Frustrated miners drive onslaught
'You don't believe me, Thomas," said Philip Mntombi, his voice carrying like a preacher used to projecting it without amplification. He had the workers' rapt attention but perhaps not their full conviction, hence his goading the doubting Thomases.
"We told you that their bullets are useless. Today, you have seen for yourself what we are talking about. If you say you're a preacher at your church and you are prepared to risk your life because you don't want to pay R150, then it's up to you."
The unprotected strike at Samancor's Western Chrome Mine near Rustenburg in North West was taking a turn for the absurd. It was October 3 and Mntombi – a strike committee leader who contrasts his oratory skills with a skinny, youthful appearance – was unleashing Biblical references on workers who would not "man up" and visit a sangoma for a "strengthening" ritual.
Earlier that day, he refused to touch my hand when I greeted him. Dark ointment was smeared on a razor cut on his forehead. Later a worker explained that Mntombi had escaped a volley of live ammunition at the hands of police and mine security when he stood at the back entrance at the Mooinooi section of the mine – the entrance through which management and administrative staff hastily fled when the situation outside the main entrance, where about 500 striking workers had gathered, intensified.
When the dreadlocked Mntombi emerged to meet the rest of his striking colleagues, he held the short sleeve of his striped golf shirt to show the holes where the rubber bullet had whizzed past, revealing fresh cuts that formed a band around his arm.
It is not that they needed umuthi (potion) and the resulting unity it would produce – this particular strike has remained comparatively violence free, even when 395 workers staged a 32-hour underground sit-in last week, from the morning of September 27 to the afternoon of September 28.
Management's response to the sit-in was to cut off the underground water supply and force the workers out of the mine's hostel when it became clear that they had no intention of going back to work until their demands for a R12 500 basic salary plus decent living-out, transport and underground allowances were met. Mntombi said, with the allowances, their demands amounted to R17 300.
Mntombi, a smart figure in a green checked shirt and white chinos, said the mine also lacked compassion for workers who had requested less strenuous work for health reasons and had responded by firing them. He said mine security was dispersing crowds of 15 or more workers and the mine had placed them on mandatory paid leave from October3 to October15, whereas their mandatory leave normally takes place in December and January.
The workers delivered a memorandum of demands to management on September 19. Since then the strike has gathered momentum, drawing participants from the mine's two other nearby shafts, Buffelsfontein East and Millsell.
By the morning of October 3, the strikes on the mines had spread to new mines such as Kumba Iron Ore's Sishen mine in the Northern Cape and Harmony Gold's Kusasalethu mine in Carletonville. Workers at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) in Northam had also downed tools.
The protest action forms part of a co-ordinated national strike campaign that has been bubbling under for years in the platinum belt, but spread to other industries in the wake of the Lonmin strike, which resulted in more than 40 people losing their lives.
The Democratic Socialist Movement, a small and militant Trotskyist organisation, has claimed responsibility for the unrest. It has for years been coming to the aid of platinum belt workers who have been left in the lurch by the increasing reluctance of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to lead strikes.
On October 3 at Mooinooi, when workers were being "disarmed" of sticks by a heavily armed police contingent that included three nyalas, a van and a minibus, movement representatives arrived to offer support to the dispersing workers.
The movement was also visible at Implats last week when an interim workers' committee presented management's salary adjustment, the second since February's epochal strike at that mine.
The movement has been liaising with strike committees at Amplats and for the past three years has been trying to manage the fallout after about 4 000 workers were fired at Aquarius's Kroondal and Marikana operations in 2009. That was after claims that the NUM misrepresented the workers' mandate during a wage strike.
"The Mooinooi strike was part of the general strike implemented by the co-ordinating committees," movement leader Mametlwe Sebei said on October 2. "We called for a general strike after the [Lonmin] massacre. We brought together the strike committees of Lonmin, Anglo Platinum, Samancor and Royal Bafokeng. We have escalated the strikes to the gold industry. Anglo Gold has been shut down as we speak. We are trying to co-ordinate a national strike committee democratically elected by workers."
Nkosinathi Mpopo, a former Aquarius Kroondal employee who lost his job in the 2009 strike but now works at Samancor, confirmed the mounting unity of the strike committees and the movement's galvanising effect. "We have been under pressure for years because the NUM didn't want to represent us. The movement uniting us now is the Democratic Socialist Movement. The strike committees want a union that is independent, that will be worker-controlled and not under the umbrella of Cosatu or the ANC."
Although the movement is not a union, it has a cordial relationship with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), because both organisations view the NUM as an enemy of the rank-and-file worker.
Amcu has been courted by the Samancor workforce, some of whose members conducted mock funeral processions for the union by carrying small hexagonal coffins marked "NUM".
Mntombi explained to the workforce that Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa would have liked to have met openly with the strikers after they had requested his presence, but he was keeping a low profile because he was keen to undo the damage of media reports that laid the blame for the violence during strikes at Lonmin and Implats at Amcu's door.
Sebei reiterated that the organisation supported a worker-controlled nationalisation of the mines and believed job losses and shaft shutdowns could be attributable to "gluttonous" overproduction, which he said nationalisation would effectively regulate.
The NUM and Samancor could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.
Archie Palane, Gwede Mantashe's former deputy general secretary at the NUM, is Samancor Western Chrome Mines' head of corporate affairs and transformation.
Samancor has existed since 1975 when SA Manganese merged with Amcor. According to its website, International Mineral Resources, a Swiss company, has a 70% direct shareholding in the holding company Samancor Chrome Holdings.
South Africa holds about 70% of the world's chrome reserves and produces more than 75% of its ferrochrome. Samancor Chrome is the second-largest ferrochrome producer in the world. Its resources exceed 650-million tonnes, which is expected to support mining for the next 200 years based on current extraction rates, according to mbendi.com.