Platinum and Lead Kill South African Miners

The South African bourgeoisie have been long-sighted and smart. In order to guarantee the economic development of one of the richest mining countries in the world, racial segregation and the tensions which it generated were seen as no longer fit for purpose. It was better to change everything: the constitution, the old President of the Republic (and substitute him for the icon of Nelson Mandela) so that everything remained the same, above all the relationship of wage labour to capital.

The prize they were safeguarding was largely represented by the mines of precious minerals like diamonds, but above all platinum and palladium. The small sacrifice of involving the ANC in the administration of political power in order to guarantee better control of the economy and the world of labour was worth the candle.

And so it was until the international crisis stuck its nose in. South Africa is the leading global producer of platinum and palladium, two precious metals which, besides being, like gold if not more so, commodities in which international speculators seek refuge, are largely used in components and in catalytic converters for cars. The crisis has cut off many of these commercial uses. The industrialised countries import less because they are producing less, they are reducing stocks and ordering fewer primary products. This is happening in almost all the industrial sectors of the capitalist world, in particular the automobile sector which has been hit hardest in this crisis.

For South African industry it has meant lower profits, for the speculators a worrying fall in demand for futures linked to the extraction and trading of precious metals. Amongst the firms hit has been Lonmin which alone produces 12% of the country’s platinum and has been confronted with a series of strikes which started on 10 August. On that date ten deaths were already confirmed (including two police killed by blows from machetes), on 15 August this was followed by 36 workers killed by police rifle fire.

This is all for a wage demand which aims to triple a monthly salary equal to 400 euros which is little enough in relation to the nature of the work and to the parasitic increase in productivity. But the strike, more than just being about a wage demand, raises the question of the delicate mechanism of economic profitability. Five days of strike have cost Lonmin 15000 ounces of platinum and already lowered its share price by 6.33% but beyond this it was an example which needed to be halted immediately before it could widen to other mining firms. This was a risk the Pretoria government was not prepared to take. It was better to massacre dozens of workers than to see the country face a wave of strikes and protests, better to have a preventive “lesson” than the nightmare of a revival of class struggle. And this strategy may not even succeed.

The unions have also played their part. Whilst the AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) has “gone along with” the workers’ demands considering them fair because they are just and compatible with the system, or rather minimal and not prejudicial to the firm’s profit, the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) bound hand and foot to the ANC (i.e. the Government) distinguished itself in acting like a fireman before the strike and a like a scab during it. Even in the Southern Hemisphere the laws of profit and the contortions of the unions are identical. This goes for the ones who obviously support capitalist interests to the others who maintain fake opposition by riding the tiger of wage demands but only those which are well within the general economic compatibility of capitalist society.

The tragedy is that the murderous violence of capital has no borders. The same things are happening in China, Brazil and many other countries on the so-called periphery of capitalism whilst in the “democratic” West nothing like this is taking place for the simple reason that there is no visible revival of the class. However at the first significant sign of a working class response even in our political latitudes the axe of repression will not be long in striking. In Italy, for example, the juridical weapons are already in place and comprehensive experiments on have already been carried out the ground (Genoa in 2001) even though not realised at the time.

It is no longer a time “just” to denounce this scandal, to weep for the dead of the international working class, it is also time to make a real effort and organise a class party, a revolutionary programme, so that the future revival of the class struggle will not have as its target just the repression of the international capitalist class but also the political objective of overthrowing this class-divided society, of breaking the iniquitous relationship between labour and capital and of destroying the mechanism of capitalist productivity. The tragic episode of Lonmin and the 34 slaughtered workers is not the local story of a brutal event in far-off South Africa but is one act in a tragedy which is destined to be played out wherever the working class tries to raises its head.


The above article is based on a translation from our Italian website. A more considered article will appear shortly in Revolutionary Perspectives but for background we refer readers to our recent article “ANC – A Hundred Years...”

Monday, August 20, 2012