Wildcat South Africa: Marikana Miners Return - Other Miners Come Out

On 19th September the striking miners at Marikana platinum mine accepted a revised pay offer from the mine owner Lonmin. The miners were offered a bonus of R2000 (£150) and pay increases of between 11% and 22% depending on their grade. The deal was negotiated by the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, (CCMA) with help from the South African Council of Churches. The miners had rejected any representation from the official unions, in particular the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)), whom they correctly saw as representatives of the mine owners. Instead they appointed their own representatives. After initial refusal by the workers to budge from their demand of R12 500 per month, it is reported that the NUM, who attended the caucus meetings of the CCMA, explained to the strike leaders that the mine owner Lonmin could go bankrupt if the wage increase was paid in full and then all miners would lose their jobs. Any settlement above the 22% would cause job losses and consequently workers had a common interest with the mine owners Lonmin in ensuring the profitability and survival of the mine. A more modest wage increase had to be agreed etc. The problem for CCMA was how to present a 22% rise, on a basic monthly salary of R5000, as equal to R12500. The award was eventually presented to the miners in terms of gross pay, including all the deductions, which many miners never see, such as allowances for housing, transport, health etc. According to the South African Mail and Guardian newspaper there was a

Tacit agreement between all involved to allow the workers to believe that a minimum gross entry wage of R12 500 would be implemented within two years. Is that dishonest? I'd rather call it sleight of hand, -- said one participant -- Sometimes you have to think of the greater good (1).

Although the settlement includes a 10% wage increase, which was part of an earlier wage agreement, it is still approximately double what the miners would have got without the wildcat strike. It is not surprising that that the Marikana miners were pleased with the increase. Also not surprising is the statement from the official unions that they were very unhappy with the outcome because they considered it condoned wildcat strikes and showed that such strikes could win substantial increases. They stated that the settlement undermined their role in negotiating pay was a recipe for labour chaos. This is also the view of the bosses.

The real concern is the apparent breakdown of the collective bargaining system that has operated effectively since the mid-1980s, -- Alan Fine, a spokesman for AngloGold, told the Financial Times. -- Our challenge is to ensure the system survives.

And they do well to tremble at a threat to their system. This series of strikes that have broken out in the South African mines have blown a hole in the myth of “liberation” and they have enormous potential to spread to other sectors of the economy.

Initially the Marikana strike and the police massacre had brought a number of other mines in the region to a standstill. Workers struck and management closed the mines. At some of these mines which had reopened, news of the Marikana settlement brought miners out on strike again. They have put forward pay demands similar to those of the Marikana miners. The Anglo American platinum mine at Rustenburg, the Aquarius platinum mine at Kroondal, two Goldfields gold mines and the Xstrata Chrome mine near Rustenburg have all been affected. AngloGold Ashanti closed down all its gold mines on 26th September after most of its 35 000 workers went on strike. The strike also has spread to the coal sector with 9000 miners at Mooiplaats colliery downing tools after rejecting an offer which would have given them a 22% increase. These strikes are again wildcats outside the official unions and will, no doubt, be pronounced illegal by the South African courts in due course. This would open the path for mass dismissals and a further round of struggle. This is real class war.

Despite warnings of chaos by the unions if they lost control of the miners, the outcome could be a lot worse for South African mining capital. Instead of a unified strike on all the mines with a unified pay demand which would have quickly forced a settlement in terms dictated by the miners, we have seen isolated strikes at individual mines each with their own demands. This means the mine owners can deal with the strikes one by one while the state can intimidate and repress the strikers. By making the strikes illegal, the unions have succeeded in dividing them up and thereby undermining the greatest weapon workers have, their unity.

ANC Countermeasures

Mining is, of course, extremely important for the South African capitalism. The mines employ 500 000 workers and 180 000 of these work in platinum mines. Platinum has become a more important source of income than gold. Platinum sales, which are only exceeded by coal sales, amounted to R82bn (£6.09bn) in 2011 whereas gold sales amounted to R66bn (£4.9bn). President Zuma’s immediate comment on the strikes was that they had cost the country R4.5bn and the Government had lost revenue of R3.1bn (£230m).

The response of the state has been to increase pressure on the miners by intimidation and repression while at the same time mobilising the conciliation service CCMA and the South African Council of Churches. Some of the attempts at intimidation have been extremely clumsy. Initially the 178 miners, arrested after the massacre, were charged with murder. According to the prosecution they acted with common purpose and were therefore responsible for what followed (2). How precisely they had murdered their comrades who were filmed being gunned down by the police was never made clear. The murder charge was finally considered too absurd to proceed with and the miners released from custody to face lesser charges. All claimed they had been beaten in the police cells. In further attempts at demoralising the strikers the police continued to break up all miners meetings and raided their hostels and shacks confiscating items which could be deemed as weapons. In addition the state drafted 1000 soldiers into the area to assist the police maintain law and order and clear the streets.

Our previous text pointed out how ANC rule has elevated a narrow echelon of ANC leaders to the ranks of leading South African capitalists (3). The alliance of the African nationalists with the African workers, which was supposed to exist in the struggle against apartheid, was always a deception. The ANC’s strategy was to use the workers’ struggles as the battering ram with which to smash open the gates of the apartheid laager. The ANC government is now the guarantor of capitalist order, which means repression of workers and enforcement of low wages. The difference of interest which now exists between the new black bourgeois and workers, such as the miners, is grotesquely illustrated in the person of Cyril Ramaphosa. He was, in the 80s, the founder and first leader of the National Union of Mineworkers but is now a mining magnate himself, and is actually on the board of Lonmin with a keen interest in keeping workers pay as low as possible. During the strike, while workers were being shot for demanding less than the European minimum wage, it is reported that he paid R18m (£1.34m) for a rare buffalo cow (4). When there was an outcry about this he donated R2m for the funerals of the 34 strikers shot by the police! Ramaphosa remains close to the centres of power in the regime since he is a prominent member of the ANC Executive Committee where he represents the interests of the mine owners.

Faced with declining popularity as people realise the truth the ANC has now begun to fracture. Ex-ANC youth leader Malema has toured the striking mines casting himself in the role of the workers defender. He has attacked the ANC leadership, particularly Zuma, whom he calls a “bribe taking crook”, the NUM and COSATU (5) and called for the nationalisation of the mines. Eventually the police barred Malema from addressing miners following incitement charges brought against him by “Solidarity” one of the unions supposedly representing the miners. This of course was a move which played into his hand and gave him greater credibility. Malema himself is no stranger to dodgy dealing and the Government has struck back by formally charging him with corruption, money laundering and tax evasion!

Nationalisation of the Mines

Many miners are taken in by Malema’s populist call for the nationalisation of the South African mines. They think it would lead to better pay and conditions, and miners receiving a share of the profits. Nationalisation is, in fact, part of the ANC’s platform set out in the Freedom Charter (6), but is now fiercely opposed by the ANC leadership and COSATU. This is the reason it is such a sensitive issue for the ANC.

The idea that nationalisation of the mines will benefit miners is completely wrong. Despite it being presented as a type of socialism it is a type of capitalism, namely state capitalism. What Malema and others like him are doing is claiming the capitalist state could manage capitalism better than the present mine owners and workers should struggle for this change of bosses. This is a great diversion which is being used to direct the miners’ struggle into paths which will benefit elements of the state bureaucracy rather than the miners themselves.

Nationalisation of the mines would mean that the state was the employer but the relationship of capital to labour would remain the same as ever. Miners would remain part of an exploited class facing the attacks of the owners of capital, namely the state. History is now full of examples which illustrate the truth of what we are saying. In the UK, for example, all mining was nationalised after the Second World War and the state, as employer, instituted rationalisations, speedups and redundancies. The number of miners was reduced from 718 000 in 1947 to under 10 000 by the turn of the century and the profitable mines were handed back to private capitalists in the late 80’s. Throughout this process the state acted in the interests of capital that is the exploiting class, against the interests of the workers. A further example is that of the Soviet Union where all capital became the property of the state after 1928 and a thoroughgoing system of state capitalism was introduced which lasted until 1989. During this period the savage exploitation of Russian workers was carried out under a smokescreen of propaganda claiming that they owned the means of production, their interests were in supporting the state, in increasing production, in making sacrifices and that their lives would soon get better. All of this was a pack of lies.

As COSATU so eloquently explained to the CCMA the mines need to make a profit which is the same as saying that workers as a class need to be exploited to produce profits for capital and this is true whether the capital is held by the state or by private individuals. The fact that the mining houses can complain about the low price of platinum and their low profit margins shows the real conflict which lies at the heart of capitalist society. They are telling us that the exploited class must be exploited further to produce more profits. This conflict can only be overcome once the system of wage labour is destroyed and production is carried out for human needs.

The violence of the South African miners’ strikes and the savagery with which the forces of the state repress strikers is an indication of the brutal antagonism between mine owners and miners, the antagonism between labour and capital. It is a confirmation of the clash of interests between the two main classes in capitalist society. This conflict is no different now from what it was under apartheid. It is essentially the same struggle which has been waged by the British miners in the 70’s and 80’s, Russian miners in 1991, US miners in Harlan county etc. It is a moment in the worldwide struggle of workers against as capital. It needs to be recognised as this. What is needed is politicisation of the struggle and giving it the longer term aim of overthrowing the capitalist system itself. What is needed is the formation of groups of workers who understand that the longer term aim must be the overthrow of capitalism and trying to give future struggles an orientation towards this end and convince other workers that this is the truth. What is needed is an internationalist political organisation of the working class.


(1) See mg.co.za

(2) The law of common purpose is an apartheid era law. It was previously used against the ANC itself.

(3) See leftcom.org and leftcom.org

(4) See africafocus.org

(5) Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is in an alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party and is one of the forces running South Africa.

(6) The Freedom Charter was adopted as ANC policy in 1955. ANC leaders agreed to drop this policy as a price for ending apartheid and instituting majority rule in the early 1990s.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012