Saluting the South African Platinum Mineworkers
Saluting the South African Platinum Mineworkers
A famous victory for the workers
South African platinum workers defeated the powerful platinum bosses with a 5-month long strike that ended in the lowest paid workers receiving a 21% wage increase on their basic pay, backdated to July 1 2013, and the bosses agreeing to reinstate over 200 workers who had been dismissed during the strike. The workers will get an annual wage increase of R1000 over the next three years, with minor variations between different companies, taking them much closer to their demand for a living wage of R12500.
The striking miners faced hostile platinum bosses, who had stockpiled months’ worth of platinum and were determined to use the strike as an opportunity to break the workers’ union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Miner workers faced a state ready to once again deal violently with them, despite the recent spectre of the Marikana massacre hanging over it. But the strikers also faced open hostility from leading sections of the organized labour movement. This makes the length and successful outcome of the strike all the more remarkable.
The big wage increase won by the workers through the strike fundamentally challenges the cheap black migrant labour model of the platinum bosses. Platinum mining after the strike will not be the same again, for the workers or the bosses.
The commercial press, which has been hostile to the strike from the start, is attempting to steal the workers’ victory by focusing on the wages the workers lost during the strike and that they did not win their demand for R12500. This deliberately misses the point. The mineworkers’ strike symbolized the struggle of many generations of migrant mineworkers throughout the Southern African region. It explains why the elders in villages in the countryside were in the forefront of mobilizing social grants and pensions in support of the strikers: it was as much their unfinished battles being waged by the platinum workers. The support from the workers’ rural communities proved decisive in the strike outcome.
Super profits from super exploitation
Platinum has surpassed gold as the main source of wealth creation for the South African mining bosses. From the mid-1990s the price of the metal has skyrocketed, generating fantastic profits for a handful of platinum companies. Between 2007 and 2008, the largest platinum miner, Anglo Platinum, paid out more than R29 billion in profits to its shareholders. But these astronomical profits derive first and foremost from a cheap labour model that even the gold mining bosses, who introduced and perfected the cheap black migrant labour model, can only stand and admire.
Whereas the gold mining bosses housed migrant workers in massive compounds on their mines, and generally provided them with a modicum of services, the platinum bosses have moved migrant workers from poor rural areas and simply dumped them in even poorer rural areas, in the Apartheid-era homelands where the platinum reef is located. The homelands were the poorest areas in the entire country, exclusively rural and lacking the most basic of services and infrastructure.
The platinum bosses abandon their workers to the squatter camps of local communities, taking no responsibility for their housing or access to other basic services like healthcare, sanitation or electricity. This has placed enormous pressure on the already-meagre services available to those communities. The daily cost of reproducing the mineworkers has been shifted entirely onto these local communities.
In addition, the platinum bosses also use labour brokers in large numbers. Of the 191 686 workers employed on the platinum mines (as at January 2014), 53 539 were contract workers. Labour broker are cheaper to use. They work on fixed term contracts, do not get the benefits that other workers get, and are easier to hire and fire.
These factors combine to dramatically cheapen wages, even below the pitiful levels of gold mining under Apartheid, thereby opening the way to super profits in platinum mining, significantly bolstered by the near-monopoly local platinum bosses have over platinum production. South Africa holds 88% of the world’s platinum reserves.
It is these conditions facing mineworkers that lie behind a wave of platinum worker strikes dating back to the mid-2000s, significantly escalating from 2009 onwards, resulting in the big Impala Platinum strike of February 2012 and then the Marikana strike of August 2012. The 2014 strike is the high point of this long wave of struggles by platinum mineworkers.
No support from organized labour for the strikers
A further feature of the strike is that it took place in a context of an imploding labour movement in South Africa, especially of the biggest and historically most militant trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The platinum mineworkers got no solidarity support from the rest of the labour movement. In fact, the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers acted as strike breaker, quickly settling for an 8 % wage increase and repeatedly exhorting the state to act against the strikers.
While the strike enjoyed support and sympathy within the broader working class, the absence of strong social movements prevented the class from converting this into concrete support and solidarity. Instead, the strike was sustained by the support of the local communities where the strikers lived and the rural villages from which they came.
Impact on the class struggle
Some aspects of the strike’s impact on the future direction of the class struggle are not difficult to predict. The platinum bosses are among the most powerful in the country, with strong links to the ruling ANC, and they will not easily accept their defeat. Already the state is talking about introducing compulsory balloting into strike procedures, while a shady new mineworkers union has been set up with a R4 million ‘donation’, doubtless to undermine and destroy AMCU.
Even without this external attempt to undermine it, the future of AMCU is uncertain. The union has no traditions of worker democracy and worker control, has few if any structures through which workers can consistently participate in it, leaving its leadership unaccountable to the membership. Earlier in 2014 already there were signs of worker dissatisfaction with the lack of democracy in the union. It is very possible that AMCU will prove to be a temporary stopover as South African workers continue their search for alternative organizing forms to traditional trade unionism.
If workers do start leaving AMCU in significant numbers in the next while, this could embolden the platinum bosses in their attempts to roll back the gains of the strike, through retrenchments, victimization of worker leaders and the co-option of others, something AMCU itself is facilitating by continuing with the discredited NUM practice of shop stewards being granted massive pay hikes once elected as such.
Notwithstanding these considerations, the platinum mineworkers have won a famous victory. They have undoubtedly inspired workers everywhere in their own struggles for a decent life.
Casual Workers Advice Office
Download Related Document: Saluting the South African Platinum Mineworkers.pdf