Catalysing change in South Africa’s platinum mines

Extreme violence has characterised the world of South Africa’s mines no less than the hulking metal headgears and yellow mine dumps dotted around Johannesburg – icons of a nasty, brutish modernity. From its inception in the 19th century the most odious aspects of the racial order seeped into this world. Delve into the history books and you are bound to come across references to the prison-like conditions of the compounds that housed hyper-exploited migrant labourers. You may read about the degrading strip searches that black workers were subjected to, the systematic violence of management, the infamous Rand Revolt of 1922 and the violent suppression of other strikes.

PHOTO/ Liane Greeff

But almost twenty years into democracy it is clear that the endemic violence of the mines is far from being confined to memory. On the 16th of August this year, in what became the worst incident of its kind since the end of apartheid, 34 striking mineworkers from UK-listed Lonmin plc. were gunned down and killed by a heavily-armed police force. Over twice that number were wounded. The footage of the massacre – which took place at a dusty, poverty-stricken town called Marikana, in the heart of the country’s platinum mining territory – stunned South Africa and was broadcast across the globe.

Despite that most of those who were on strike are from the lower skill categories and come from impoverished rural areas, the dangerous, backbreaking work they perform is vital to the production process and many of them have considerable experience in the mines. They felt that they were entitled to a living wage of 12,500 Rands per month (a little under £900) – a not altogether unreasonable demand from a company that can afford to pay its CEO the equivalent of what one of its disgruntled mineworker would take 400 years to earn, in a country with the highest level of inequality in the world. Workers’ salaries are stretched thinly as they struggle to provide for the families they leave behind in their rural homes while maintaining themselves and other dependents in the mining areas.

In recent years workers have seen some hard-won gains rolled back by an onslaught against organised labour. Employers, especially on the platinum mines, have been making increased use of more easily exploitable outsourced labourers, often brought in by dubious brokers. Meanwhile the main union on the mines, the National Union of Mineworkers, appears to be increasingly losing touch with its support base. This was, after all, a wildcat strike which NUM disapproved of. NUM’s overpaid leader, Frans Baleni, showed no such disapproval for the heavy-handed response of the state’s security arm.

But NUM was not always like this. It arrived on the scene in the 1980s during apartheid, and as a militant new union it brought high hopes of change and a better deal for mineworkers. It made considerable gains, but since the end of apartheid its promises have increasingly given way to disillusionment. NUM’s leadership now enjoys an all-too-cosy relationship with the major mining houses and the government by virtue of its affiliation with the trade union movement Cosatu, which is a member of the ruling ANC-led alliance. Recently, NUM founder turned businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa, who has a stake in Lonmin and is an ANC heavyweight, has been the subject of much criticism amidst revelations that he called strikers ‘criminals’ in an email correspondence.

Many lower-level officials are similarly disconnected from the lives of workers whose interests they are supposed to be championing. Shaft-stewards tend to be drawn from among the more skilled, better-paid workers. As many move up the union career ladder they are taken out of the workforce, becoming full time officials with considerable bonuses and perks. The rot is only amplified the further up the ladder one looks. NUM has been haemorrhaging members rapidly since Marikana as it battles to hold on to its influence in the face of a rival union, AMCU, which has been riding the wave of workers’ anger (though has hardly been orchestrating the strikes as some have charged)

Since 16 August, Lonmin workers have agreed to go back to work after negotiating a 22 per cent pay rise. However, strike waves have spread across the sector as other workers have taken up the call for a R12, 500 minimum wage. In the wake of the massacre, further episodes of tragedy have taken place. Intimidation of workers and activists is commonplace and allegations of police using torture have emerged. At one point things took an outrageously bizarre turn with a short-lived attempt to charge workers for the deaths of their colleagues under ‘common purpose’ law.

It remains to be seen what will come out of the commission of inquiry that is looking into events at Marikana. It may well be, like so many commissions before it, a rather hollow exercise, with the odd bit of finger wagging and little more than a nod to the fact that someone, or everyone, got a little carried away.

The crass apologies from police, certain sections of government and the employer has painted the strikers as irrational, muti-induced criminals. But despite this some very sober analysis has come even from some unexpected sources. It is indeed time for serious introspection in South Africa, time for a major reappraisal of the mining industry. We ought to be exploring changes in ownership structure, taxation and regulation, and the way in which industrial relations are conducted. Calls for nationalisation, though all too often spilling from the tongues of short-sighted populist opportunists, should not be shot down; we need a robust engagement with the issue.