/ 15 October 2012

Deep Read: The sequel to Marikana

The Anglo Platinum strike
The Anglo Platinum strike

Arrests are mounting after police took more than 40 people into custody since last week, the death toll – which is at least three at the moment – is climbing, and striking miners are turning to the tough-talking Amplats workers' committee for moral support and tactical advice, if Saturday's gathering by the Joint Strike Coordinating Committee in Marikana is anything to go by.

The current stalemate, which has seen workers defy management's dismissal on the one hand and its refusal to address workers directly on the other, has seen some calling the strike a sequel to the Marikana standoff that culminated in the deaths of over 30 miners on August 16.

Sure, the violence and the rejection of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) points to an all too familiar pattern, but conditions in the platinum belt have changed since then.

A de facto state of emergency is in place in Rustenburg mining communities. Gathering permits are becoming difficult to get a hold of, and in many mines – where unprotected strikes have occurred – hostels have been or in coming weeks are to be evacuated. This is to minimise violence, yes, but also to make it difficult to maintain unity.

The South African Chamber of Mines's talks with stakeholders began a few days ago, which saw the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) walk out after the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) accused it of orchestrating a hit on its members. Although Amcu represents a growing portion of workers in the mining industry, the general feeling among committee leaders is that nobody is representing their voice. So how can these talks be deemed legitimate? In a way, they say, this echoes the Farlam Commission's false start in attempting to forge ahead without the slain workers' families in attendance. Needless to say, the families feel it's an inquiry about the concealment of facts, rather than the revelation of the truth.

All this has increased the perception of isolation and persecution, hence the escalating use of violence and rising arrests. But what the pressure has also done in the face of rolling strikes is inject the proceedings with a bit of ideological coherence – even in the face of a sometimes inarticulate strategy.

Saturday's coordinating committee convention at Marikana made it clear the struggle for wages could no longer be viewed in isolation. It can no longer continue without committed community support. The slogan of "one mine, one community" has emerged as a rallying cry so that the strikes can go on for as long as is necessary.

The presence of left-wing organisations such as the Marikana Support Group (a Democratic Left Front organisation), the Democratic Socialist Movement (which has been active in this region for many years) and its international mother body the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), also highlights the possibility of a workers' rebellion, considering the seeming popularity of a workers' political party to oppose the ANC, which, as CWI leader Alec Thraves suggested, represents the bosses – whom are among its ranks – and turns its back on the poor.

This means the NUM's line of the new worker lacking a class consciousness may be beginning to wear thin, but of course, it is too early to tell.

What is certain, though, is that should the strikes go on, gathering momentum as they do, and workers eventually receive their sizeable demands or an acceptable compromise, life on the mines may not necessarily switch for the better.

The Lonmin situation is instructive in this regard. One of the two representatives from Lonmin who made it to Saturday's meeting spoke of how a low-level war was fought in that mine, with the former striking workers on the one side and management, the NUM and police on the other. The abduction of workers from inside and outside the shafts has become so commonplace that it is difficult to ascertain whether management was at all interested in productivity at the mine.

While these remarks are anecdotal, they may not be very far-fetched considering the recent murders of NUM office bearers at the mine, which the union has claimed were at the hands of a hit squad.

Interestingly, while Bokoni Platinum in Limpopo, Amplats, Samancor (Rustenburg region), Royal Bafokeng and others were at the Joint Strike Coordinating Committee meeting, Impala Platinum (now an Amcu stronghold) – and to a degree Lonmin – were conspicuous by their absence, suggesting that Amcu is for now attempting to distance itself from any party political talk.

So while the Amplats strike has become a rallying point for industrial action continuing to happen in the mining sector, it is starting to become myopic to isolate them mine by mine. As a Marikana Support Group representative said on Saturday: "We are not fighting separately, we are fighting a chamber of mines that is united. Our biggest threat is dismissal. If we go home, the strikes will crumble."

Amplats management has given workers until November 5 to vacate hostel premises.