened again to have the miners reinstated

At the same time as the Luanshya strike the Zambia Daily Mail reported that the workers of Zambia Postal Services Corporation (ZAMPOST) in the capital Lusaka brought work to a halt and held protests outside their workplaces, protesting outside the main post office on Jan 6th. They demanded 100% pay raises and the removal of the top management of ZAMPOST – particularly Post Master General Paul Simfukwe, who the Postal workers accuse of corruption, stating that he used K2 billion from ZAMPOST coffers to renovate his own home. After Patrick Kaonga, President of the National Union of Communications, pleaded with the ZAMPSOST workers to end the strike, the workers’ spokesperson Jeff Sitali said the workers wanted the removal of Kaonga as their representative as well, accusing him of failing to represent them adequately. In response to Kaonga’s pleas for a return to work Sitali asked:

“How can our union leaders accept a K40,000 salary increment? It’s an insult.”

With the union bureaucracy clearly losing any authority over the workers, Simfukwe stated that “members of staff have lost confidence in the union executive and that is why they are striking”. The strike spread to the Main Post Office, saw solidarity action from ZAMPOST staff in Kitwe who enforced a go-slow as well as a shutdown of the Post Bus, one of the main nationwide transport services. As with many of the other strikes taking place under the PF government the Zampost strike ended with the workers pressuring the government ministers they put in power into twisting the collective arm of the bosses into granting concessions on wages and working hours

More than this though, within days of the strike ending the Sata government dismissed Simfunkwe along with others in the top management of the company! Replacing him as postmaster general is Macpherson Chanda, a PF cadre who resigned as financial services manager at ZAMPOST a year ago. The example of the postal workers was also taken up recently by staff of the National Housing Authority, who went on strike with demands centred on paid holiday leave, the dissolution of the board and removal of top management

First Quantum

The key point in the current strike wave has been victory by more than 2000 miners in the largest copper mine in Zambia and seventh largest in the world (and which also produces gold), First Quantum Mineral’s Kansanshi mining complex in the Copperbelt. Beginning the strike on January 3rd the mineworkers, rightly frustrated with the manner in which the bosses dragged their feet in negotiations with union leaders, put forward demands for a 100% pay increase, a 13th pay cheque, permanent contracts and the eight-hour day. Expansion plans at the Kansanshi facility have put the mineworkers in a strong position; First Quantum unveiled plans in 2011 to almost double production from 250,000 to 400,000 tonnes of copper per year by 2015 and to complete the building of a concentrator at the facility

The two-day strike cost First Quantum K50 billion, or US$10 million (Times of Zambia, 5/1/12), more than 700 tonnes of finished copper every day and as much as US$3 million in tax revenue for the government. Undeterred by panicked cries from First Quantum about the strike being ‘illegal’, nor by orders from Labour Minister Shamenda to return to work, the workers continued the strike into a second day. Such was the impact of this struggle that after the second day First Quantum caved in to the demands for the 13th pay cheque, eight-hour day and permanent contracts and returned to the table to negotiate new salaries with the miners’ union. The strike at First Quantum (particularly the manner in which it hit him them where it hurts – the profit margin!) has convinced the new owners of Maamba Collieries coal mine based in Zambia’s Southern Province to forego the strike and simply give the 100% wage increase!

As can be seen from the examples above, the wavering and reformist attempts to get worker and capitalist around the table have proven both fruitless and counterproductive. It is only the Patriotic Front and trade union leaders who think that the conflicting class interests of workers and capitalist can be papered over in this struggle. The strikes have presented great risks for those taking part. However, by acting decisively and aggressively in seizing their demands, the Zambian miners have won important concessions out of the mining corporations operating in Zambia

90 days of President Sata

Having passed the 90-day mark at which Michael Sata promised the workers, peasants and youth of Zambia that he would “put more money in their pockets”, the true force in society - the working class - has shown itself to be the power behind even the smallest concessions wrung out of the capitalists. Having driven the Patriotic Front into power by a campaign of workers and youth, Sata – who at one time railed verbally against the abuse of workers carried out by Chinese mine owners – and the ministers of his government have carried out a small number of reforms including increasing the minimum wage and adjusting tax thresholds to take more than 80,000 low paid workers out of taxable brackets

With these few reforms in hand they are more and more urging a ‘dialogue’ between labour and capital. In October of last year (barely three weeks into the PF government’s first term) Minister for Labour Fackson Shamenda, having been put into his position by a movement of the unemployed and the youth, tried to order an end to all workers’ protests, strikes and sit-ins - claiming that workers had “come to misunderstand my statement when I said that people were free to protest because it had reached a level where even those who can solve their issues with dialogue are resorting to protests”. The state-owned Times of Zambia (ToZ) said Shamenda had since “revoked his earlier statement allowing people to protest, adding that whoever would be found protesting would face possible arrest because it was illegal (!)”. Shamenda was quoted again by the ToZ in December (22/12/11) as saying that grievances should be put to the capitalists “in a sober manner as opposed to resorting to illegal strikes which were counterproductive (!)”:

“It is always important to dialogue because when you dialogue, it is easy for people to get what you are trying to put across. But when you are confrontational, it is very difficult to get a point that one is trying to put across…another important issue is to have facts because when you have facts, it is easy to solve labour issues.”

It seems that Shamenda has forgotten the fact that his new found position was won by the extremely “confrontational” action of the unemployed workers and youth of Lusaka, Kitwe and Ndola who battled riot police to prevent the delivery of rigged ballots to polling stations! Perhaps he has forgotten the fact that the “illegal” action of Zambian miners of the Copperbelt region, after the victory of the Patriotic Front, won them not only a 100% pay increase but will also make the owners of the mine think twice before resorting to their old dirty tactics. So terrible is this “confrontational” attitude that only a matter of days after the election of the PF on 20 September a number of businesses in Lusaka began to actually pay the legal minimum wage! In the midst of all of these orders, appeals and threats of arrest directed at the masses that put him in office, what has happened to the condemnation of the “illegal” action of the capitalists?

The sentiments expressed above by Shamenda were echoed by the head of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Leonard Hikaumba, in the same issue of the Times of Zambia. Speaking on the recent increase of the minimum wage by the Sata government, Hikaumba said the following:

“The labour movement welcomes this directive as it will go a long way in improving the income levels for workers, who are not covered by union representation. But we still consider it of utmost importance for social partners to look at these issues critically, so that the outcome on minimum wage will be accepted by all social partners.”

Evidently the trade union and political leadership of the Zambian workers, having yelled and jeered at the very real abuses of the workers particularly on the part of Chinese capitalism, have now discovered that things aren’t that bad after all! Only days after signing a loan agreement with the Chinese some ministers in the PF government have begun to preach that by talking in soft tones to ‘social partners’ (a fine way to put class collaboration) they can be lulled into brushing a few more crumbs from their table.

Again reported by the Times of Zambia (13/12/11), PF Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda signed this same “economic and technical cooperation grant” agreement worth K43.3 billion (approx US $8.4 million) with the Chinese government and an additional “interest-free loan agreement of K32 billion (US $6.25 billion), in which the funds will be used in the fight against poverty and projects to be agreed upon by the two governments”. The Zambian masses, who have suffered greatly at the hands of international capital, who waged a great part of the campaign to make the PF victory a reality on the basis of obtaining greater education and healthcare as well as advances on the industrial front, can wait for the Chinese state and the PF ministers to decide what to do with this fund, a fund that is equivalent to a year and a half of all tax revenue – or put another way, large enough to wipe clean the entire Zambian state debt with enough left to pay for almost four months’ worth of imports into the Zambian economy. On signing the deal Chikwanda is quoted by the ToZ as saying:

“Zambia greatly admires the strides made by China in uplifting the standard of living of its people as well as the spectacular advancement in the areas of manufacturing, commerce and trade, infrastructure, information and communication technologies and culture.”

The abuses of the Zambian masses are quickly forgotten when you have a ministerial title to your name. Evidently Minister Chikwanda could do with a tour of the factories of China where Apple products are assembled – where conditions are so bad Chinese workers are made to sign a legal document promising not to attempt suicide, and the bosses help the workers uphold this agreement by putting up netting around the dormitories where the workers sleep to prevent them from jumping

All the great strides forward of China and Chinese capitalism have been made on the backs of the hundreds of millions of Chinese workers and peasants, throwing the former into conditions which drive many to suicide, while tearing the latter from the soil and throwing them into the ranks of the workers. If the Chinese capitalists were making such wondrous advances in “uplifting the standard of living of its people” then they would be rather less concerned about the thousands of ’mass events’ which take place every year, “mass event” being a euphemistic term of the state for protests, riots and large-scale strikes. So concerned are they that the defence budget – for a nuclear power, with the world’s largest military and now also developing an aircraft carrier – is smaller than that for internal security, the latter funding both police and paramilitary forces, the police having recently unveiled a new range of machine gun-toting armoured cars

Copper

As was pointed out in a previous Marxist.com article on Zambia, the workers of Zambia have attempted to determine their own future, putting their leaders into power, but have been betrayed - not because of the particular personal characteristics of individual leaders but because of the colossal pressure that capitalist finance can bring to bear on the colonial nations. The previous Movement for Multi-party Democracy government was an attempt by the labour movement in Zambia to have its own political voice. Because the MMD remained within the confines of capitalism – which for Zambia and the rest of the colonial world means being subject to capitalist imperialism, particularly that enforced by the IMF, the favoured tool of US/European finance capital – they soon had to carry out the policies of capitalism. For Zambia this means mass unemployment and poverty

With this lesson of history in mind the words of Minister for Mines Wylbur Simuusa must be taken as a warning to the Zambian masses of how fragile their gains can be. Speaking to Reuters in an article carried by the Lusaka Times at the beginning of December, Simuusa stated that the recent doubling of mining royalties, intended to pay for reforms including widening access to healthcare, education and farming subsidies, could be cut back “if it becomes a crisis, if [copper] prices crash”. The doubling of royalties itself brought protests from First Quantum, whose head of tax Adam Little expressed the desire that reforms to tax collection be made so that “Zambia’s reliance on the more damaging taxes can be reduced.” As we have previously explained, although copper production and minerals in general are experiencing particularly high prices lately, this will not and cannot last. The fact of the matter is that a very large part of the demand for copper comes from China, which consumes 40% of all copper production. The contradictions within the Chinese economy – not to mention the wider European and American capitalist crises – are being heaped one on top of the other, with every attempt to overcome them on a capitalist basis making the looming crisis worse

When this crisis hits, the effects will be earth-shattering. So long as the PF ministers remain within the confines of capitalism, basing themselves on reformist policies, not only the capitalists but also the PF government will carry out attacks on the masses to attempt to shore up the long-decaying, parasitic capitalist system – mass layoffs and mine closures on the one hand, cuts to education, healthcare, social programs and support for small farmers on the other. Without a political leadership basing itself on proletarian internationalism and the socialist revolution, the Zambian masses, in the long run, will not be able to defend what gains they have made to date. Enough of begging and sweet talk for scraps from the capitalist table! Why seize positions that you will not defend?

The strike offensive must continue! The strikes must be organised on a wider and stronger basis, drawing in and allying with all the workers, poor, peasants and youth. Union activists must reclaim their organizations at all levels. Democratic strike committees must be set up and extended into genuine action committees accountable to the rank and file. The movement should be unified around demands that PF ministers immediately implement the nationalisation of the entire mining sector and its auxiliaries under the democratic control of the working class. This would be a first step towards getting control of the resources that can guarantee genuine social reforms for the majority of the population. Nationalisation of the mines should be seen as part of a movement towards a democratically planned economy by expropriating the capitalists and the multinationals

Any steps taken in that direction would find an echo across the continent. An internationalist appeal to the workers across Africa would guarantee the defence and extensions of any revolutionary gains made in Zambia