Thursday, October 4, 2012

South Africa’s Mine Workers’ Strikes: It’s the Economy, Stupid

Tseliso Thipanyane analyses the Marikana mineworkers strike in Rustenburg, South Africa, and outlines its possible implications to the economic emancipation of the continent’s workers in general. Tseliso explores how, in compliance with the mining companies' economic agenda, the South African government has been directly responsible for the struggles of black South Africans, who constitute a majority in Africa's biggest economy. Today, what are mining workers fighting for, and can they expect going forward?

The killing of 34 striking black mineworkers by the South African police on August 16, 2012 and the related on-going labor strikes in the mining industry have brought into question the role and commitment of the African National Congress (ANC) as the ruling party since 1994 to transform the country’s economy, particularly the mining industry, for the benefit of the majority of black South Africans.

Police killed 34 striking platinum mine workers
in South Africa, at Mirakana.
Mining in South Africa has historically been associated with the exploitation of African mineworkers by mining companies. The state was used and influenced by mining companies to support this exploitation through the creation of an enabling legal environment. The might of the state - the security forces (the police and the military) and the courts - ensured compliance with these laws and a steady supply of cheap black labor for the mining conglomerates.

Many black people were reluctant to leave their homes and families to work in the mines under such unsafe and harsh conditions. In fact, there were few people willing to enter the colonial labor market in general. In 1905, in response to the consequential labor shortages, the then-British colonial government in Natal introduced a £1 poll tax on black males, hoping to force them into the colonial economy.

Those who did not pay the tax were accordingly arrested and thrown in jail and those who resisted and fought against this imposition were crushed with imperial forces. One such resistance to the imposition of the poll tax was that led by Chief Bambata in Zululand. After being hunted down by colonial forces, Bambata was eventually killed in battle alongside an estimated 3 to 4 thousand Zulu men, with about 7 thousand jailed and another 4 thousand flogged. Soon after the resistance was repressed the number of Zulu mineworkers increased from 50 to 80 percent. Coupled with the 1913 Land Act, black South Africans were finally successfully deprived access to over 70 percent of the land of their birth. Both the tax and the land act served to ensure cheap African labor for the mines.

The apartheid system was a continuation and refinement of this exploitative and oppressive economic agenda. Since they were beneficiaries of its policies, mining companies were active supporters of the apartheid system, forming strong alliances with the white government. Speaking on the alliance between the apartheid regime and the mining industry, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its 1998 final report concluded that the mining industry, apart from playing a central role in sustaining the apartheid economy and benefiting from cheap African labor, helped to ‘design and implement apartheid policies.’

Though the struggle against apartheid led to the 1994 elections that ushered in democratic governance in South Africa – transferred political power to the black majority – economic power and a meaningful control of the country’s economy has proven illusive to the majority. Eighteen years after 1994, the majority of black South Africans continue to suffer from the misery and indignity of poverty in Africa’s richest and biggest economy. They are the ones still most affected by high levels of poverty and unemployment, a poor and inadequate housing, health care services and education. To black South Africans, the provisions of the Freedom Charter that national wealth (the mineral wealth, banks and monopoly industry) shall belong to the people and be used for their benefit are yet to be realized.  What they experience and witness, however, is the increasing gap between the rich (mainly white and a few black elites) and the poor; they see the opulent live styles led by the rich and the new black elites, with poor wages and bad working conditions for everyone else.

After patiently waiting in vain for promises of a meaningful role in and benefits from the country’s economy to be fulfilled, many poor black South Africans are aggrieved and increasingly getting agitated over the situation they still find themselves. The increasing number of labor strikes and an increasing crime rate – including the unfortunate xenophobic attacks directed at poor African migrants – signify a growing impatience and popular anger.

The six-week strike by Marikana mineworkers was a response to the deplorable conditions under which South African mineworkers live and work. In contrast to the millions paid to mainly white mine executives and the billions in dividends paid to shareholders, the striking miners receive pennies for their considerable sweat and labor.

South African mine workers at Mirikana strike [AFP/Getty Images].

The government’s hitherto response to the mineworker’s strike: the aborted murder charges against them for the deaths of their fellow workers (the killing of the 34 mineworkers) shot dead by the police and the deployment of the South African army, have many convinced that the chief concern of the ANC is to put an end to the strike, force mineworkers back to work, and assure international mine investors that their investments are safe. Additionally, many believe the SA government intends to safeguard the mining interests of ANC elites and protect the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM) and its weakening control over black mineworkers. The striking mineworkers had rejected the role of NUM in their affairs and many of them had joined a rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

What the Marikana mineworkers’ strike and related strikes highlight is the fact that the ANC-led government has, after 18 years in power, not been able to adequately transform the country’s economy, including the mining industry, for the benefit of the majority of the country’s population. This also includes the failure to effectively regulate the mining industry in order to adequately address the exploitation of mineworkers, as evidenced by their poor pay and deplorable working and living conditions.

The ANC has somewhat acknowledged its failures. In its report on the 4th policy conference held in June 2012, it accepted that on ‘the redistribution of economic assets and ownership, the democratization of economic power, [and] the empowerment of black people…[We] have not met the expectations we had 18 years ago.’

Cyril Ramphosa, who is featured on Forbes list with a
net worth of $275 USD, is a former member of the ANC,
and its former secretary general, founded one of the
nation's biggest mineworkers' unions, the NUM, and
is also a shareholder of Lonmin Plc and sits on its
board of directors. Lonmin Plc is the world's third
largest platinum mining company.
Specific to the mining debacle, the ANC’s preoccupation and interests are to blame. It has ensured ownership stakes in mining companies for its leaders and close associates through the black economic empowerment programme. Its misplaced preoccupation has left the mining industry largely untransformed in relation to the treatment of mineworkers and the equitable redistribution of the massive wealth. This situation was recently acknowledged by COSATU in its 11th national congress, and has also led to renewed calls from the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) for the nationalization of mines as per the provisions of the Freedom Charter, a call that has not been fully supported by many of the elites in the ANC but championed by the expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.  A case in point is Lonmin Plc, the world’s third largest platinum mining company, who’s currently involved in a dispute with Marikana mineworkers. Cyril Ramphosa, a senior member of the ANC, its former secretary-general, and founder of the nation’s biggest mineworkers’ union, NUM, is a shareholder in the company and sits on its board of directors. Lonmin Plc is said to have financed his 9 percent stake in the company for R2.5 billion (US$300 million).

In essence, what mineworkers are fighting for is meaningful transformation of the country’s economy that goes beyond the current assimilation of a few black political elites and their associates; a transformation that should eventually lead to equitable distribution of the country’s great wealth, greater involvement of black people in the economy and better working conditions and pay for workers.  It is a struggle that the Marikana mineworkers and their family members have already paid dearly for. It is also a struggle that the majority of black South Africans should be waging with greater intensity in view of the outcome of the last eighteen years of democratic governance.

In the now famous Rivonia trial in which he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the struggle against apartheid, Nelson Mandela in his speech from the dock said: ‘We fight against two features which are the hallmarks of African life in South Africa, and which are entrenched by legislation we seek to have repealed. These features are poverty and lack of dignity….’ In explaining the basis for the struggle against apartheid he further said: ‘The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and the whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve the situation.’ He informed the court that this is what his organization, the African National Congress (ANC), was fighting against, ‘a struggle of African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience,’ and according to him, ‘a struggle for the right to live.’ The current leadership of the ANC, like many other African leaders today, seems to have lost sight of this struggle.

Tseliso Thipanyane is a contributing writer to He is an expert on human rights issues and the former chief executive officer of the South African Human Rights Commission. He is currently based in New York were he works as an independent consultant on human rights, democracy, and good governance, with a special focus on Africa. He is an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School lecturing on human rights in Africa.

Tseliso can be reached by email at tselisot@gmail.comYour comments and feedback are much appreciated. To engage in further discussion with the editors and contributors of the blog on this topic and other related topics, follow us on twitter @SEADiaspora and/or leave a comment below.