It has been almost four weeks since miners at Marikana went on strike, marching alone without any leadership, demanding a genuine wage increase from R4000 to R12500. Since then there has been all sorts of pressure, from all leaders, to end the strike in the midst of the current global recession. But the workers are intent on not going back to work till their demands are met, they are resolute in their demands and are not prepared to back down.
After the brutal carnage carried out by the state police which killed 34 miners, there were all sorts of confusion and backward prejudices that came to the surface. The SACP (South African Communist Party) wanted the AMCU, a minority union, to be held accountable for leading an “illegal” strike; some were accusing a Sangoma (traditional healer) who allegedly misled workers on the day of the massacre; some could not comprehend how such tragic scenes reminiscent of our past, in the apartheid era, could resurface in our new “democratic” state; some even went further with cynical rhetoric, accusing the workers of gangsterism, laziness and went on about the low levels of production in South Africa.
However, none of all this comes even close to describing what is actually happening in society, both nationally and globally. As Marxists we understand that it is the concentration of capital in just a few hands, in this brutal system, the free market system, that drives men and women to lose hope and reach extreme levels of desperation, to an extent that one immolates himself after being provoked by the police (Tunisia), another shoots himself in front of parliament (Greece). It is intense anger, produced by the genuine quest to emancipate oneself from the bondage of capitalism that determines such “abnormal” behaviour.
This extreme reaction develops from a quantitative state to a qualitative state, when they appear as mass movements unfolding before our eyes, as the recent events have shown us, and they can suddenly erupt to the surface without our anticipation.
The events in Marikana without any doubt caught the leadership of the NUM by surprise. However, it is not surprising that after the Impala strike which occurred earlier this year, they have been vacillating. There was no formal march by the union, with all the demands of the miners. Yet there are many issues that remain unresolved which have suddenly come to the attention of the NUM leaders in the midst of these events currently unfolding. The COSATU leadership, through its general secretary Vavi, admits that there’s an increasing gap between the leaders and the masses, “Union leaders are cultivating the possibility of attaining the highest office and not cultivating the workplace”.
Indeed this is the case, today we witness salary deductions of miners without their consultation and all this is done with the knowledge of the NUM leaders. It has even become difficult for NUM leaders to identify and assess challenges confronting their own constituency; that is why they resort to a blame game, accusing an opposition which is a minority in form. They lament about opportunists who are taking advantage of the current situation on the ground, yet they are absent in the trenches. We should rather ask this question: why is it so easy for such tendencies to manifest themselves without any resistance.
The NUM should be flexible in its tactics and stay bold in content, if it is to win these militant workers, and it must immediately abandon its sectarian tendency which has been manifesting itself since 12th January 2012. The NUM should propose a united front with every union concerned with the situation at Marikana and around Rustenburg, under common demands of all the miners. It should distance itself from the bourgeoisie class collaborationist perspective as outlined by Vusi in our previous article Lessons from Marikana: Class Collaboration with Capital, or Class struggle against Capital? The NUM's role is to patiently arm its constituency and other miners in general with a scientific theory of how this capitalist system works and, in a process of dialogue with the workers, work towards establishing workers’ control. As the strike intensifies it is not only union leaders that come under pressure. The State has continued to enhance police deployment around all mining sites where there are strikes. This is a gesture to satisfy the employers and investors, and it has subsequently held mining seminars where all the necessary strategy to combat the current situation is being revealed to the investors, as an assurance that the SA government has the ability and capacity to restore the situation to normality.
The State is under immense pressure from the ruling class, the capitalists, because these ongoing strikes are contagious, and they are generally sparked by common demands and gain momentum in other sectors as they intensify quantitatively and qualitatively. This is exactly why the police were given orders to encircle the miners in small groups and that is also the reason the NUM, a close union to the ANC led government, have been pleading with the workers to return to work and allow the negotiations to continue, as if these could work towards removing the inequalities in our society. It is a fact that since 2008, once the present capitalist crisis broke out [not to mention what they had already taken back before 2008], we have seen how all the reforms of the past have been reversed, never to be conceded again.
In all this, capital is only concerned about the global supply of platinum which has a potential to affect production in the automotive industry if the present “distractions” are prolonged. But it is not only about “supply”; we have to also look at the question of “demand”, as currently demand is weak on a global scale.
The ANC was given a mandate by its constituency, the working people, to run national (and foreign) policy in the interest of the majority of the people. But it has been proven in practice that such policies cannot be put into practice because the leaders of the ANC have limited themselves to adopting policies that are compatible with the interests of the ruling class, the capitalists, who control the means of production. That is why the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM, which includes COSATU, ANC, SANCO, SACP, YCL, ANCYL and many more) must unite towards ensuring nationalization is achieved in the key sectors of our economy, so that we can overcome these contradictions. The problem is the reformist outlook of our leaders which is an obstacle to taking the revolutionary road.
As long as we are not talking of meaningful ownership of the commanding heights of our economy, capital can quite easily live with liberal/left reforms because it can continue without any disruption, with the auxiliary of its apologists, to extract surplus value from the working class which is at the heart of the class struggle.
The Lonmin company
In this context we need to understand how the private mineral companies operate in South Africa, in particular Lonmin. Lonmin is the world’s third largest platinum producer with the majority of its operations located at Marikana; it is situated in the Bonjanala District of the North West Province (where Impala is located), a prime platinum mining area of South Africa and the world. An essential part of Lonmin’s operations is the Mining Division. It is listed on the London Stock Exchange. Its registered office is in London, and its operational headquarters are in Johannesburg, South Africa. Lonmin is a subsidiary of Anglo Platinum.
It was founded in 1909. Key people at the company are Roger Phillimore (Chairman) Ian Farmer (CEO) Mahomed Seedat (COO). Revenue in 2011 was $1,992 million, while Operating Income was $311 million (2011). It employs 27,800 workers.
Platinum is a silvery-white metal that is used in jewellery, electrical contacts, laboratory equipment. Platinum is generally non-reactive and almost impossible to corrode, even at very high temperature. This is why platinum is one of the major components found in almost every catalytic converter produced in the world. This explains why present-day demand for platinum from South Africa outstrips supply. Platinum can take up to six months to refine and, on average, seven to 12 tons of ore yields one ounce of high grade platinum.
Last year it was reported that about 90 million automobiles were being produced in the world but current demand only stands at 60 million, which means there’s an excess capacity of 30 million units. The current recession has the potential to decrease this demand even further and thus increase the figures for excess capacity.
Lonmin is well aware of all this, because it has a direct impact on its profits, as the auto industry is its main buyer. For Lonmin the key thing is not to fall below the level of demand in its production. To extract minerals beneath the soil takes time; to refine minerals is also another lengthy process. They also have an obligation to return profits to their shareholders. This is why Lonmin was so quick to issue an ultimatum for the workers to report on duty on the Monday (20-08-2012) just after the massacre on the 16th August, while the workers were still looking for their friends and still waiting for their reasonable demand of R12 500. For Lonmin, just as it is with other capitalists, time is an important element in production, because employers want the maximum time they can get from workers in production. It was therefore not surprising to witness this inhuman behaviour from Lonmin, under these current circumstances.
On Monday (3-09-2012) some union representatives, who were part of a delegation that went to negotiate on behalf of the workers with the employers, came back to the workers attempting to end the strike. They were immediately told to go back to the employers with a clear message: “tell them, that we the workers have told you to demand R12500 and nothing less”.
As I write these lines today (5-09-2012) the miners are currently demonstrating their strength in the revolutionary theatre, i.e. on the streets, marching across all Lonmin mining plants in a peaceful and bold manner.
The workers are gaining strength quantitatively and qualitatively, with more than 3000 miners marching today. They also have selected their own representatives who can eloquently express their demands in their native language. They have not only organized themselves in terms of representation, they have gone back to their disciplined mode of assembling and strategizing, and all this, most of the time is done in an open field , under the hot sun, with no air-conditioning. The workers literally sit on the ground and listen actively to each speaker from the floor.
There is a high level of frustration amongst workers who are on low incomes, like the rock drillers on around $480, while the employers earn millions and bonuses. Most of these workers are breadwinners; and they have left their wives back home to take care of their children. Their wives and children depend on this income, which to any average family in South Africa is not enough. This is what the judicial commission of inquiry won’t resolve, and yet it remains the core issue. The whole situation puts into question the very viability of the so-called “free market” system and we should take these events as a genuine reference point.
Mining in South Africa has been the main driving force behind the history and development of Africa's most advanced and richest economy. Let me just highlight the wealth of vast resources concentrated in this country. We have 41% of the world’s gold, 45% of the vanadium, 73% of the chrome, close to 80% of the manganese and close to 90% of the platinum.
Our mines are worth 18 trillion Rands, and they have an approximately average life span of 100 years and an estimated job creation potential of 500,000 (in the mining industry alone). We are the second largest producer of gold, the world's largest producer of chrome, manganese, platinum, vanadium and vermiculite, the second largest producer of ilmenite, palladium, rutile and zirconium, and also the world's third largest coal exporter.
The working people of South Africa suffer in poverty in the midst of such potential wealth because it is in the hands of a small number of private owners, the capitalists. What we need to do is remove the power of the oligarchy and take full control of the commanding heights of our economy. Nationalization of this wealth is the first step towards solving this major contradiction, but it should also be complemented with the introduction of workers’ control local to national level. That is what the NUM and ANC leaders should be calling for!