Thursday, October 25, 2012

Day of Reckoning?

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.
President Zuma, empty-handed

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


  1. A horrible tragedy likely brought on by frightened cops, a lack of training, superiors pressured to get results, and arrogant bad judgment.

    If you accept the premise that man is basically good [questioned by at least a one-half contributor to this site:)], the only explanation I see for the universal sad state of our planet is that whether we're talking government, labor, or private industry, Lord Acton was right: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

    His not as often quoted tag line to that observation is, "Great men are almost always bad men."

    God help us all.

  2. The workers do have a case. South Africa has a gigantic percentage of the world's platinum. The corporations that mine the mineral there make enormous profits. Three Lonmin executives earn the same as 3,600 rock-drill operators, who have arguably the most difficult and dangerous mine jobs. They work while wet and bent over, never standing up while drilling.

    Although apartheid does not exist as a legal system, there is still economic apartheid. The wealth has mostly not been shared with the people who do the work. There is huge unemployment. Many workers, including miners, still live in shacks. Many cannot afford to send their children to school.

    Mine executives and their staff reportedly have yelled racist slurs at miners. Many are treated like "chattel," only existing to earn money for the mine owners, not treated with respect as human beings.

    The responses, which go outside the legal channels, by miners comes from their life conditions, their desperation, frustration, poverty. They feel no one is representing and fighting for their needs and for them.

    My reading about the Aug. 16 killing of miners by police is that many were shot in the back, while trying to leave, and the autopsies show that. In prison, where many were taken, many were beaten by police.

    So many South Africans died, were beaten, jailed and more to free their people, not to be so underpaid and live in desperate conditions and then be jailed, beaten and shot.

    There has to be much more wealth shared with working people, more jobs, more housing, schools and other social programs. The government, which has provided housing, electricity and more to some has to expand these essentials to the population that needs them.

    And the companies that reap huge profits there must compensate the workers fairly and try to alleviate the terrible conditions in the mines and elsewhere, and do much more.

  3. Dear Kathy,
    Thanks for your input. Yes, certainly much must be uncovered about August 16th and hopefully the current commission will do that. And certainly the relationship between mines and miners needs to change for the better. There is a danger, though, that the result may be better paid and more skilled jobs - work with dignity - but far less of them. That in itself would be a problem for South Africa which needs more jobs rather than less...
    Anglo Platinum just announced its latest figures - $54 million loss for the first half of the year.

  4. Leftist that I am, and winning as Kathy's pleas seem to me, I can see, Michael, what a minefield South Africa must walk through to reach a solution. Thank you for this cogent, balanced, and beautifully written summary of a situation that has troubled me, but that I have had difficulty grasping until now.

  5. I appreciate what is said here, but something drastic has to be done. South Africa's miners must be treated better and not have to tolerate such bad living conditions and racist treatment, too. They're human beings and deserve respect and basic civil and human rights.

    The miners who went on strike at Lonmin did win good raises, but they had to take drastic action to get them. The same thing is happening in other economic sectors there, too, where work stoppages are ending up with successful results.

    The gross economic inequality is endemic to the whole situation there. Workers can't just be viewed as a means to megaprofits. They deserve a great deal more.

    Their grievances must be understood and answered. Even in economic terms, the worker will keep protesting and the mines shut down, so it seems to me the logical solution is to pay them decently in the first place and give them humane working conditions.

    The struggle to overturn apartheid was just too monumental to end up like this. The people of South Africa deserve so much more.