A lot has been happening in South Africa over the past few months. And it’s not good news. I haven’t written about it before because it seemed to need time to get perspective. Now that the dust has settled somewhat – literally and metaphorically – it may be worth trying to understand the events.
|Demonstration at Marikana|
The flashpoint was a wildcat strike at a platinum mine in the north-west of the country called Marikana run by a London-based company called Lonmin. Well, strikes happen. It’s part of the negotiating process between labor and management and is enshrined in the South African labor code. Normally an industry has a single powerful trade union – in this case the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – that is affiliated to COSATU, the umbrella trade union body that is a member of the governing tripartite alliance. (The others are the Communist Party and the African National Congress – the senior partner. An obvious tension arises as a result of this: the government negotiates with its employees, who are represented by a trade union which is part of … the government.) Leaving aside the background of the mining industry in South Africa and the often dreadful conditions in which miners live at the mines, let us accept that miners are not well paid for unpleasant, exhausting and sometimes dangerous work. What was different about the Marikana strike was that the workers were rejecting not only the company and its wage policies, but also NUM and the ANC government. With some justification, they felt betrayed by both the government – coming up for twenty years rule in South Africa – and their trade union, which had won them increases and better conditions over the years but had been unable to significantly improve their lifestyle in real terms. They wanted a threefold increase in wages. And a rival trade union was willing to demand it for them. Unsurprisingly, the company rejected that out of hand and the stage was set for what followed.
|Crowd with pangas and sticks|
Regrettably – but again routed in the past – strikes and demonstrations in South Africa are prone to deteriorate into violent confrontations. Skirmishes broke out between the rival unions, miners, security personnel and the police. The police – who are also not brilliantly paid – had the unenviable task of trying to keep the sides apart as desultory talks progressed amid inflammatory rhetoric. Several miners were seriously injured. Then two missing policemen were discovered hacked to death with pangas. (Pangas are vicious machete like tools or weapons, depending on the context.)
On August 16th a protest of hundreds of miners descended on the mine. They were visibly armed with pangas and sticks and some gunshots were reported (although the latter report is controversial). Union leaders all claim that they called for calm and for the protest to be non-violent. Nevertheless, at a certain point the group surged forward, ignoring police orders and the shouts of their supposed leaders. The police opened fire with various types of ammunition and 34 people were killed and many more injured. It was the worst massacre the country has seen since the days of Apartheid, shocking the nation, the government and the world. At the end of this piece is a Youtube clip covering the event. I warn you that it's pretty grim.
Strikes at the gold mines and the other platinum mines followed. Then the transport workers went on strike and truckers who continued to work were victimized – one killed - and several trucks were burned. The railway workers went on strike. Moody’s downgraded South African debt, the economy slowed, and the rand fell up to 10% against the US dollar. The government was paralyzed by a problem it hadn’t expected and couldn’t deal with. Initially it responded by arresting all the protesters who could be identified on murder-related charges using an obscure law from Apartheid days. Realizing that this would lead to disaster, it dropped that idea, instead establishing a commission to look into the whole issue. That is still underway.
I promised some sort of comment, yet I feel overwhelmed by what is summarized above. One thing is clear. Workers are finally turning away from the ANC government, biting the hand that has not fed them, or has not fed them enough. Conventional wisdom in South Africa is that when Madiba (“the old man” – the affectionate name for the universally-revered Nelson Mandela) dies, black people will reject the ANC in droves, moving to other parties. No one will insult Madiba by doing so now. The liberal conventional wisdom is that they will choose centrist groups like the Democratic Alliance. The reality may be rather that they reject the conventional structures altogether and turn to firebrand outsiders like Julius Malema, who calls for nationalization of all the mines. And that will be the end of the Rainbow Nation’s economy.
The workers have a case. South Africa is a rich country in terms of natural resources that attract investors, and natural beauty that attracts tourists. It has shown that it has the expertise to host a huge international event (the Football World Cup), it has good infrastructure and, in many areas, good services. Much HAS been achieved in terms of housing and other service delivery. But many have used the needed transfer of power and resources from white hands to black ones as an excuse to enrich themselves rather than to uplift the population. The day of reckoning may have arrived.
The stand-off continues with the other mines, although many miners have returned to work. The transport workers strike has been settled – at above inflation increases. Wildcat strikes have spread around the country to other areas. Government workers are threatening a major public sector strike. Even my University in Johannesburg has the academics on occasional strike. (I fear no one will notice!) The only glimmer of good news is that the South African Revenue Service workers (IRS equivalent) are also threatening to join in.
In due course Lonmin ended the strike at Marikana by giving increases of around 22%, taking wages to R11,000 per month (about $1,300) before deductions. But the latest news from Marikana is that 4,000 workers have refused to go underground to protest the arrest of three of their compatriots on a charge of murdering a union official.
So where does this end?
Michael – Thursday.
Youtube clip: Marikana massacre