South African Platinum Miners’ Strike

SA threat to South African capitalism

The strike by South Africa’s platinum miners is now in its fifth month. It has become, not only the longest and costliness strike in the country’s history, but also extremely dangerous for South African capital for two main reasons.

• Firstly, the length of the strike means it is now starting to have a serious effect on the economy. The new finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene admitted the crippling effect of the strike when he announced the economic results for the first quarter of the year. Growth in the entire economy declined by 0.6%, in manufacturing the decline was 4.4% while in mining itself the annualised decline was 25%. Growth for the year 2014 has been revised down to 2%.

• Secondly, if the strike is won, it will create a breach in the ANC’s line of defences which it has used to hold back the demands of the South African working class since 1994. A flood of other workers will stream through this breach demanding similar wage increases and seriously threatening the profitability of South African capital. This is likely to blow apart the whole strategy of containing workers’ wage demands which has been operating in the entire post-apartheid period. This strategy relied on the famous triple alliance of the ANC, COSATU1 and the SACP2. Previously miners’ wage demands have been contained by the NUM3, which is a key union in COSATU, and which has consistently implemented the requirement of the mine owners. The present strike, however, is outside of these organisations. It is being led by a break-away union, the AMCU4, formed of disgruntled NUM members, which is not affiliated to COSATU and not subject to its discipline.

For these reasons it is essential for South African capital as a whole and its executive, the ANC government, that this strike is defeated and that other workers can clearly see that struggles outside of the ANC controlled structures are futile. Consequently, after the ANC election victory in May, the new government made ending the strike a priority. In early June the new Mining Minister, Ngoako Ramathlodi was despatched to broker a settlement. However, by 9 June he admitted failure and the negotiations collapsed. Commenting on this failure the ANC general secretary, Mantashe, who was himself previously general secretary of the NUM, said the strike had become “political” and might therefore be illegal! Of course, all strikes are political, but it appears that what he meant was there were now political forces outside the control of the ANC influencing the strike and represented at the negotiations. Mantashe went on to complain that:

“The articulation of the AMCU position by white foreign nationals, signals interest of foreign forces in destabilising our economy”5

There were, in fact, representatives of two political organisations, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)6 and the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP)7, forming part of the AMCU delegation. The EFF is a split from the ANC itself. It split on the basis of sections of the “freedom charter” which is an ANC document dating from 1956. WASP was formed in 2012 from section of the Democratic Socialist Movement which is a Trotskyist tendency existing inside the ANC. Both organisations are in reality offshoots of the ANC despite Mantashe castigating them as “foreign.” One of the AMCU spokespeople at the talks, who was a member of WASP, was a Swedish woman called Liv Shange. In an earlier outburst, Mantashe claimed that:

“The reality is that a Swedish woman is at the centre of the anarchy in the platinum belt!”8

Such nonsense indicates a measure of the desperation on the part of the ANC. It is an attempt to muddy the waters by suggesting the miners are being manipulated by forces they do not understand and which are against the national interest. It is also an attempt to obscure the ANC’s support for the mine owners. Politically both the organisations Mantashe complains about, the EFF and WASP, call for nationalisation of the mines, as well as the banks and the land, all of which is anathema to South African capital and the ANC. What these organisations stand for is state-capitalism, an organisation of capitalism like that which existed in Russia until 1991. The South African capitalist class as a whole, and its ANC agent, view such a programme as suicidal.

To suggest the strike, now in its fifth month, could be illegal, as Mantashe suggested, is somewhat ridiculous. Not only has the strike been going on for months but before the strike started the AMCU went through all the machinery of the “Labour Relations Act” such as the Commission for Conciliation, notice periods, certificates and all the rest. It is unlikely therefore that the strike will be declared illegal. There are only 2 options the government can now follow. The first is to let the strike continue and starve the miners back underground, the second is to allow the mine owners to bypass the union and appeal to miners individually to return.

The second option, that of bypassing the union and appealing to the miners directly to return, has already been tried by Lonmin on its own at its Marikana mine. Miners were told to come back to work and a grand reopening of the mine planned for 14 May. This was organised with police support but only led to further violence with 4 people being killed, 3 of them apparently miners, in circumstances which have not been explained. The reopening was a failure. This does not mean, of course, that it could not be retried but with all three mining companies participating, but it is a dangerous option. The most likely course appears to be that of starving the miners back to work.

Miner’s demands

At present 80,000 miners are striking demanding a starting wage of R12,500 (£700)9 per month for underground workers. The average basic wage in gold and platinum mining is R5,500 per month so the demand is for a doubling of wages. At the start of the negotiations this was demanded immediately but during the negotiations the demand has been watered down, and the demand is now for R12,500 is to be achieved over 4 years. According to the mine owners this still represent s 25% to 35% increase year on year which, they claim of course, is unaffordable. During the Apartheid era miners were housed in single sex compounds which were part of the mines. Now the mines offer miners a “living out” supplement which many of the miners take since it is R1800 per month, or equivalent of approximately a third of their salary. This results in them living as cheaply as possible often in shanties in informal settlements with limited sanitation and water. Here they can bring their wives or start second families. This and the high unemployment in South Africa result in an average miner having to support 8 people on their wage10. For miners the demand of R12,500 is a demand for a living wage.

After nearly 5 months without pay the situation of the miners is desperate. They are depending on their friends and relatives; they and their families are going hungry and their children are not going to school. Many miners have returned to the villages from where they were recruited and are living in desperate poverty. The minister of mines commented that the striking miners had been reduced to beggars. However, there is still a determination to continue the struggle.

Bosses’ strategy

Because the union is an officially recognised union this strike, in contrast to the wildcats of 2012, has been subject to the state’s mechanism of delay and conciliation and is what is called a “protected strike”. This has meant the mine owners had plenty of time to prepare which they used to stockpile ore. Consequently production of platinum has not completely stopped although the stockpiles are nearly exhausted. The mine owners say they are still able to supply their clients with contracted supplies of platinum without having to purchase it on the metal markets. This appears to be true as the price of the metal has remained fairly stable during the entire period of the strike. The 3 mining groups involved, Lonmin, Impala and Amplats claim that together they have lost $2bn of revenue or about 1.4 million ounces of platinum, however, according to Gill Marcus of the SA central bank they still have inventories of platinum. They are therefore probably able to sit out the strike for some time yet. Far more important to them is not to concede to the massive increase in pay because of its implications for South African capital as a whole. As mentioned above the average wage for miners in the gold and platinum mines is R5,500 per month, for workers in engineering it is R5,300 and for workers in the economy as a whole it is R3,700 per month. (£205 per month.) If the platinum miners win their increase they will be followed by miners in gold, coal, iron, chrome and manganese mines, quarry workers, engineering workers and a whole host of others. It will open the floodgates to a succession of wage increases throughout the economy. It would also be a serious blow to the triple alliance and the containment of future workers’ struggles. For the capitalist class this would be a disaster and hence the cost of sitting out the strike is preferable to conceding such a wage increase.

Migrant labour system and the future

The South African Mining Industry is still highly labour intensive. Most labour for the mines remains migrant labour and is provided by a recruitment organisation TEBA11 which was set up immediately following the Boer War in 1902. It recruited workers from the rural areas of the Southern Africa, including Mozambique and the British protectorates, Lesotho, Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The military violence of capitalism destroyed the African tribal systems and separated Africans from the land. Their only choice was selling their labour power to capital. For the last 100 years TEBA has been recruiting the dispossessed into the South African mines. According to TEBA it supplies 235,000 workers to the mining industry, which amounts to about half of the total workforce. Most of the underground workers are migrant labourers. All three of the main platinum miners use TEBA to recruit miners. Amplats tried recruiting locally but found that migrant workers simply moved to the locality of the mine during the recruitment process. The fact that the mines have remained labour intensive and the system of recruiting labour for the mines is still much the same as a century ago indicates how little the fundamentals of the system have changed since the famous victory of the ANC in 1994. What is driving the industry, as with all capitalist production, is profit. During the period of commodities boom in the decade to 2009, the profitability of platinum mining was, according to the Financial Times, 33% and there was no reason to radically change the system. Recently the price of platinum has fallen and profitability has since dropped to 9%12. Even the mine owners recognise the inefficiency of the present system and the low productivity it achieves. South African mines work on average only about 270 days per year because of the shift system and holidays13. It is clear the present system cannot continue and in the future there will be an increase in capital equipment, closure of shafts, changes in the shift and holiday arrangements and consequently a massive shake-out of labour. This will mean that even if a significant increase is won many miners will subsequently be made redundant as the system readjusts itself and resumes its attacks on workers.

The strike can be won by generalisation

The strike can be won if it is spread to other workers. At the start of the strike metal workers at Amplats, who process the ore, also came out on strike, but only at Amplats not at the other 2 mines. Obviously if the process workers could join the strike all production of platinum would be stopped. However, the Amplats strikes were not linked and in particular the demands of the strikers were not linked. If there had been a common demand workers would have supported each other. The unions involved, AMCU and the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) kept the strikes separate and, although, the 4500 metal workers stayed out for more than 6 weeks, at the end of March they returned with a pay increase of only 7.5%, less than a third of what the miners were demanding.

However the metal workers throughout the country, including those in the mines, are again threatening to strike. The leader of NUMSA, Irvin Jim, said that a strike for a 15% increase, by his 220 000 members, was likely from early July. 15% is still a lot less than the 25% the miners are demanding and will allow the bosses to divide the workers and settle with each separately. Irvin Jim is reported to have said:

“We’re supporting the platinum strike…. Workers must unite.”14

Support with deeds not simply words is needed. The most elementary way for workers to unite is to unite their strikes and unite their demands. If this were done the strike could be rapidly won. However, this is unlikely to happen since the strikes remain in the control of the unions. The best that can be hoped for is simultaneous strikes controlled by different unions with different demands.

What is needed is for workers to take control of their strikes themselves via mass meetings which elect strike committees which are responsible to the mass meetings. This would involve the mass of the strikers in the control of their struggle. It is also the means to spread the struggle to other workers and unite the struggle with a single unifying demand.

While these strikes clearly represent an elementary struggle of labour against capital, a struggle which we are witnessing more and more in the peripheral countries, where now the most massive concentrations of workers exist, this struggle needs to have a political orientation. Capital is unable to grant long term improvements in the condition of the working class. The world’s working class have a single long term interest and that is freeing themselves from wage slavery. This can only be done by ending capitalist production relations and building social ones. These struggles need to be oriented to this end. A vital step in this process is the construction of an international political organisation of the working class which would give itself the task of putting forward this perspective in the present struggles of workers.


1 COSATU is the acronym for Confederation of South African Trade Unions.

2 SACP is the acronym for the SA Communist Party (Stalinist)

3 NUM is the acronym for National Union of Mineworkers

4 AMCU is the acronym for the Association of Mine-workers and Construction Union

5 See Daily Maverick

6 The EFF is a break-away from the ANC founded by its erstwhile youth leader Julius Malema. EEF advocate Dali Mpofu has been representing the surviving Marikana miners at the commission of inquiry investigating the massacre. The EFF is discussed in more detail in our text,

7 WASP Calls for nationalisations under workers’ control. i.e. state capitalism controlled by workers themselves. This is a Trotskyist position which is supposed to distinguishing their proposed nationalisations from Stalinism. Capitalism is not abolished, it is reformed.

8 See Daily Maverick

9 This is equivalent to about £3.60 per hour. The present average wage is equivalent to £1.60 per hour.

10 See Daily Times

11 TEBA stands for The Employment Bureau of Africa. Recruitment was not solely within South Africa but also Mozambique and the British Protectorates. TEBA still recruits from these areas.

12 See Financial Times 3/02/14

13 See Financial Times 21/05/2014

14 See Daily Maverick

Wednesday, June 18, 2014