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More questions than answers

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The Marikana moment highlights a lifetime of unanswered needs

Bheki Sibiya, the chief executive of the Chamber of Mines, gathers his thoughts during the Mail & Guardian business breakfast in Johannesburg. (Lisa Skinner)

Neil Coleman

The traumatic and tragic events at Marikana and in the Rustenburg Platinum Belt have raised a number of questions among commentators and activists in the labour movement.

These include:

l Will the Marikana events turn out to be the democratic era's equivalent of the 1973 strikes?

l Have workers rejected their unions as being ineffective and unaccountable, just as the old toothless Trade Union Council of South Africa (Tucsa) was rejected?

l Is the most powerful and largest union federation in Africa on the brink of collapse?

l Does Marikana represent the nascent emergence of a new, powerful, independent union movement and, more broadly, a political movement that will realign politics in the country?

Although they are important and need answers, this set of questions fails to address a range of other searing problems that Marikana raises: l Questions about the brutal role of employers and the mining industry, and in particular the flourishing of rogue employment practices in the platinum sector;

l Questions about the various forces at work, which include demagogues and opportunists of many varieties seeking to maximise their political advantage at the expense of workers;

l Questions about the failure of the state to transform the industry, or to implement its own regulations;

l Questions around how militarisation has shaped the police's response to worker protests and their inability to secure the safety of communities and union leaders; and

l Questions about the emergence of warlordism and violent fiefdoms reminiscent of the early 1990s.

Marikana represents a myriad challenges for our democracy in general, and in particular for employers, the state and the labour movement.

Because the Marikana moment is extremely complex and contains many layers, there is the danger that one-dimensional analyses can lead to superficial responses, unable to engender the type of deep structural change that the situation demands. South African society — in particular those in positions of wealth and power — has an amazing capacity to be temporarily shocked by crises and then to carry on as if nothing has happened.

Marikana shows up issues generally applicable to the economy and matters specific to the mining industry. Because of the particular importance of the mining industry in South Africa's political economy, these crises reflect key national challenges, among others,

l The lack of a wage policy, extreme inequalities in income distribution and the inadequacy of our voluntarist collective bargaining system;

l Questions of our economic structure, particularly the commodity-driven extractive character of economy and the role of international and local capital in perpetuating this structure;

l The continued legacy of South Africa's cheap labour system, migrant labour, hostels and their impact on workers and communities; and

l The failure of our democratic state to address fundamental structural economic challenges.

The platinum industry represents a microcosm of many of these challenges. Key phrases that come to mind when describing the tragedy of Marikana include:

l "A filthy rich and rapacious industry," controlling 80% of world's platinum, which is a law unto itself; and a state with mineral rights, but no strategy to leverage these to regulate supply and prices or to build manufacturing capacity. An industry that reproduces the apartheid mining political economy, to serve its selfish interests, and does everything in its power to dodge its commitments under the law, never mind its moral obligations.

l The massive platinum boom has generated "fabulous wealth" for companies and executives, but social squalor, tensions and poverty for workers and communities. The platinum belt around Rustenburg has created the fastest growing "city" in Africa. That is, dozens of shack settlements, without basic infrastructure (Nkaneng in Marikana has no toilets, roads, electricity or refuse removal).

l The boom in platinum has created "huge opportunities", including the doubling of employment in 10 years. But this is squandered. Instead of a growing quality of life, platinum is leaving a legacy of vulnerable and exploited workers, and desperate and damaged communities. The industry deliberately fragments its workforce of 180 000, about 82 000 of which are employed through labour brokers and exploited mercilessly. Workers are consciously divided on ethnic, racial and regional lines. The ruthlessness of control systems is reflected in the brutality of mine security. l The "industry manipulates the vulnerability of workers" to combat unions and thrives on, and actively promotes, division. To this end it deliberately refuses to engage in sectoral collective bargaining.

l This generates "huge frustrations" for workers, who see an industry and employers getting fabulously rich, while they sweat underground, face death on a daily basis and sink deeper into poverty.

l The government's ineffectiveness in "implementing the Mining Charter", which among others requires companies to provide housing for all. There is no serious attempt to enforce the industry's legal obligations, let alone transform it.

l On wages, the Chamber of Mines claims that "workers are doing well", compared with poverty wages in other sectors. It is true that the National Union of Mineworks (NUM) has achieved significant improvements for mineworkers over the last 20 years. But workers are being paid a pittance in relation to profits in the industry, the toughness of the work and the danger miners face.

The average minimum monthly pay in mining is about R4 300 and about R5 500 in platinum.

Workers compare their take-home salaries of a few thousand rand to the millions executives receive. In comparison with international workers, our mine workers are low-paid.

For example, our rock drill operators earn about 10% of what their Australian counterparts earn. Employers claim that they cannot afford wage demands because of the depth of mines, labour intensity of production, among others, but this ignores the fact that "mining companies have had many years with very large profits" (Business Day 15/10/12).

Despite their huge wealth, platinum companies are on a drive to cut costs, with the emerging squeeze on profitability after the economic crisis, given the collapse of platinum prices. Thus the industry is grasping the opportunity after Marikana to use mass dismissals as a way to downgrade the conditions of existing workers and embark on "free retrenchments".

It continues with unilateral approaches to bargaining processes and wage adjustments, an important factor that led to the crisis in the first instance. Attempts by the NUM and government to institutionalise collective bargaining at sector level are therefore critical.

The immediate challenges arising therefore include:

l The creation of conditions for peaceful and free union activity, for all structures legitimately representing workers, including action against those who terrorise union leaders or prevent workers from assembling and organising peacefully;

l Requiring employers to participate in centralised bargaining structures, which need to address the concerns raised by workers;

l The renewal of union structures to ensure that there are proper processes of democratic representation and accountability by union leaders;

l Engagement on a reconfigured wage structure, in the mining industry and in the economy as a whole; this requires a national wage policy and comprehensive collective bargaining at industry level, and may need legislative amendments;

l Action to address the living conditions of mining communities and to ensure decisive implementation of Mining Charter commitments, including on housing; and

l National engagement on transformation of the mining sector and the economy as a whole.

Neil Coleman is advisor to the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Zwelinzima Vavi, and strategies co-ordinator in the Cosatu secretariat. He has been responsible for extensive policy work on labour related and political issues and represented the Cosatu in many structures and processes locally and internationally.

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