The shooting down of thirty-four striking platinum miners by the South African police has been a major news story for several days. The strike by these miners is now spreading to nearby mines. The televised action of the shooting by the South African police of black miners has raised the spectre of police riots in Sharpeville and Soweto under apartheid and called into question the speed and direction of the ANC-government progress of democratising post-apartheid South Africa. There are many commentators within South Africa and abroad who seem able to divine from this tragic event many theories behind this breakdown in the South African social order.
However, many of these commentators have left out of their commentary the history of the long struggle for trade union rights in South Africa which preceded this strike. They have also missed out most of the most salient political points which engendered and exacerbated this confrontation. The story is not just of a police riot, nor is it a conflict brought about by the National Union of Miners (NUM) seeking to punish the independent labour federation, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMU) for its wildcat strike. Still less is it the result of the ANC, or the Congress of South African Trades Unions (COSATU) or the South African Communist Party (SACP) which together make up the Tripartite Alliance of the greater ANC, seeking to please the Lonmin mining company. The roots of this struggle lie in the difficult path that the NUM had to tread to achieve its position of hegemony in the representation of the workers in the mining industry in the face of the Nationalist Party’s legal impositions of a strict racial job reservation in the industry and a ban on effective collective bargaining.
The most important point to be made is that South African unions have never been united into a single national federation of labour. They have been divided, at least until the Wiehahn Commission Report in 1979, into white and black union confederations. The individual unions were also divided on racial grounds; none more so than in the mining industry where black unionists were not allowed until 1981. The white Mine Workers Union, led by Arrie Paulus, was one of the most hostile to the rise of black unions and was supported by the most extreme elements of the Nationalist Party in doing so. The NUM found that they were competing for power with the white unionists of the Mine Workers (later to become Solidarity), with the white Underground Officials Association, the Mine Surface Officials Association and the Technical Officials Association (UASA) and with the independent unionists attached to rival national federations, theoretically multi-racial, which were competing with COSATU for dominance in the labour movement. The AMU was one of those.
The AMU miners are a non-European union which was formed five years ago as a protest against the 12 to 1 pay differential between white and black mineworkers and the relatively lower rates of pay by its members compared to other black mineworkers. The white Solidarity union membership still operates within the mining industry and has a good relationship to the mine owners. Through this they maintain their differentials with the black miners. The root of the problem for the NUM and COSATU is that the reason the miners in the AMU get so small a wage is because they are not directly employed by the mining company. Their jobs are subcontracted to satellite employers who operate contracts with Lonmin. Many of these AMU workers did, at one time, operate as NUM members (and received the NUM negotiated rate for the job) but the company outsourced these jobs to subcontractors who reduced their wages and removed some of their social benefits. In this the NUM was powerless to deal on their behalf as they didn’t automatically have the AMU workers as affiliates. The AMU workers (mainly rock-drillers) had formed their own union because of their frustration at the NUM’s difficulties in dealing with casual labour or subcontractees who didn’t come under their jurisdiction.
The NUM consulted with COSATU about improving the wages and working conditions of the casual labourers but Zwelinizima Vavi, the COSATU General Secretary, was unable to get the ANC apparatus to move quickly on the de-casualization of labour. In pursuit of an improved ANC relationship with the labour movement he riled several political chiefs. In May 2010 the ANC threatened to charge Vavi with "ill-discipline". He was quoted as saying that under Jacob Zuma's government "We are heading rapidly in the direction of a full-blown predator state in which a powerful corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas increasingly controls the state as a vehicle of accumulation” (Business Day, 31 August 2010). There are others on the COSATU board who oppose Vavi on this so the path is not clear to resolve the issue.
The AMU unionists are not technically part of the bargaining unit covered by the NUM contract with Lonmin and don’t have the statutory right to call a strike. For the most part the AMU workers are not directly employed by Lonmin and do not have a bargaining relationship with the company. Their strike is a ‘wildcat’ strike as it is a strike called outside the confines of an employer-employee contract. Their grievances are real, the deprivation is considerable and the NUM is not able to do very much for them. They, and the COSATU, along with the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions in Geneva pushed the Labour Department of the South African Government to investigate.
This report (Edward Webster, HSRC 2008) was conducted by the Human Science Research Council of South Africa’s Witwatersrand University in 2008 and revealed that the country’s mining industry was becoming more and more reliant on short-term contract workers and casual labour. The survey found, for instance, that over 60% of the platinum mines in the Rustenburg area used non-regular workers in order to avoid accountability and to reduce their costs. Overall nationally in South Africa, 36% of all platinum mines use subcontract labour, with researchers finding that many of the workers came from other southern African countries. That gave employers less direct responsibility in the event of injury or economic liability. The study revealed that the trend was growing alarmingly. The research also found that most employers surveyed did not adhere to stipulated wage minimums, resulting in exploitation and disempowerment of workers, and threats of dismissals were common if casual workers attempt to align with trade unions.
The NUM and COSATU requested that the ANC make de-casualization a priority (especially in the platinum industry) but nothing happened. The inaction of the Government made it very difficult for either the NUM or COSATU to intervene. Moreover, there were escalating political problems in the relationship of the mining industry and the Zuma Government.
The Zuma Government has had serious internal difficulties over the mining industry. The government knows that the mining industry is the economic backbone of South Africa and the source of much of its revenues. However there is a growing movement within the ANC, led by the expelled head of its youth wing, Julius Malema, that the state should move beyond regulating the mining industry and nationalise all the mines This has a potent ideological appeal, especially for the ANC political cadres who were schooled in governmental management in the Soviet Union and East Germany and their junior revolutionary wannabes.
At the same time the ANC has created a fourth leg of its national alliance. In addition to the ANC, COSATU and SACP it has built a powerful and wealthy group of Black Empowerment entrepreneurs with financial stakes in the mines and other industries in the country. Men like Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa and Cyril Ramaphosa have grown wealthy and powerful on an international scale by taking up their share of Black Enterprise Empowerment allocations of South Africa’s industries. Indeed, Cyril, the former Head of the NUM, sits on the Board of Lonmin. These provide a powerful disincentive to those who wish to nationalise their holdings.
Zuma came up with a compromise, In early 2011 he launched a state-owned mining company in a move to ensure greater state involvement in this economically vital sector; the African Exploration Mining and Finance Corporation (AEMFC), currently a subsidiary of the Central Energy Fund, would serve as the state-run mining firm, under which all state interests in mining would be consolidated. This is about as far as he would go in nationalising the mines. There were many who were disappointed and Zuma will certainly face opposition on this point when he presents himself for re-election soon. It was no accident that it was Julius Malema who showed up at the scene of the mineworker shooting and was welcomed by the miners as their spokesman.
The fallen mineworkers have won the sympathy of many around the world. This police brutality in shooting down miners has appalled everyone who has seen the video. However, the ability of the NUM and COSATU to deal with the problems of these casual miners is very limited. The role of the company and its subcontractors has certainly contributed to the problem. The actions of the miners, too, should not be underestimated in understanding the panic of the police. Secret rituals led striking miners to believe they were invincible. Every morning, a group of men gathered on a hill on the outskirts of Nkaneng informal settlement near the Karee mine in Wonderkop.
There they stripped naked, stood in single file and waited for their turn to be sprinkled with herbs. The medicine man used a razor blade on some of the men, making small incisions on their foreheads before smearing a black, gel-like potion on them. These procedures, it is believed, were part of a process to prepare for battle: to make the men invincible against the enemy. They downed their tools. Secret rituals may have led striking miners to believe they were invincible.
At the start of the strike two mine security guards, two police officers and four mine workers who apparently refused to join the strike had been hacked to death with pangas, stabbed with spears, shot and – in the case of the two security guards – their bodies set alight. When the NUM asked what had happened they were told that sangomas (medicine-men) had made the men invincible and that they were using ‘muti’, traditional medicines that can be made from a range of ingredients including animal or human body parts. Confronted with drugged and ‘invincible’ warriors the police panicked.
So, while it is reasonable to deduce from this conflict that the Zuma Government had not performed well and that the police had panicked and behaved uncontrollably, it is not then correct to ascribe to the striking miners some special sense of justified entitlement as a result of their actions and sacrifice. The solution to this crisis is to eliminate the corporate practices of sub-contracting and to allow the rights and responsibilities of a collective bargaining agreement to be enforced. This will take a political commitment and will be subject to fierce debate among those whose ox is being gored. Allowing Malema and his mini-revolutionaries to hijack this process is the path to disaster and confrontation.
One mourns for the slain miners and the lack of social justice which creates situations like this. The grief, however, is not going to resolve the problem; still less is revolutionary posturing. It is a time when a sensible de-casualization of the workplace can be introduced in South African mining and a time when free collective bargaining can take place.