Black labour in post-apartheid South Africa has entered a new era of independent trade unionism and militant class struggle, argues Neil Faulkner
The 25,000 miners at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine won the most important working-class victory since the end of apartheid. On 16 August, the miners faced murderous state violence, with 34 miners shot and killed by police outside the Marikana complex. Despite the repression, the men and their families not only held the union line at Lonmin, they also spread the strike to other companies, bringing thousands of fellow miners into action across the industry.
Lonmin have now capitulated, granting a 22% pay rise, a 1,800 rand housing allowance, medical aid, and a 2,000 rand one-off compensation payment for loss of earnings during the strike. When the deal was announced, thousands of strikers marched off chanting and dancing in celebration.
Mining has been at the heart of South African capitalism for over a century. South Africa today produces 11% of the world’s diamonds, 12% of its gold, and 85% of its platinum. Profits are huge. Lonmin made $259 million profit in 2011. The 300,000 men who labour in South Africa’s mines are therefore in the vanguard of the country’s huge black working-class.
Miners elsewhere – like 15,000 strikers at Gold Fields – are now demanding comparable deals to Lonmin. Mine bosses are despondent. As the Financial Times glumly reported, miners across the industry are likely to conclude that wildcat strikes are effective, such that the example of Lonmin ‘could cause further unrest in the future’.
What is especially shocking for the mine bosses is the collapse of the cosy relationship they had established with the collaborationist National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
The NUM is an apartheid-era union whose leaders have been close to the ANC government for years. Cyril Ramaphosa, its former leader, now a multi-millionaire politician and businessman, symbolises the bureaucratic degeneration of the NUM and its evolution into a yellow union in cahoots with the bosses and the state.
The strikers shot down by the police on 16 August were residents of the Wonderkop settlement, where up to seven migrant workers sleep in each shack, sharing taps and hot-wired electricity. Even local family men live in slum shacks of corrugated iron unchanged since the end of white-minority rule. The ANC regime has created a black bourgeoisie alongside the white, but left the mass of working-class South Africans in poverty unchanged in two decades.
This is the context for the explosive growth of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), a militant rank-and-file union that has now broken the grip of the NUM. The ‘Green T-shirts’ – as activists of the AMCU are known – are now determined ‘to cancel the NUM in Lonmin’ by recruiting all Marikana miners into the new union. Their spectacular victory should make that easy enough.
Lonmin has set the benchmark. Five weeks of militant unionism, wildcat strike action, and mass street protest have overturned two decades of class collaboration in the South African mining industry.
The reason for the victory is simple: strike action over the last nine months has cost South Africa’s mine bosses 4.5 billion rand and the South African treasury a further 3.1 billion rand.
Let us hope other miners take heed and fight for the same. And that the example spreads to other sections of South African capitalism’s 13 million strong workforce. And beyond – for the AMCU has just given us all a sharp reminder what trade unionism is supposed to be about.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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