Progress is not made by “reasonable” people – so the saying goes. Joseph Mathunjwa, leader of union AMCU, is apparently not a reasonable man. As a result, he has managed to do something extraordinary, something none of the other more “democratic” trade unions have managed. He has brought about the costliest strike in the mining industry since 1987 and the longest in the country’s history. Nobody, least of all the mining bosses, believed the strike could last this long – since 23 January, at the time of writing stretching towards 120 days.

AMCU members constitute 66% of the workforce at the affected platinum mines – 61% of Impala Platinum, 62% of Anglo American Platinum, and 82% of Lonmin, scene of the Marikana massacre in 2012.

Mining management has tried every legal means (and almost every low trick too) to break the strike. Mostly, they have succeeded only in escalating the violence. It is a strike that is making history, a strike that will be no less significant for South Africa than the coal miners’ strike was for the United Kingdom 30 years ago.

The stakes are extremely high and the miners have very little on their side. Except, they know, that South Africa provides over half the world’s platinum and has 80% of its reserves. They have watched the industry in recent times absorb a 238% increase in electricity, and absorb billions in lost revenues over the course of successive strikes. They have watched the rand price of platinum double since 2008. And when mining management, in the hopes of attracting political and public support to end the strike, cry out that the strike has already cost R18.5 billion in lost revenue in the first quarter, they only reveal themselves as penny wise and pound foolish.

Platinum it seems will be mined one way or another, whatever the cost. When the abolitionists demanded the end of slavery, they too were told it would lead to financial ruin and the world economy would collapse.

Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Image by Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Image by Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

The exploitation of black labour
What the miners are fighting for is a fundamental change in how mining is conducted in South Africa. Ruth First, the anti-apartheid activist who paid for her beliefs with her life, called it black gold. She was referring to black labour. More than 50 years ago, she observed that the wealth of the Reef mines lay not alone in the value of the ore, but in “the lost costs of production, kept down by the abundance of cheap labour”.

The South African economy and almost all its prosperity and industry has flowed from 150 years of mining. And those mines were built and have been sustained by the rapacious exploitation of black labour, immeasurable in its costs to life, health and dignity.

Ever since 1922, when Prime Minister Jan Smuts dropped 25-pound bombs on white and black workers holed up in Benoni, killing 230 of them, promises have been made to improve the safety record and living conditions of the miners.

In the 21st century, these promises remain woefully unfulfilled for black workers. It has been a grotesque failure by both business and government to fix the situation 20 years into democracy.

In his speech on May Day, President Jacob Zuma said, “Unions must be alive to the realities that endless strikes are not in the interest of the workers and not in the interest of the economy.”

On the anniversary of the Marikana massacre last year, the ANC, its alliance partners and the government absented themselves. Struggle veteran Raymond Suttner observed: “I must confess to a sense of astonishment …  From the outset it has been striking how callous … the response has been.”

Pitiful wages, profits in the billions
A rock driller may well earn much more than an unskilled worker in the surrounding town of Marikana, but the purely economic argument of supply and demand in the labour market is not morally acceptable when people are motivated by such desperation they are compelled to put their lives at risk.

The disconnect between the plight of the workers and the elite is abundantly evident. When Joseph Mathunjwa addressed the press in Cape Town in February, not one journalist asked about the conditions on the mines, the reasons for striking, or the current plight of the workers. Most questions instead sounded like they came from the executive boardroom. Was R12,500 really a reasonable demand? Given the resources of the union, how could AMCU hope to win? And, there were probing questions playing the man and not the ball, suggesting the union was unsavoury and Mathunjwa himself a demagogue, perhaps even corrupt.

While black wages are pitiful, profits remain in the billions, or as Ernest Oppenheimer once put it “fair profits for our shareholders which are commensurate with the risks that are involved”.

Shareholders and mining bosses do not risk their lives nor their limbs. The sense of entitlement among the ostensibly more educated is astounding. During an SABC talk show on the strike, a member of the public sent a tweet to say the demand for R12,500 by a mineworker was absurd since a “graduate doesn’t even earn that at entry level”.

The mining bosses, the government and the bigwigs in the ANC have learned absolutely nothing from the Marikana massacre – described by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa in a radio interview as a mere “blip” in international investor terms.

After the initial outpouring of sympathy for the 34 miners shot dead by the state, one watched in dismay as government and the corporations continued as if it was business as usual – setting the course almost inevitably – an outcome so appalling one does not even want to write this – for another Marikana.

Mathunjwa says management even deducted the incentive paid to the miners to return to work from their subsequent salary, something that had not been adequately communicated to those workers.

14th May - Thousands of striking Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union members listen to union president Joseph Mathunjwa at the Wonderkop Stadium in Marikana, near Rustenburg in North West. Image by Moeletsi Mabe
14th May – Thousands of striking Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union members listen to union president Joseph Mathunjwa at the Wonderkop Stadium in Marikana, near Rustenburg in North West. Image by Moeletsi Mabe

Then this week, with the whole Rustenberg belt a powder keg, executives at affected mines announced they had awarded themselves R76 million in performance bonuses on top of basic salaries already 200 times that of the lowest paid workers in their companies.

Take home pay is only one component of the predicament miners in South Africa face, but the fact that those who toil  40 to 45 hours a week at such dangerous and arduous work, cannot even maintain a decent standard of living for themselves and their family, has to be an indictment of the system. (The South African bosses’ salaries of course are favourably comparable in dollars to their international counterparts.)

One has to ask, is it because the miners are black African that the situation can be perpetuated for so long? Miners working in operations owned by the same holding companies elsewhere, such as Australia, earn multiples of what Rustenberg’s black workers earn.

Protecting gross inequality
AMCU has made a breakthrough and overcome a line of resistance that will be hard to repeat again. Rather than getting behind them, the National Union of Mineworkers (once a leader in the struggle against racial capital) chose to continue a turf battle it had long ago lost, and has done almost everything (both on purpose and inadvertently) to undermine the strike.

There is of course real fear that Mathunjwa’s lone gamble will be counterproductive, that he will lead his workers to their destruction, for the stockpile of platinum and the forces ranked against him are indeed formidable. But whatever he may prove to be, Mathunjwa is the man who has had the courage to lead with the demands made by the workers who stand behind him. The miners and their families are not his dupes who believe in some mythical pot of gold. The Marikana miners are desperate men and women, ordinary people, not ideologues or religious fanatics, who have been prepared to go so far as to lay down their lives to change an abhorrent system. They deserve the right to be heard.

Instead, the ANC seems to have resigned itself to protect a system of such gross inequality that it can only now be maintained through state violence.

The miners and their families are now starving, in the very real sense of that word. Even if their demands are met, they will take years to recover from their financial losses. To date, the striking miners have forfeited R8 billion in wages. When the stakes are this high, extreme violence and intimidation are to be expected. After what they have sacrificed, it is unreasonable to expect those workers behind the strike to be forgiving when they see scabs crossing the picket line. They have already been denied every other means open to them – constitutional, legal and political. They are now negotiating with their lives.

Meersman’s book “Reports before Daybreak” (Random House/Umuzi, 2011) partly deals with the mining legacy in South Africa and the 1987 strike.