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South Africa: miners spark challenge to post-Apartheid capitalism

By: 
Brian Champ

November 24, 2012

On August 9, platinum miners at South Africa’s Marikana mine (owned by Lonmin, a London-based multinational) went on strike demanding a substantial increase in wages. They were not only striking against the company but also their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), that had completely blocked wage gains for the drillers and other mine workers who got their hands dirty. 
 
The NUM was a militant part of the trade union struggle that challenged the apartheid state in the 1980s. Since the election of the African National Congress (ANC) government the leadership of the NUM has become closer and closer with government officials, and less and less concerned with the workers in the mines. In truth, it could be seen to be an arm of the South African state, cementing their control over a key industry.
 
The NUM told Lonmin to ignore the demands of the striking miners, since NUM was the only official union body. Shots were fired at striking miners, when they marched to the local NUM office on August 14 to demand that they be recognized. Two of the striking miners were killed. On August 16, while they were picketing the mine, 34 strikers were killed by police. Another 78 were wounded in the worst massacre to occur in South Africa in over 50 years.
 
This time the violence had been under the direction of the ANC government. President Jacob Zuma said he “regretted the killings,” but made no reference to the handling of the situation by the police. Furthermore, the government arrested 270 striking workers for the killings but released them after wide spread protests erupted. After the massacre NUM spokesperson Lesib Seshoka said that while the union condemned the violence, it was pleased the police had dealt with “criminal elements provoking violent behaviour at the mine.”
 
South African workers are increasingly turning to unions like the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA), who have retained a more militant stance. The NUMSA central committee issued a strong statement denouncing the massacre and raising questions about the role of the police: “hat happened in Marikana should be correctly understood ... as the first post-apartheid South African State massacre of the organised working class, in defence of the local and international mining bosses and their profits.”
 
Miners win and inspire others
Thanks in part to international outrage, miners won between 10 to 22 per cent increases and a pretax 2000 Rand bonus. The victory sparked a wildfire of strike action throughout the South African mining industry, as mine workers who'd felt partronized, ignored and betrayed by the NUM went on strike to demand the increases they need to keep up with the soaring cost of living. 
 
Throughout the platinum and gold sectors up to 100,000 miners were on wildcat strike at one point representing 20 per cent of all mineworkers in South Africa. In addition strikes have occurred in diamond mines, iron mines and coal mines. One of the leaders of the wildcat strikers, Evans Ramokga, expressed the mood of defiance clearly: “Right now we have been planning to build a new organization; we have lost trust in the existing trade unions.” 
 
And the mood swept into other industries, like the transport workers, whose actions brought the country to a standstill in late September. There workers won raises of 27 per cent over three years. Toyota workers walked out and in a few days won a 5.4 per cent pay hike. Municipal workers and farm workers struck and won. Strikes began to raise political demands, targeting government corruption and privatization.
 
Neo-liberalism and Resistance
Successive ANC governments have been enthusiastic practitioners of neo-liberalism, privatization and austerity. Fights against soaring costs of water and power have marked simmering and growing resentment among workers. There is growing realization that getting rid of the worst of apartheid was not enough, since multinational capitalism simply switched gears and carried on.
 
The only way forward for workers is to complete the revolution that they started. They should heed the words of Nelson Mandela, speaking in September 1993:
 
“How many times has the liberation movement worked together with workers and then at the moment of victory betrayed the workers? There are many examples of that in the world. It is only if the workers strengthen their organization before and after liberation that you can win. If you relax your vigilance you will find that your sacrifices have been in vain. You just support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers the goods. If the ANC government does not deliver the goods, you must do to it what you have done to the apartheid regime.”

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