Zambia: Patriotic Front victory unleashes wave of strikes

The class struggle in Zambia has won important victories in recent weeks, with 2,000 copper miners winning a 100% wage increase against the Chinese mine owners, while a movement of the unemployed and youth have driven the ‘King Cobra’ to power in last month’s presidential election.

Standing on a populist program, promising to redistribute the gains of Zambia’s mineral wealth as well as tackling widespread corruption, Michael Sata has been carried into the presidential palace by youths who have signed up to vote by the million, battling the police and security forces in some areas, including Kitwe and Ndola (the second and third largest cities after the capital Lusaka) and intercepting truckloads of rigged ballot papers to ensure that their man won.

Even at the height of an economic boom, having gained formal ‘independence’ from the main powers, capitalism has held the entire continent of Africa in a state of almost permanent economic and social crisis for decades and has not permitted a single inroad on the most serious problems facing the African people.

It is only when the African masses have taken their fate into their own hands, following up the revolutionary overthrow of the colonial masters with the overthrow of their capitalist masters – Burkina Faso under Thomas Sankara being a prime example – that they have been able to begin to address these serious tasks.

The global crisis of capitalism and the world revolutionary upsurge, starting in the Arab Revolution, has found an echo in the minds of millions of Africans. In Burkina Faso the masses have hammered at the Campaore regime with demonstrations and a general strike alongside a widespread mutiny in the armed forces - including the Presidential Guard. Immense clashes took place in June in Senegal against the rule of Abdoulaye Wade between police and thousands of protestors and again in Malawi against Bingu wa Mutharika, in July. The background to all of these is rocketing inflation, spikes in the cost of food, collapsing demand for raw materials and cash crops and mass unemployment, especially amongst the youth which has reached a crisis point. The global crisis of capitalism has hit all of Africa hard, but now the Zambian masses are hitting back.

Standing on a program of tackling head on the most serious abuses of workers, a swift review of the minimum wage and promises to utilise Zambia’s mineral and copper wealth to raise the living standards of the masses within 90 days, the Patriotic Front has been elected with Sata wining 45% of the vote compared to Rupiah Banda’s 35%. In the 2008 election Sata lost by only 35,000 amid widespread vote rigging and buying voters off with food and money –often paid for by Chinese. Headed by Michael Sata known as the ‘King Cobra’ for his venomous attacks, particularly on Chinese businesses and other multinationals for how they treat Zambian workers, the PF has been hurtled into power by a broad campaign of the masses. In the years between 2002 and 2008 Sata and the PF have addressed mass rallies of Zambians, appealing directly to their deep seated grievances. Since the narrow electoral defeat in 2008 1 million Zambians have entered their names on the electoral register, in preparation for the campaign to come, taking the total number of voters to about 5.1 million. The PF manifesto declares that they will not only quadruple the state provision of fertiliser for farmers but also review the minimum wage, greatly increase access to healthcare and education, finance a program of housing construction as well as taking up to a 35% stake in the copper mines of the country, the dominant industry, and enforce taxes on the same industry to pay for these reforms - all of which has clearly connected with the Zambian masses.

In order to combat the buying of votes, PF supporters advanced the slogan of “don’t kubeba” or ‘don’t tell’; when the activists of the former ruling party Movement for Multiparty Democracy came around with food, gifts and money to buy votes PF supporters should accept what was offered, agree to the guidelines given by the MMD - until they were in the voting booth where they would cast their ballot for the PF. Alongside this the MMD has become notorious for ballot rigging and would use a printing company close to party leader and now ex-president Rupiah Banda to print pre-marked ballot papers and transport the boxes to polling stations – the unemployed and youth of the capital Lusaka intervened directly to prevent this kind of rigging by intercepting the trucks carrying the rigged ballots, taking on the police where necessary – a big change to what is locally referred to as kucheza-cheza (idleness) which has emerged as a result of unemployment levels reaching a crisis point. All these actions to combat the vote rigging of the previous regime were carried out on a large scale, and drew in broad layers of the workers and poor, led by the youth.

With the election of Michael Sata, and the Patriotic Front driven into power, the Zambian working class as a whole have begun to step forward with demands for wage increases and permanent contracts, taking their struggle onto a qualitatively higher level, not waiting for Sata to fulfil his promise of redistributing the copper wealth within 90 days, but pressing home in some areas or making direct appeals to Labour Minister Fackson Shamenda to intervene in others. A strike wave has rippled through the mining and refining sector and has found its way into broader layers of the class. Recent weeks have seen protests by security guards, shop keepers, construction workers on infrastructure projects and new buildings, including the strike of employees of Zambezi Portland Cement, based in Ndola, fighting for wage increase to $705 a month (3.5 million Kwacha). Workers have been encouraged by the recent victory of 2000 mine workers in Chinese owned mines of Zambia’s Copperbelt region who won a 100% wage increase. Workers at ZAFFICO (Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation) downed tools demanding better pay and permanent contracts in the second week of October, barricading the road leading to the ZAFFICO entrance in Ndola, displaying the PF symbol and chanting the party slogan “we want change!”. The week before workers of the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA) struck demanding salary increase, removal of the managing director and the payment of outstanding leave pay.

Highlighting the extent of the strike wave AllAfrica.com reported on the 10th of October that “barely a day passes without reports of work stoppages or sit-ins to press for improved labour conditions, from mines to factories to dock workers, at firms both local and foreign, in cities and towns scattered across the map.” (Strikers press new President for change). The first week of October saw a sit in of 100 workers at Indian owned Ashwas Industries protesting the $50 a week pay (the minimum wage is currently set as $84). The report in allAfrica.com continues:

“We are getting peanuts and we expect the government to help improve the conditions of service here," said Steven Chikonko, spokesman for the workers.

"Whenever one falls ill, the company's accounts department treats such as absenteeism and would subtract from one's salary," said Chikonko.

He said that workers were not allowed to leave to cast ballots in the national elections on September 20.

Ashwas representative Ravi Rao declined to comment on the claims.

The workers at one of Lafarge’s cement factories addressed the following appeal to Fackson Shamenda towards the end of the third week of October:

Labour, Sports, Youth and Gender Minister Fackson Shamenda

Honorable Shamenda,

Kindly find time and visit Lafarge Cement Zambia Ndola factory. We are suffering.

  1. lowest paid worker gets K1.8 million
  2. Most employees are on contracts and some have worked more than 10 years on contracts
  3. Ndola Cement factory alone sales about K900million in daily sales but pays workers poorly with yearly increments between K90,000 and K120,000.
  4. Our union is controlled and intimidated by management, they get what management gives them.
  5. Gratuity for contract workers is calculated at 15% which is very low.
  6. We have foreign managers who get as high as K150 million to K350million per month with K7million weekly allowances, besides the company paying for their accommodation, food dstv electricity etc.
  7. Bonus is calculated at 10% meaning those with bigger salaries gets more than workers who suffer for it. 10% of 1.8m is K180, 000 and 10% of K50million is K5million, see the gap.
  8. Christmas bonus was scrapped off, we dont get it any more in Lafarge, but we make billions of kwachas for a French guy.
  9. Mr Shamenda, President Sata, please help us, dont turn blind eye on us , we voted for you. Remember us, we cannot demonstrate or go on strike. Union workers are few and can be easily fired.

Help us please.

Concerned employees

The struggle of Zambia’s miners, especially in the copper sector (the largest in Africa), has rumbled on for over a year now – with one explosive episode taking place last year when the Chinese managers of the Collum Mine in Sinazongwe district (owned by Yangtze Jiang Enterprises Ltd) of southern Zambia opened fire on mine workers protesting the atrocious working conditions and desperately low wages paid to them. The miners are almost exclusively taken on as casual labour in order that the bosses can avoid having to pay for health insurance and housing subsidies. At least 11 people were badly injured in the attack, 2 critically.

The focal point of the dispute last year was 11 days in which the miners were asked to stay away from work while there was no demand for the coal from the Collum mine, which is heavily reliant on Zambia’s largest cement producer, Lafarge, and mines in the metal extraction and processing industry (particularly copper) for demand. The cement factories also have frequent shut downs and casual labour is used extensively in Zambia after ‘restructuring’ by the IMF. Riots had broken out at the mine in 2009 after a long build-up of tensions. Two of the miners, Vincent Chengele and Simon Simwete, were in a critical condition following the shooting in 2010 – attempted murder charges were brought against two of the Chinese managers of the mine responsible for the shooting, Xiao Li Shan and Wu Jiu Hua. The charges were dropped in April of this year, their defence lawyer explaining that Zambian law meant the state did not have to explain why it had decided to drop the charges. Similar events have taken place during a recent boom in investment by Chinese capitalism in Zambia – in 2005 46 miners were killed in an explosion at a plant owned by China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group (CNMMG), in 2006 the managers of the Chambishi mine on the same site as the CNMMG plant shot and injured at least 6 miners during a strike and protest over wages and working conditions.

A rebound in the market value of copper in 2010 – driven in no small part by China, which soaks up approximately 40% of global copper production and had built stocks of 1.9 million tonnes by the end of 2010 – along with large scale investment by not only Chinese but also North American and European capitalists has strengthened the position of the Zambian miners allowing them to flex their muscles and press home with their demands. All this after a period of heavy layoffs and increasing rates of exploitation - despite the sacking of thousands of miners the actual output tonnage of copper increased by 20% between 2008 and the end of 2010. In a country where 85% of the population works in the agricultural sector (most often as small farmers struggling to produce maize) copper production carries an immensely disproportionate weight in the Zambian economy. Where 6% of the working population is employed in all sectors of industry combined, copper accounts for something in the region of 75% of all exports (the real figure is not truly known and may well be even higher, the majority of mining operations, such as Vedanta, First Quantum, Glencorp, CNMMG amongst others, cook the books declaring large scale losses to the government when profits are up, in order to avoid paying taxes to the Zambian state which has been so far unwilling to enforce taxes on the multinationals). This complete distortion, brought about by the manner in which capitalism has developed Zambia in its interest alone, rather than that of the Zambian masses, made it particularly vulnerable to the collapse of commodity prices and drop in production after the capitalist crisis broke out in 2007/2008.

The huge profits sweated out of the mining sector in Zambia have not in the slightest ‘trickled down’ to the workers whose labour make the industry possible. Many have to pay around 100,000 Kwacha ($20) out of their 500,000 Kwacha ($100 – in the copper sector, coal miners including those in the Collum Mine receive the equivalent of around $70) a month salary on renting mud walled huts. In comparison many of the managers and supervisors of these facilities earn many times that amount, the supervisors and managers of French cement operator Lafarge earning anything between 150-350 million Kwacha per month, with a further 7 million Kwacha in weekly allowances on top of housing, food and electricity costs met by the company. The Chinese operations are notorious for their particularly bad conditions. Interviewed by BBC News (China in Zambia: Jobs or Exploitation?) Ngula Simukuka of Sinazeze township residents stated that the owners do not even provide the most elementary safety equipment – face masks and safety shoes – and often wear their own clothes to work in. In these kinds of conditions many have drawn the conclusion that the enemy are the Chinese, something that new President Michael Sata has played upon, but many Zambians are shocked to learn that Chinese miner workers are treated little better than themselves and work in similar conditions.

 In an economy were temporary contracts are chronic, many workers being ‘temporary’ for 10 and even 20 years at a time, abuse of workers rampant, trade union organisers harassed frequently and intimidated, and only around 10% of the workforce not employed in the ‘informal’ sector (that is protected by legislation, which is often ignored anyway, on minimum wages and health insurance), and retirement something dreaded by many, these are the most immediate and pressing issues facing the Zambian masses. Piled on top of this was the crisis brought on by the spike in food prices in 2008 and the serious drop in the market price of Copper in the weeks and months immediately following the recession. State debt in 2010 stood at around 125% of annual state income (taxes etc); 2006 stats, that is from before the economic crisis, show there was 1 doctor for every 20,000 Zambians, compared to approx. 2.2 per 1000 in the UK, 2.3 in the US – 40 times as many - and 5.9 per 1000 in Cuba. Aside from an extremely high prevalence of transmittable diseases including Hepatitis, Typhoid, Malaria and Plague the prevalence of HIV/AIDS has reached levels that would be seen as a serious crisis in Europe or North America with 980,000 sufferers in a population of 13.9 million (13.5% - in the UK there are approx. 86,500 people suffer HIV/AIDS or 0.2% of the population).

Over many decades, the Zambian masses have clearly demonstrated both their political maturity and their eagerness for battle. The workers, through the Zambian Confederation of Trade Unions have become, once and again, the focal point for opposition and attempted to determine the country’s future. Once and again they have been betrayed. When the Movement for Multiparty Democracy was originally founded, it was in fact the political expression of the trade unions, and its leader, Chiluba, went on to become the country’s president from 1991 until 2002. However, as he remained within the limits of the capitalism system, he was quickly forced to implement IMF “structural adjustment” policies which only increased poverty and mass unemployment in this country awash with mineral wealth. Sata’s Patriotic Front was set up as a split off from the MMD, of which he had been one of the leaders and a minister. Like Chiluba before, the new Minister of Labour in the recently formed PF government, Fackson Shamenda, is the former leader of the ZCTU. If there is a lesson that can be learnt from the history of Zambian politics is that the workers have tried once and again to put their leaders in power, only to be betrayed by them.

It is imperative now to not only maintain and strengthen those strike committees which have been established but also to extend them into every branch of industry as well as drawing in the unemployed and youth. The only question mark is over the leadership. Within the program of the PF there is also the point, alongside goals for increasing budgetary expenditure on education and healthcare, that the PF will “dismantle the domestic debt as a matter of priority”. At present the level debt for Zambia stands at 125% of its income from taxation, so the question arises who pays? For Sata and the PF riding two horses is dangerous at best; if they are galloping in opposite directions then you will only break your own neck. Either the extra money comes from the share appropriated by not only the Chinese companies but also Vedanta, Glencorp, First Quantum amongst others or the PF government for which the masses have fought will not be able to fulfil its promises. China, which consumes nearly half of all copper production, already has immense stocks of the metal built up and demand from Europe and North America is dropping off. With the impending collapse of the Eurozone this will go even further – the economic crisis developing in the bowels of the Chinese economy will shake the earth when it arrives. And it will. Once demand for copper drops so will any tax revenue that can be gleaned from it.

During the strike wave the PF government scrapped the sale of Finance Bank to First Rand of South Africa, handing Finance Bank back to its original owners from whom it had been seized. Whatever the reasons for the seizure, Finance Bank should have been nationalised entirely and become the first of any and all banks and financial institutions in Zambia to be nationalised without compensation as the first step to centralising all credit and loan facilities in the hands of the state. With this weapon in hand the PF government could have not only easily fulfilled the promise of quadrupling the supply of fertiliser to the farmers of Zambia, but could also provide a stable and cheap source of credit to the same farmers, allowing them to purchase modern agricultural equipment and improving their farm holdings, as well as bringing about a large drop in food prices and inflation as a result of improved productivity within the agricultural sector. Having one centralised bank would provide the necessary apparatus to bring all exports and imports under state control and supervision – ensuring that not one gram of copper leaves Zambia without the knowledge of the state.

Alongside this, the Copper mines and auxiliary industries cannot just be taken into 35% state ownership but must be nationalised entirely and brought under the direct control and supervision of the workers organised in strike committees. With this task accomplished not only can the minimum wage be implemented properly but also safety regulations - as well as the sharing out of work amongst the unemployed, without loss of pay, thereby shortening the working day as well as providing a stable and expanding market for agricultural goods produced by the Zambian farmers. An alliance on such a basis between the Zambian workers and youth with the farmers would be an unstoppable force in driving home the program of the masses. With a revolutionary appeal to the millions of African brothers and sisters across the central and southern parts of the continent – particularly the heavy divisions concentrated in the mines of South Africa – and also to the many millions of Chinese workers – who suffer the same as the Zambian workers under the whip hand of the same masters – the strike wave can be transformed into an unstoppable tsunami.

 Make no mistake, the capitalists of North America, Europe and China will fight tooth and nail – utilising every point of support within the Zambian state to maintain the status quo, irrespective of whichever specific government is elected, the state remains untouched and is tied by a thousand threads to the capitalists of the major powers and will respond eagerly to the call of their masters. Equally the Zambian masses are on the offensive and must bring all forces to the point of attack! Only by basing itself on the extended and strengthened strike committees and by building the organisations of the unemployed – in alliance with the peasants – can the PF program for which many millions have sweated and sacrificed for be pushed forward. Only on the road to socialism, with a democratically planned economy, can Africa be freed from the chains which capitalism holds it to this day.