South African mine workers enter 5th month on strike
June 9, 2014
Seventy-five thousand platinum mine workers have entered their 21st week of strike action – the longest in South Africa since 1994. They are demanding a wage of US$1,250 per month. The mine bosses are offering $750.
In August 2012, mine workers employed at the Lonmin owned Marikana mine went on a wildcat strike. Neither the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) nor the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the two largest unions, organised or agreed to the strike. It was organised by the rank and file membership.
While the leaders of both unions called on workers to end the strike, it was the leadership of AMCU that was much more sympathetic to the strikers. (It was this that led to most NUM members leaving to join the AMCU, the union that is leading the current strike.)
Realising that the wildcat strike showed no signs of a quick ending, the police, with help from mine security, opened fire on unarmed strikers. Thirty-four of them were killed.
After 4 weeks they won a small increase. Lonmin management agreed to raise the wages to $1,250 at a later date but subsequently reneged on the agreement.
After waiting 16 months for the promised wages, workers went on a union-backed strike in January this year. After three months, hungry and desperate mine-workers began arguing. Six hundred of them temporarily broke their strike and began working. It was this that galvanised comrades in the Democratic Left Front (DLF) into solidarity action.
We sent out appeals to a broad section of those likely to assist, including churches, mosques, non-governmental organisations, trade unions and universities. The response that we got was heart warming. Monetary and food collections came in as churches and mosques made appeals during their prayer sessions.
The Tide Turns
On 12 May, the mine bosses issued an ultimatum to the striking workers: return to work in 48 hours or get laid-off. Two days later, thousands of striking workers turned up and told the owners that they were not going back to work. By then workers had realised how much profit they make for the owners.
The corporate media, which had largely been ignoring the strike, now began reporting it – and in an almost sympathetic way. When a major relief organisation began sending supplies and doctors to assist striking workers and their families, many began sympathising with the strike.
Three mineworkers are currently on a tour of parts of the country. The tour is being organised by the Marikana Solidarity Campaign (MSC), of which the DLF is part. Hundreds have been coming to the miners speaking meetings. These actions have given the striking workers hope and strengthened their resolve to continue with the strike. As a mine-worker put it:
“If anyone says that workers are suffering – it’s not only about workers because there are billions, which means the whole nation is suffering. This matter is a matter of public interest. It does not concern the workers in mining alone.”
Another reason for the sympathy with the strike is that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. In the mining industry, CEOs “earn” between 200 and 300 times what a mineworker is paid. This is a reflection of the income differentials in South Africa. The CEO of the largest retail chain, Shoprite, “earns” 725 times what a retail worker is paid!
This is the legacy of the so-called “rainbow nation”. It is because of the neoliberal policies of the ANC government. Labour laws have been “relaxed”, resulting in casualisation and attacks on workers’ wages. In 1993, wages accounted for almost half of the costs in mining. Today they account for a third. In the same period the profits of the mining companies have risen a staggering 300 percent.