In South Africa’s Platinum Belt—where, in Marikana on 16 August 2012, 34 civilians were killed in the country’s single most lethal display of state force since the apartheid-era Sharpeville Massacre—more than 80,000 mineworkers are currently striking for what they term a ‘living wage’ of R12,500 a month ($1,215 US). Five months in, it is the already longest-running strike in South African history.
The striking workers are challenging one of the central assumptions of the South African economy: that mineral resources can be extracted from the ground for huge profits on the back of cheap labour.
Since Marikana, when police opened fire on protesting workers, injuring 78 in addition to the many killed, this issue has exploded onto the national agenda, drawing focus to a fraught relationship between labour and capital that has altered little since the end of apartheid.
How it is resolved will have very important implications for South Africa’s future.
Increasingly, commentators like Jeff Rudin from the Alternative Information and Development Centre are arguing that the country’s current capitalist model is failing its working class majority, deepening the divide between haves and have-nots in one of the most unequal societies on earth.
“The question of who pays the mine workers (in this strike) is a class question,” Rudin wrote in an opinion piece co-authored by economist Dick Forslund for the Daily Maverick last month. “‘Affordability’ has nothing to do with it.”
Trade unionists and Julius Malema’s new Economic Freedom Fighters party—which placed third in this month’s national elections despite not offering much in the way of a coherent political vision—are among those taking up similar positions as South Africa takes stock of its progress 20 years into democratic rule.
Yet the profit-seeking imperatives of big business do not allow for wage increases of this magnitude, with shareholders demanding competitive performance and ever-increasing returns on their investments. Mine bosses have thus refused the striking workers’ demands, arguing that their figure of R12,500 is unaffordable and unrealistic.
A new face to an old system
Since the end of apartheid, South Africa’s pursuit of neo-liberal economic policies has meant that capitalist interests have typically held out in disputes like these, contradicting the socialist principles outlined in one of the ruling African National Congress’ founding documents, the Freedom Charter.
“The national wealth of our country shall be restored to the people,” the Charter, which was adopted in 1955, states. “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.”
In places like Marikana the opposite is true sixty years later, however, as migrant workers etch a living at the margins of society while their bosses take home multi-million dollar salaries.
The co-option of South Africa’s ruling black elite by big business, through politically expedient Black Economic Empowerment deals and the pursuit of lucrative government tenders, often via highly corrupt channels, has further eroded the will of the state to adopt a genuine pro-poor agenda.
Instead, the old white supremacist system that funded itself by exploiting black labour has been symbolically replaced by a government that cuts deals with the very same companies that benefited from apartheid.
And the working class, which is poor, disempowered and still predominantly black, continues to suffer, despite the nominal freedom granted by the right to vote and the rhetoric of leaders who insist that circumstances in this country have changed.
In solidarity: a national campaign of support
Striking workers everywhere face the cruellest of paradoxes: by refusing to work until their grievances are heard they forgo their wages entirely, placing them under even greater financial strain than whatever motivated them to strike in the first place.
Their employers suffer too, of course, from the compounded economic consequences that disrupted production inevitably brings, but it is suffering of another sort completely. In a protracted strike workers and their families risk starving; their bosses do not.
There is thus a deep asymmetry underlying the strike action currently taking place on the Platinum Belt, where there is a very real risk of mineworkers being forced into accepting unfavourable offers simply by virtue of their already marginalised position.
To address this imbalance, a national campaign of support for the striking miners has begun, aiming to raise awareness and solicit donations of money and food from sympathetic members of the public.
This weekend, three strike leaders drove 1,500 km to Cape Town to kick off a weeklong tour of the Western Cape province, where they will attend a series of cultural and political events to draw attention to their cause.
At the first, a hastily organised gig arranged by three young activists with impressive social networking abilities, more than 350 people packed into a tiny bar to listen to the visiting miners speak, followed by live performances from Johannesburg-based art rock group The Brother Moves On and ObsHouseBand, a local improvised groove collective.
“Nobody will fight for us, so we are going to fight for ourselves,” Jacob Khoza, one of the three strike leaders, told the crowd. “Our bosses are getting huge bonuses and we are getting nothing. In 20 years our salaries have barely increased.”
Siyabonga Mthembu, frontman for The Brother Moves On, ended their first song on a plaintive note. “We are suffering in this country, my brothers and sisters, we are suffering,” he said. “We are suffering from an apartheid hangover.”
The event raised more than R21,000, which Soul City, a local health and development NGO, has pledged to match. For the miners, the struggle continues.
The Cape Town Marikana Support Campaign, a partnership between the Democratic Left Front and the Marikana Support Campaign, is collecting money and the following items on behalf of the striking miners:
– Starch food (mealie-meal, rice, flour)
– Tinned food (pilchards, corned meat, baked beans, mixed veggies)
– Cooking oil
– Sunlight soap
– Petroleum jelly (Vaseline)
– Sanitary towels
– Toilet paper