Even the small Trotskyite Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), which has helped to co-ordinate a formidable series of strikes across the mining sector in the wake of the Marikana massacre, has to admit that workers' backs are against the wall.
After a week that saw mounting arrests and dismissals to counter the spreading strikes, the organisation and its affiliated left-wing bodies paused to plot a way forward.
According to the plan, as spelled out last Saturday at a widely represented but patchily attended Marikana meeting, the only way for the mine workers to maintain momentum is to link themselves to the broader workforce and working-class communities who have already taken their discontent to the streets. The meeting formalised the joint strike co-ordinating committee and hinted at a worker's party somewhere on their wish list.
In a frank interview at the University of Johannesburg this week, an executive member of the movement, Mametlwe Sebei, who is a research assistant at the university, elaborated on the organisation's position on what some analysts have called a "bushfire" that will burn out.
"Our only defence [lies with] the masses of the working class in this country," Sebei said. "They can only allow so much repression to go on. The DSM cannot instruct workers to struggle because they are compelled by their own conditions.
"With or without us, they will struggle. We can only guide based on our experience in the struggle of the working class. That is how we can decide how to go forward."
Sebei's words can be read as an attempt to disguise the distance between the workers' immediate aspirations and the movement's agenda. This distance can be measured in the way he exaggerated the workers' readiness for a political party. When Sebei concluded Saturday's meeting with a press conference in front of a swelling media crowd, he appeared to be speaking more for himself and his organisation than for the crowd of strikers.
Conflicting and converging agendas aside, the movement, which is among the more radical groups linked to umbrella body the Democratic Left Front, has captured the imagination of striking workers and the media alike.
The movement, whose members apparently number no more than 200, has always seen Rustenburg as an important strategic centre for launching a revolution of the proletariat.
Its first significant involvement in the region came after a messy 2009 strike at Aquarius's Kroondal and Marikana operations, which saw the then Murray and Roberts-operated plants shed about 4000 workers. The unprotected strike followed a disagreement with workers and the National Union of Mineworkers over wage demands. Some of those workers were later rehired, but others attempted a protracted struggle to get their jobs back.
As part of a then-DSM contingent in the Metal and Electrical Workers' Union of South Africa (Mewusa), Sebei and some colleagues launched a concerted, though unsuccessful, attempt to get the workers reinstated. The three-year effort was thwarted by an ideological and organisational split in the National Council of Trade Unions-affiliated Mewusa, an unfavourable Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration decision, and what Mametlwe calls a department of labour-instituted deregistration of the Commercial Services and Allied Workers' Union, under whose banner he subsequently pursued the campaign.
In 2010, the movement co-ordinated the occupation of the Mine Line/TAP engineering factory in Krugersdorp. The factory, which produced valves and locomotives for the mining industry, was being liquidated by its owner, putting its more than 100 workers' jobs in jeopardy. Although the workers failed to prevent the liquidation, the organisation is apparently helping some of them with efforts to secure start-up capital to reopen the factory.
These examples indicate that although the movement has not always been successful in its campaigns, it does jump at the opportunity to support working-class struggles in the face of adversity.
The post-Lonmin mine strikes, which have seen scores of workers arrested and thousands facing the threat of dismissal, is another example of its unflinching zeal.
"The DSM's emphasis is on cadre development and we work within unions. So it becomes less a question of numbers but more of quality," said Sebei. "If you have 2000 shop stewards and you put one Marxist in their midst – in terms of ideas, methodology and programme – that one can provide the most mortal threat to capitalism. Marxism is the memory of the working-class struggle so that the starting point moving forward is what not to repeat."
Globally, the movement is linked to the Committee for a Workers' International, a Trotskyist organisation with links in more than 40 countries. Locally, the organisation has its roots in the Marxist Workers' Tendency (spawned from the ANC), whose members played a pivotal role in the epochal 1973 KwaZulu-Natal strikes.
"I think it is important to note that in the late Eighties and early Nineties the movement became one of the most sophisticated far-left groups and produced some of the best thinkers in this country, [such as] Zackie Achmat, Martin Legassick and Mark Heywood," said Rehad Desai of the Democratic Left Front-aligned Marikana Support Group.
The role played by the organisation in co-ordinating the joint strike co-ordinating committee – which is dominated by the articulate though motley bunch of Amplats strike committee leaders – confirms Sebei's assertion that the group always aligns with the most militant layer of the rank and file.
"[It is] always clear in what they do not want, but not always clear of their progress moving forward," he said.
Although the DSM's role in coalescing the various strike committees is tangible, it is the fate of the strikers themselves that is doubtful. Speaking on Talk Radio 702 this week, business analyst Andrew Lang painted a bleak picture of possible outcomes. With the mounting interdicts, arrests, dismissals and looming retrenchments, mining bosses are shifting the topic from higher wages to one about who will keep their jobs. He likened the strikes to bushfires that would soon burn out because not all employers found themselves in the embarrassing "Marikana situation".
As the Democratic Left Front's Vishwas Satgar emphasised, the strikers' only lifeline now may rest in the response to the call for a general strike by the rank and file of trade union federation Cosatu and the National Council of Trade Unions. Although the immediate fate of the strikers remains unclear, he said that, post-Marikana, workers had broken new ground by testing democratic institutions and the political order, as well as throwing the collective bargaining system into question.