Aftershocks of the miners’ revolt

August 15, 2013

Last year's massacre of mineworkers in South Africa was the beginning, not the end, of a workers' revolt, writes David Whitehouse, in an article for the Works in Theory blog.

AUGUST 16 is the first anniversary of a police massacre that has changed the face of South African politics.

One year ago, police killed 34 platinum miners in the northern town of Marikana, wounding more than 75. The attack reminded many people of the massacres inflicted by white supremacist forces during the apartheid era--except this time it was Black people who gave the order to kill and Black people who pulled the triggers.

By itself, the massacre would have shaken popular confidence in the African National Congress (ANC), which led the fight against apartheid and has ruled the country since 1994, when the racist regime fell.

Nevertheless, it is the mineworkers' own actions that may exert the most lasting impact. The strike was not authorized by the local branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)--which made the action, in trade-union terms, a wildcat--thus demonstrating that the miners were willing to act on their own behalf. Maybe even more important, the miners kept up the strike without NUM support after the massacre and won a 22 percent wage increase.

Protesters gather at the Lonmin mine following the massacre of workers by police
Protesters gather at the Lonmin mine following the massacre of workers by police in 2012

The victory touched off a wave of wildcat strikes in the "platinum belt" that eventually spread to the gold mines. By October, the strikes had involved more than 75,000 miners--15 percent of the workforce in an industry that accounts for 6 percent of Africa's gross domestic product and 20 percent of its exports.

The strike wave also marked a crisis for the NUM. Before the strikes, the union was the largest member of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which is a partner of the ANC and a leading force in turning out votes for the ruling party. Since the Marikana massacre, however, the NUM has lost 40,000 to 45,000 members--more than 15 percent of the total.

Meanwhile, the politically non-aligned Association of Mineworkers and construction union (AMCU) supported the Marikana wildcat and the strikes that followed. The AMCU is now the dominant union at the world's top three platinum-producing companies, and it represents 17 percent of gold miners.

The strikes in the mining sector spread to the transportation industry and may have inspired a farmworkers' strike in the Western Cape--the mineworkers at Marikana, like many during the apartheid era, are migrants from South Africa's destitute countryside. There was also an escalation of urban "service delivery" protests, centered around demands for water, electricity, sanitation and affordable transportation, to go along with the rise in strikes.

DISCONTENT WITH the "tripartite alliance"--the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP)--has been growing since the 1990s.

The end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994 represented a major advance, of course. The racist laws of apartheid were struck down, and the new government made significant, though incremental, improvements in services such as water, electricity and housing.

The new administration, however, inherited the economic inequalities of the apartheid era and operated according to the logic of capitalism. Productive assets, including factories, mines and land remained in the hands of a tiny minority, even though a handful of Blacks were able to enter the elite. This includes the likes of Cyril Ramaphosa, the formerly militant founder of NUM in the 1980s, who gained a directors' position with Lonmin, the company that owns the Marikana mine.

The ANC came to power at a time when state-led schemes of development had fallen into international disfavor, so the new government embarked on a market-oriented, "neoliberal" economic plan. Growth would be the product of private investment decisions, and wealth would have to "trickle down" from the top.

The result has been the growth in inequality since the apartheid era, dire poverty in the countryside, the continuing expansion of ramshackle townships outside the prosperous city centers and an official unemployment rate of 25 percent. The figure rises to nearly 38 percent after accounting for those who have given up on finding a job, and youth unemployment is running at 65 percent.

The free-market approach brought "scientific management" to sectors such as steel, where production went up as employment went down. The removal of state protection of the textile industry led to the loss of some 70,000 jobs in the past six years.

At times, COSATU and the SACP have led the charge to improve the living standards of workers and the poor, mounting public-sector strikes, for example, to extract bread-and-butter concessions from their coalition partner, the ANC. At the same time, the two organizations have tried to head off any political defections from the ruling partnership.

Many challenges have come when members have broken ranks with the tripartite alliance. When the service delivery protests first broke out in the 2000s, for example, one of the major leaders in Johannesburg was Trevor Ngwane, a socialist councilor who had been expelled from the ANC for his outspoken criticism of the party's performance.

The AMCU itself is a breakaway from the NUM. As South African socialist Terry Bell recounts, Joseph Mathunjwa, the AMCU's current president, was a local branch chair of the NUM in Mpumalanga, who was expelled 15 years ago for supporting his members in an "un-procedural"--that is, a wildcat--strike. Since then, the NUM has entered agreements with employers to make it difficult for the AMCU to operate and recruit--until the mineworkers' own courage at Marikana created an opening for the new union to expand.

THE WAVE of self-organized workers' actions has had an impact beyond the union movement, as many thousands have been inspired to consider political alternatives outside the ANC.

The revolutionary left has an opportunity to grow, but its small beginnings means that it cannot fill the space that the struggles have opened up. The first real beneficiaries of the new militancy have been Africanists--those who emphasize the ongoing racist legacy of apartheid and see the solution in putting whatever powers persist among whites into the hands of Blacks. There is, of course, nothing inherently anti-capitalist about Africanism--since many of the Africanists merely propose to replace white capitalists with Black capitalists.

The AMCU is officially nonaligned politically, although it belongs to a council of trade unions that is headed by the general secretary of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). Since its founding in 1958, the PAC has offered a Black-organized political alternative to the multiracial ANC, but its influence declined sharply in the early 1990 as the ANC was headed toward becoming the governing party in 1994.

The PAC could experience some revival in popularity, but the lion's share of attention has gone toward Julius Malema, the former president of the ANC Youth League.

Despite Malema's high living and corruption--he will go on trial for fraud and money-laundering later this year--he gained some credibility among mineworkers by insisting on visiting Marikana after the massacre. He also has a record of advocating nationalization of the mines and banks, as well as seizing white-owned farmland without compensation and distributing it to Blacks.

Although South Africa has a highly developed urban infrastructure, 30 percent of the population still lives on the land. The ANC government promised to distribute 30 percent of large estates to Black small farmers by 2014, but less than 10 percent has been transferred so far.

In calling for the nationalization of South Africa's mineral wealth, Malema is deliberately echoing the demand of the Freedom Charter, created by the ANC and its allies in 1955, which declares: "The mineral wealth in the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole."

Since the NUM's membership rolls collapsed in the platinum belt, the union has reaffirmed its own commitment to nationalization. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which is now COSATU's largest union, has long insisted on the demand for mineral nationalization--and even came out in support of the Marikana strikers while the rest of COSATU left them hanging.

Within the tripartite alliance, there is a debate over the meaning of the Freedom Charter's demand. Some contend that nationalization is already fulfilled, because the state controls the land where mining takes place and licenses it for exploitation by private corporations. Africanists such as Malema point out that the biggest mining corporations are registered outside of South Africa, including the first- and third-largest platinum firms, Amplats and Lonmin.

Malema is right to point out the imperialist nature of these operations, since the bulk of the profits are repatriated outside the country, as they were in the apartheid era. Ordinary South Africans would have a better shot at demanding a share in the proceeds from mineral extraction if the state took over direct control of the country's mines. Not surprisingly, the demand for nationalization has wide popular support.

It is significant that the debate over nationalization, both inside the ANC and outside it, takes place with reference to the Freedom Charter, which was always conceived as a program for humanizing capitalism, not ending exploitation. In the SACP's view, South Africa is still striving to win the gains of a National Democratic Revolution (NDR), a period of "normal" capitalist development that is supposedly necessary before socialist revolution is possible.

The mainstream of the ANC, including Nelson Mandela and the presidents who have succeeded him, always contended that the NDR is the whole ballgame. When the ANC and the SACP define the range of politics, it is clear that both the conservative and the "radical" conceptions of nationalization represent strategies for capitalist development--strategies that rule out direct seizure of the mineral wealth by workers themselves.

ON AUGUST 17, the day after the anniversary of the Marikana massacre, Julius Malema aims to launch the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which will contest the national elections scheduled for next year.

The EFF is already well-funded, with backing from the likes of "flamboyant nightclub czar Kenny Kunene," according to Terry Bell. The party also has significant national organization already in place, partly because of patronage connections that Malema made since 2008, when he was chosen ANC Youth League president in an election where Malema is widely believed to have bought the winning votes.

The ANC expelled Malema in late 2011 for declaring that the part yshould engineer the overthrow of the government in neighboring Botswana. He has twice been convicted of hate speech. In one case, during the 2006 rape trial of current South African President Jacob Zuma, Malema said that Zuma's accuser must have had a "nice time." In a 2011 case, Malema was convicted for repeatedly singing an apartheid-era song with the lyrics, "killed the Boers, they are rapists." "Boer" is a Dutch word for "farmer," but it is widely used to denote all white South Africans.

In just the past month, Malema sold a $1.4 million mansion to pay back taxes. But despite his obvious qualities as a rich charlatan who has nothing in common with poor South African Blacks, his support for the mineworkers and advocacy of nationalization has given him credibility that many ANC leaders--many of whom are corrupt themselves--lack. Some 26 percent of youth "are predisposed to the EFF," according to South Africa's Business Day.

The party also plans to devote resources to building an electoral base in the platinum belt. Malema has echoed the demand of the AMCU to more than double the minimum mineworkers' yearly pay to 12,550 rand, which has the purchasing power of about $1,625.

Whether or not the EFF can make significant gains against the ANC next year, the inspiration for the electoral revolt--the combativeness of South Africa's mineworkers--has been continuing. Wildcat strikes have not ceased, which indicates that joining the upstart AMCU has not deterred the workers from acting on their own account. In July, a wildcat at an mine in Rustenburg forced Amplats to reinstate 19 suspended union leaders. In May, the minister of labor confirmed the high rate of "unprocedural" strikes. Out of 99 strikes recorded in 2012, 45 were wildcats.

Aside from any immediate electoral repercussions, the continuing self-activity of the working class will continue to provoke a sharpening polarization inside the ANC, COSATU and the SACP. All three are likely to experience internal cracks that provide an opening for left alternatives to emerge. This could happen in several ways, but the next real political break might come if COSATU or some of its member unions decide to step outside the alliance with the ANC.

This article is part of a series on the struggle in South Africa at Works in Theory.

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