Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/746/15839

From The Socialist newspaper, 12 December 2012

South African miners' struggle

'An historical faultline'

South African miners on strike 2012

South African miners on strike 2012   (Click to enlarge)

The recent determined struggle of South African miners, who have braved bloody repression by state forces, has created political shockwaves throughout the country. The intensification of working class struggles has exposed not only the ruthlessness of the capitalist system but also the rottenness of the ruling ANC government and its allies in the trade union bureaucracy. Weizmann Hamilton of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), the Socialist Party's sister party in South Africa, spoke to the Socialist about how these developments have propelled the beginnings of a new workers' party with a socialist programme, onto the political agenda.

There cannot be any question about the historical significance of the recent strike movement of the miners; specifically, the massacre that took place on 16 August at Marikana when 34 Lonmin workers were mowed down by police. It is no exaggeration to say that that single event constitutes an historical faultline in the post-Apartheid history of South Africa (SA).

The impact of the event on the consciousness of the entire population, but especially the working class, will determine the country's future political course. Because what was revealed in those 300 seconds of gunfire - the biggest atrocity in the country since the 1960 Sharpeville massacre - was the role played by all the key political and social forces inside the country.

It clarified in the minds of the working class the class character of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government and its relationship to the mining bosses and the role of the state and the trade union leadership. All of these things were laid bare by the massacre in a way that no other event could have, ie it sharply posed the nature of the tasks and the challenges that face the working class in SA.

One thing is clear, the massacre was the result of a plan that had been thought through by the state, together with the bosses, and carried out as a premeditated act. It is inconceivable that the decision could have been taken to try and drown the strike in blood without it having been authorised politically by the tops of government. In that sense the administration of president Jacob Zuma has the blood of the Marikana workers on its hands.

The manner in which the trade union leadership of Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and, principally, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), has reacted to these events, has reinforced the conclusions that workers had been drawing prior to the massacre about what the NUM had been turned into.

There is a widespread understanding - even expressed in the media by capitalist commentators - that the NUM has revealed itself as a 'baas boy' union, ie a union of the bosses.

There is a widespread contempt for the leadership of the NUM. Everything they did subsequent to the massacre was to reinforce those conclusions.

The historical tragedy of these events is that the NUM - the most powerful and influential union, whose history confirmed the most militant traditions of Cosatu - was revealed to be the conduit through which everything that is rotten about the trade union movement has been channelled.

The NUM leadership has degenerated to such a level that even after the Lonmin workers, despite the massacre, courageously continued the struggle, forcing management to capitulate into conceding a wage settlement ranging from 11% to 22% - at the highest end, not far off the miners' original demand for R12,500, the NUM leadership could not bring themselves to acknowledge that achievement. On the contrary, they denounced the agreement!

The NUM general secretary, Frans Baleni, earns R100,000 (7,000) a month from the subs of his members and yet he had the temerity to go to the workers and say to them that the demand for R12,500 a month is unrealistic and that it will do damage to the economy!

'Intolerable'

In the first instance, the workers had risen up in support for a demand for a decent living wage. And given the substantial profits of the platinum bosses and throughout the mining industry, then the demand for R12,500 a month was entirely realisable.

But it was the fact that the miners rose up against the entire arrangement for the perpetuation of their own slavery; that is the most significant aspect of the strike.

They were also rising up against the authority of the NUM as the principal instrument for the maintenance of their own subjugation by the mining bosses.

This was why the strike was 'intolerable' to the mining bosses and the state and why they deemed it necessary to try and crush the strike in blood. But of course it has had the entirely opposite effect because, now, the NUM is hated beyond the platinum mining industry. With that this has led to a precipitous decline in the authority of Cosatu itself.

Cosatu and the NUM leadership has completely failed to appreciate the historical significance of what took place on 16 August. Instead they have attempted to restore the NUM as the recognised organisation of the miners. They even went to the extent of actually organising a "hands off the NUM" demo on 27 October in Rustenburg to, in the words of the Cosatu president, S'dumo Dlamini, 'reclaim Rustenburg out of the hands of counter-revolutionaries'!

So against who was this demo being directed at? The workers themselves and, of course, the DSM.

Strike committees

Fortunately the clashes between the mineworkers and the Cosatu officials were not as bad as we had feared. Nonetheless, it was a humiliating experience for Cosatu's leadership. For a long time they were prevented by their own former members (miners in Anglo Platinum) from getting to the stadium for a rally and could only hold it under the protection of the police!

Similarly, when Cosatu's general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi attempted to address thousands of striking miners at the Orkney Mine in Klerksdorp he was chased away. He later blamed, falsely, the DSM for this humiliation.

This is the beginning of the end of the NUM in the platinum industry and in the whole of the mining industry but it is also potentially the beginning of the unravelling of Cosatu itself. This is not a certainty but if the leadership does not change course, combined with its failure to address the critical class issue in SA and in particular its determination to remain inside the trap of the Tripartite Alliance (ie the ANC, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party), then it is likely that it will completely disintegrate.

The SACP reaction to the Marikana uprising was to say that the workers were being misled by a 'Pondoland vigilante mafia'. In other words workers are incapable of comprehending their own oppression and exploitation!

There are a whole host of 'conspirators' who the Cosatu, NUM and SACP leaders identify for the Marikana uprising. They blamed the Chamber of Mines for creating Amcu, attributing the strikes as arising out of rivalry with the NUM. In fact, AMCU is the accidental beneficiary of the collapse of authority of the NUM.

Some workers have joined AMCU but now have misgivings because AMCU does not have a radical alternative programme to the NUM and because the main leadership in the mines is the independent workers' strike committees.

It is these committees where a framework for the embryo of a new trade union federation exists.

As far as the DSM is concerned the committees need to become the repositories for the restoration of the militant traditions of the working class in the trade union movement.

The DSM's role in developing workers' struggles

Our role is, partly, to be the memory of the working class so that it can retie the knot of history between the old traditions that created Cosatu in the struggle to defeat apartheid, and the new tasks facing the working class today.

Last year we took the initiative of calling an Assembly for Workers' Unity (AWU). Its purpose was to face one of the most important challenges in front of the working class. There are three main theatres of struggle.

One is the protests against corruption and poor service delivery, which are growing in intensity and frequency. There have been some 11,000 protests over poor service delivery this year.

Then there has been an enormous increase in workplace action among organised workers.

And then there are protests by students against debt and academic and financial exclusions, in particular over the unaffordability of tuition fees and of student accommodation for working class students.

There is a permanent class war taking place along these fronts in the country.

However, there is no coordination of the service delivery protests and even of the workplace disputes and no coordination of the student strikes.

The student formations have become a mirror image of their political counterparts because they operate as the student wings of the ANC and PAC (Pan African Congress) etc.

They have become training academies for the new post-Apartheid elite. At their conferences you see luxury cars in the parking lots. And yet these formations are meant to be representative of the working class!

So our approach was to encourage the coordination of struggles within each theatre and across them. This is the concept behind AWU.

The AWU pulled in organisations like the Thembelihle Crisis Committee, and invited the Socialist Civic Movement in Mpumalanga, and others, to promote a common programme and platform of action, for example a single day of action for service delivery protests starting in the regions, then provincial and finally on a national basis.

We didn't get the response we were hoping for but nonetheless it laid down a marker for future struggles. And it is this same approach that we developed among the striking mineworkers.

Our first tactic was to bring together all the efforts of the struggling miners; because up to that point the Lonmin workers were protesting on their own, as were the Anglo Platinum workers.

There was a common determination to struggle but no common demands and without any coordination. So we did the obvious thing and encouraged the establishment of strike committees and on a coordinated basis to campaign, firstly, for a general strike across Rustenburg, and then to call for a wider general strike of the miners within the country. At the same time we promoted the idea of unity between the working class communities surrounding the mining areas and the strikers.

In Limpopo we have had great success in getting the communities on board not only to support the mineworkers but also the idea of a mass workers' party, which was endorsed at a mass meeting of 5,000.

The current 'balance of forces' in the mining industry

As far as the recent strike wave is concerned, most areas have returned to work. The only mine still out on strike is Bokoni in Limpopo, where the key members of the local strike committee, (including the chair of the national strike committee) are in jail at the moment. Last week we were able to bring local Cosatu structures on board and stage a protest over the detention of the strike committee.

At Anglo Platinum the return to work agreement was signed by the strike committee which is highly significant as officially no provision exists for such recognition in the collective bargaining arrangement in the mine. Although they didn't achieve their demand for R16,500 a month wage they did receive a R4,500 and 'incentive' (partly a loan) which breaks the 'no work, no pay' principle. In reality they have been paid for going on strike!

The bosses have also agreed to bring forward pay negotiations which weren't scheduled until May 2013 and to withdraw the threat of mass dismissals.

The mining bosses have been forced to recognise the reality of the change in the balance of power in the industry. It represents a defeat for the state and for the mining bosses and for the Cosatu and NUM bureaucracies.

The bosses are hinting at massive retrenchments in industry in 2013 so the battles lines are being drawn for a new wave of struggle. There is now a breathing space for the workers to coordinate and develop their organisations and their strategic and tactical plans.

Building a new mass workers' party on a socialist programme

The strike has elevated the question of a political alternative for the workers firmly and irrevocably onto the agenda. The idea of a new mass workers' party is now part of the political discourse inside the country. Many commentators recognise that this demand has been injected into the political situation by the DSM.

The DSM is now taking the initiative to take matters forward. On 15 December plans to launch the new mass workers' party will be announced by the DSM and the miners' national strike committee. Already, at a meeting in Limpopo, 5,000 workers endorsed the call for a mass workers' party.

A press conference, preceded by a rally of the mineworkers, will proclaim the political independence of the working class from the tripartite alliance in which they have been incarcerated. The new party will target the 2014 elections.

The press conference will happen the day before the ANC's conference, the run up to which has exposed sharp factional conflicts and is likely to prove to be the most divisive conference certainly since 2007 and the eviction of Thabo Mbeki as president. The ANC's authority is in such decline that the strategists of capitalism are encouraging the historically-white liberal opposition Democratic Alliance to "change its demographics", ie elect more blacks to leadership positions to give it greater appeal to black workers, as well as other political alternatives.

A resolution proclaiming a new mass workers' party has been discussed by all the miners' shaft committees.

The idea will be to launch the new party on 23 March 2013, coinciding with the Sharpeville massacre anniversary. Before that there will be various events, rallies, marches, and a recall campaign of councillors so that they can be substituted with real fighters from the new party.

It will be a broad formation with provision for the participation of existing organised political entities. We will be approaching a number of organisations to be part of this process.

We are confident that such a new party will fill the political void that has long existed on the left in SA. This will be the crowning achievement of the Marikana uprising.

Marikana Commission of Inquiry

According to Jacob Zuma the motivation for the establishment of the Marikana commission into the massacre is 'to establish the truth', because no one, apparently, knows why it happened!

Prior to the massacre on 16 August, ten people had died at Marikana. Consequently, the workers took the decision to relocate away from the mine and to go to a nearby koppie (small hill) and demanded that management should come and discuss with them.

The forces of the state had prepared by portraying the miners who carried traditional weapons as being provocatively armed. A radio interview on 15 August, between management, the NUM and AMCU, publicly stated that negotiations would take place the following day.

When AMCU turned up management was nowhere to be found. Later management said that all negotiations were off. It is clear that the decision had been taken overnight to end negotiations and that the strike was going to have to be crushed. Three thousand police were deployed from the tactical response unit with military firepower. Armoured vehicles were deployed, helicopters with snipers and reels of razor wire to trap the workers.

Incidentally, the majority of the 34 dead miners were not killed at the spot shown on the TV footage when police opened fire, they were killed elsewhere. Some had bullet wounds to the head suggesting executions. Evidence has also been tampered with.

What revelations have so far emerged at the commission completely confirms what workers knew. It is clear that the tops of the ANC and NUM regarded the situation as an 'intolerable' defiance of state authority.

The ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa, in particular, is implicated in the massacre. Beforehand he had described the strike as an 'act of criminality'. Ramaphosa is the former general secretary of the NUM who sits on the board of directors of Lonmin (he has a 9% share in the company paid for by Lonmin itself!).

Ramaphosa's reputation has been tarnished irreparably. This is a man who was once a leading worker militant who has become one of the world's richest individuals.

The role of the commission with its four-month long investigation is partly to take the sting out the situation but is also to cover up the government's culpability.

It will probably result in some naming of scapegoats, in all likelihood junior level police officers. The overwhelming mission is to ensure that the government is not held responsible.

Even in advance of the commission's outcome Cosatu's leadership has confirmed its political support for president Jacob Zuma.

Marikana represents the biggest atrocity since Sharpeville and yet Cosatu has not organised a protest but instead tried to rehabilitate the discredited NUM, whose shop stewards at Lonmin, incidentally, have their offices next to the police station!

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In The Socialist 12 December 2012:


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