Spirited lessons from the platinum mines

The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa by Luke Sinwell with Siphiwe Mbatha Pluto Press reviewed by Norman Traub

The lead author of this book, Luke Sinwell was one of the authors of Marikana, written soon after the massacre of striking platinum workers at the Lonmin platinum mine by the South African police in 2012. This book is an expansion of the work done in 2012. Here, the authors conduct in depth interviews with individual mineworkers, who played a key role in the self-organisation of the mineworkers. They examine the relationship of these individuals to their fellow workers and the formation of workers committees, which led the strikes in 2012-2014 in the platinum belt. South Africa possesses 80% of the world’s platinum reserves.

These committees arose in response to the failure of the union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to respond to the worker’s concerns. The NUM one of the biggest and most important unions in the apartheid era, challenging the bosses and the racist regime, has in the period following the first democratic elections formed close relations with the ruling party, the ANC and with big business. It has degenerated into what the workers call a “pocket union” and is now almost defunct in the platinum belt.

marikanaThis book shows the effects that the self-organisation of workers has had in the mining industry, which plays such a crucial role in the South African economy. The South African working class has been galvanised into action by these strikes.

Despite the price of platinum skyrocketing between 2002-08, the price of labour remained the same, while the salaries of chief executives reached Rand(R) 55,000 a day, 390 times more than the earnings of a worker! The rock drill operators(RDO) do the most dangerous and production critical work in the platinum mines . With few cash incentives to do RDO work they have long standing perceptions of underpayment. Because of their key role underground, the RDOs, who are almost entirely migrant, have more power in the workplace and the ear of management than other workers.

The authors consider the migratory labour system as the starting point to understanding the strikes in the platinum belt. There have been reforms in the migrant labour system since the first democratic elections in 1994. Instead of workers being confined to mining compounds, they now receive housing subsidies allowing them to live away from the mine.  Most of the migrants choose to live in newly constructed zinc shacks in areas adjacent to the mines.

They take on a secondary home leaving the structure of migratory labour, which removes men from their rural homeland to the mining area, in place. This new situation for the migrant, whereby he now supports two households, has left him significantly worse off in terms of the amount of remittances he can send to his rural home.

The authors refer the readers to a paper given by Gavin Hartford on the mining industry strike wave “Sadly, the mining industry has remained a prisoner of its apartheid past in this core element of cheap labour sourced through a migrants annual work cycle….it is this essence that is the Achilles heel that inflamed and propelled the migrants and the RDO’s in particular, onto the street in strike action”(The mining industry strike wave: what are the causes and what are the solutions?  Daily Maverick 10th October 2012).

The writer of the paper considers the migratory labour system as central to our understanding of the wave of strikes in the platinum mines from 2012.  Neither the paper nor the book discuss the landlessness of the migratory labourers, which drives them to work on the mines. Without a solution to the land question the migratory labour system will remain in place.

At the Lonmin mine in 2012, two RDOs formulated the demand for a salary of R12,500 a month. They soon managed to obtain the support of another 100 workers at their shaft, Karee, where the NUM had been eclipsed by another union, AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union). After having their demand for R 12,500 turned down by management they decided to go on strike in August 2012.

In the hope that the NUM would agree to pursue their demands, they marched to the NUM offices. Here they were confronted by armed men who shot at them and wounded two of the marchers. The shooting by the NUM officials was the key turning point in the strike at Lonmin. From then on they began to arm themselves with pangas and sticks in self defence.

They elected a new committee, consisting of representatives from all three mine shafts.  While there was violence on both sides, the state, the mine owners and the NUM were responsible for most of the violence. This culminated in the massacre by the police at Marikana of 34 workers and the wounding of 78. Mathunjwa, president of AMCU, who had begged the workers to disperse before they were gunned down by the police, later referring to the massacre said ‘I learned about the brutality of the capitalist system on that day’.

Following the massacre, the workers defying arrests, dismissals and deaths of fellow strikers, chose a new committee, which continued the strike. Five weeks after the strike started, the committee signed an agreement with the bosses, settling for a 22% increase, which no union had achieved before. Left wing forces, notably the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), which is an affiliate of the DLF, intervened on behalf of the striking workers. The DLF set up the Marikana Solidarity Campaign in support of the strikers.

Independently of Lonmin, two mineworkers at the Khululekile shaft at Amplats, the biggest platinum mine owned by Anglo American Corporation put forward a demand for R 16070 which was accepted by their fellow workers. With the NUM discredited they turned to recruiting for AMCU. However, in their confrontation with the bosses, they pressed ahead organising independently and presented management with the workers demand for R16070. When there was no response from management they formed a committee, bypassed the unions and went on strike.

This was at a time when the Lonmin strike was ending, which prompted other workers in various workplaces throughout the country ranging from the mining industry, automobile and truck manufacturing and the public sector to engage in unprotected strike action. The workers committee   was able to unite the workers in all the shafts. 6,000 workers at Amplats were the first to strike. The strike was condemned by both the employers and the NUM.

Within a relatively short space of time 80% of the workforce were on strike as well as nearly 100,000 workers on unprotected strikes throughout the country. The  Amplats employers  dismissed 12,000 striking workers The strikers held out for two months, during which time  both the DLF and the DSM were involved in solidarity action raising substantial  sums of money for the strikers.

Following intervention from COSATU, the employers withdrew most of the dismissal notices served on striking workers They offered a small salary increase, a one off payment to each worker and the promise of substantive salary negotiations to follow. This package was accepted by the strikers.

The following period was one of transition at Lonmin and Amplats, for the unions and the workers. This saw the rise of AMCU to replace the discredited NUM: its membership increased and it received employer recognition. The workers committees moved from the frontline in defending the workers, to supporting AMCU. This was not a straightforward process.

There was uncertainty in the workers ranks as to whether the democratic practices of the workers committees would survive once the union’s structures were in place. At Amplats, the workers attacked the decision of the AMCU and its authoritarian president Mathunjwa to suspend an organiser without conducting a proper enquiry.

At Lonmin, where the workers had been subject to ongoing attacks following the Marikana massacre, there was the particular issue of the charges brought against 259 mineworkers of murdering their 34 fellow workers shot dead by the police! When it was announced that funding for the workers lawyers would not be provided by the state, the workers committee planned a protest march to Pretoria.

Against the instruction of AMCU officials the march went ahead and was successful. This and other issues reinforced the view of the workers committee that they had a continuing role in ensuring   AMCU’s   accountability to the workers. What also became apparent was that the leadership of AMCU was hostile to any association with political parties and to working together with other trade unions.

As the AMCU bureaucracy became more firmly entrenched, there were fears both inside and outside the union that independent working class power that had emerged  on the platinum belt was endangered. However, in 2014 a strike in the three biggest platinum mines in the world, Amplats, Impala and Lonmin, demonstrated that this power was very much alive. The workers had united under one union, AMCU.  Mathunjwa, known for his autocratic behaviour, showed another side of his character when he took a lead from members of the former workers committees in uncompromisingly demanding a living wage.  By early March 2014 the strike demanding R 12,500 was in full swing.

The desperation felt by the workers during the strike lasting 5 months as they and their families endured hunger and other privations, did not deter them from carrying on the strike. Each of the mine shafts held a mass meeting on a daily basis with the exception of Sunday. At one of the shafts 2,000 to 4,000 workers   were present at each meeting. During the strike, the Gauteng Strike Support Committee set up by the DLF delivered money and food parcels at a critical time in the strike to the  miners.

The union leaders throughout the strike consulted with the mass of workers before making any decisions. Five months after the beginning of the strike, in the face of the unity of the workers, the mine owners offer of a R 1,000 rise, although not the full amount demanded by the workers , was accepted by them .

The authors discuss the rise of AMCU in relationship to the wave of militant strikes led by the workers committees in 2012 in the platinum belt. They quote from Gramsci‘s analysis of the emergence of trade unions and their relationship to the mobilisation of rank and file workers: “The trade union is not a predetermined phenomenon: it becomes a determinate institution, that is, it assumes a definite historical force  to the extent that the strength and will of the workers who are its members impress a policy and  propose an aim that defines it”.

The authors point out that AMCU is the product of the militant labour struggles led by the workers committees in the platinum mines and the workers struggles before that which ended in the Marikana massacre. The union is riding on the wave  of insurgent fervour  of the rank and file workers The concept “insurgent trade unionism”, the authors  believe  is useful in analysing the relationship between the past when the workers went on  unprotected strikes with their committee at the helm and the present when  workers go on protected strikes  under the banner of AMCU. AMCU is no ordinary union but one driven from below by the rank and file’s collective, insurgent, agency.

The spirit of Marikana lives on in the working class in South Africa as it carries on the fight against the bosses.

August 2016

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