Workers Vanguard No. 1046
16 May 2014
Bitter Strike in Fourth Month
Victory to South African Platinum Miners!
JOHANNESBURG, MAY 13—Some 70,000 members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have been on strike against the three leading platinum producers in the world—Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin—since January 23. The strike is now the longest in the history of South African mining and has cost the companies almost 16.4 billion rand ($1.6 billion) in lost revenue. The strikers are demanding a R12,500 ($1,250) per month entry-level wage, the same wage that strikers at Lonmin were fighting for in August 2012 when 34 of them were gunned down by the cops in Marikana, where hundreds were also arrested.
The 2012 Lonmin strikes won important gains for the workers, including wage increases up to 22 percent and return-to-work bonuses. However, many workers say they never received the wage increase and that amounts equivalent to the bonuses were later deducted from their wages. This scamming by the mine bosses has helped fuel the current strike. Especially after the strikes in 2012 and the killings at Marikana, the platinum miners are widely seen as the most militant sector of the proletariat. A victory in the AMCU strike would be an inspiration for the workers and poor across South Africa and beyond.
In an ominous repeat of the prelude to the Marikana massacre, the companies and the capitalist state are today preparing for massive repression against the strikers. Police reinforcements were sent to the mining area around Rustenburg and army troops were put on standby to help protect strikebreakers and break up the AMCU pickets. In an attempt to provoke a violent confrontation, the mining bosses set a deadline of May 14 for strikers to return to work. Over the head of the union, the companies have appealed directly to the workers—through mass advertising, cell phone messages, traditional tribal leaders and church officials—to abandon the strike. Still, the strike remains solid and most, if not all, of the operations of the three mining giants are shut down. AMCU has warned that in the event of retaliatory layoffs the union would stop work at mines across the country.
Responsibility for any state violence against the strikers would lie with the ruling Tripartite Alliance—a nationalist popular front comprised of the bourgeois ANC, the Stalinist-derived South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Business Day reported that Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu, a former COSATU official, had told the three platinum companies to play hardball with AMCU. Alleging that strikers are “orchestrating violent acts in the mining communities,” the cops have already arrested AMCU members on trumped-up charges, including attempted murder and assault. Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), demands: Hands off AMCU! Drop all the charges against striking workers!
The three platinum conglomerates had prepared for a lengthy strike by stockpiling enough platinum to last eight weeks, which they thought would be long enough to starve the workers into submission. The European automakers—major consumers of the metal—have their platinum supplies locked in until next year, according to industry sources. The strikers are waging this fight at a huge personal cost. Hounded by loan sharks, many workers have had their belongings repossessed. Their children no longer attend school because they cannot pay for transport and other requirements. Some strikers get small amounts of money from their parents’ measly pensions to buy food.
A significant number of the strikers are migrants from rural areas. Many have retreated to their impoverished homes in places like the Eastern Cape to wait things out, and some have been forced to sell part of their families’ meager stock of cattle. This points to the continuity of the migrant labor system, from the origins of South African mining during the British colonial period through white-supremacist apartheid up to the present day. As soon as black workers stop producing profits for the white capitalist class because of old age, injury or sickness, they are pushed into rural hellholes where they face slow death.
AMCU is appealing for unions in countries like Brazil and the U.S. to refuse to handle platinum from South Africa. It also has established a strike fund to help their members sustain themselves and has appealed to all those sympathetic to their cause, locally and internationally, to contribute. A crucial ally in any fight against the mine owners is the working class in the U.S. and Britain, where most of these mining companies are headquartered, as well as in Germany and other countries where platinum is used in auto production. Solidarity with AMCU strikers is an elementary and necessary act of self-defense by organized labor. An injury to one is an injury to all!
COSATU Labor Tops’ Treachery
Rather than siding with their class brothers in struggle, the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and COSATU have been openly siding with the mine bosses and the government to try to kill the strike, including by instructing their members to scab. The COSATU tops joined the bourgeois media chorus calling for an early end to the strike. A March 25 statement proclaimed: “Platinum strike too long for workers.” Echoing the claims by the mine bosses and capitalist media that the strikers’ demands for R12,500 a month are “excessive” and “unreasonable,” the COSATU statement declared that there are “no prospects of achieving the demands.”
The CEOs of the big platinum companies are paid an average of over R20 million a year, and their labor lieutenants like NUM general secretary Frans Baleni rake in an estimated R105,000 per month. Yet these bloodsuckers demand that workers who risk their lives daily, descending deep underneath the earth’s surface to drill for precious minerals, settle for starvation wages. It is not uncommon for the wages of one worker to support ten or more members of his extended family who are trapped in unemployment. A significant number of workers rely on soup kitchens in the townships because their wages are not enough to feed their families, and most are forced to take on a crippling debt burden.
The NUM leaders notoriously violence-baited the Lonmin strikers in the days leading to the 2012 Marikana massacre, precipitating a mass exodus of miners from that union to AMCU. Likewise, in the current strike they have accused AMCU members of violence and intimidation, calling on the police to arrest strikers and the bourgeois courts to deny them bail. The NUM’s North West provincial chapter has demanded that the mining bosses provide security for the scabs and has threatened to organize an anti-strike march to area mining offices (Daily Maverick, 25 March).
Despite currently leading a hard strike, the perspective of the leaders of AMCU (which is not part of COSATU or the Tripartite Alliance) does not transcend militant trade-union reformism. For instance, they do not seek to link the struggles of the miners to other sectors of the working class and oppressed.
Last November, when AMCU and the employers were in wage negotiations, NUM-organized mineworkers at Northam Platinum in Limpopo province went out on strike for better wages. The AMCU leaders refused to support the strike at Northam, the fourth-largest platinum producer, and allowed it to be isolated, thereby undermining the position of workers in other mines. Now, mine bosses are using the 9 percent wage increase that Northam mineworkers won in their 75-day strike as a benchmark to settle the current AMCU strike.
Recently, the leaders of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), including General Secretary Irvin Jim, have adopted a left posture in response to the anger among their base at the anti-working-class policies of the ANC and COSATU. At a Special National Congress last December, NUMSA voted to withhold support for the ANC in the May 7 general election and to push COSATU to leave the Tripartite Alliance. This same congress also raised much-needed financial gifts for the families of the slain Marikana workers, a decent act of solidarity that shows the resonance that the Marikana massacre had throughout the working class. But the NUMSA leadership has done nothing to mobilize its membership in industrial action in solidarity with the AMCU strike.
As Spartacist/South Africa explained in a leaflet distributed at the NUMSA congress, “the NUMSA leadership maintains its loyalty to Mandela’s ANC, particularly the bourgeois-populist Freedom Charter adopted in 1955. The NUMSA tops also swear by the ‘two-stage revolution’ doctrine of the SACP, long a formula for allying with a supposedly progressive wing of the bourgeoisie” (see “Metal Workers Union Drops Electoral Support to ANC,” WV No. 1039, February 7). The treacherous role of the NUMSA leaders was clearly demonstrated in the early weeks of the current AMCU strike. After calling a strike at the Amplats smelting plant in February, the NUMSA bureaucrats settled for incremental wage increases of between 7.5 and 8.5 percent in March—as the AMCU strike was raging. The bosses made a big deal about their “delight” at NUMSA’s wage settlement, as against the AMCU workers’ “unrealistic” wage demands.
Neo-Apartheid Capitalist Rule
What really enrages the COSATU leaders is that the AMCU mineworkers are waging a bitter class struggle against the continued superexploitation of black labor in the mines—the basis of neo-apartheid South Africa’s economy. The massive inequality in South African society, including the stagnation of real wages and the continued existence of the so-called “apartheid wage gap” 20 years after the end of legal apartheid, is a stark indictment of the failures of two decades of ANC/SACP/COSATU rule. The tops of COSATU-affiliated unions have repeatedly betrayed workers struggles, strangling strikes and keeping the unions’ power crippled by tying them to the ANC-led nationalist popular front, in which the reformist workers leaders take responsibility for running South African capitalism in coalition with the bourgeois ANC. The Marikana massacre underlined in blood what this treachery means for the working class.
The ANC and its COSATU allies were particularly keen to stifle struggle in recent months because of fears that rising discontent would result in a dramatic fall in support to the ANC in the recent general elections. While there is widespread anger that the Tripartite Alliance has failed to deliver on the promises of “liberation,” no party running in the elections represented even in a partial way the class interests of the black proletariat. The ANC maintained its dominant position, receiving 62 percent of the vote, a slight drop since 2009.
Former ANC Youth League honcho Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won support especially in North West province, which is the center of the mining region. While seeking to profit from the legitimate anger of black workers through populist demagogy, the EFF is a bourgeois formation both in terms of its program and social composition. It is fundamentally hostile to the workers movement. The same applies to Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement, which also looked upon Marikana workers as potential voting cattle.
The Workers and Socialist Party (WASP), which was launched in the wake of the 2012 miners strikes by the reformist Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), South African section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, approached the EFF to form an electoral coalition. In response, Malema demanded WASP dissolve its organization into the EFF. WASP refused but then ran former anti-apartheid trade-union leader Moses Mayekiso—today Gauteng provincial legislator of the Congress of the People (COPE), a 2008 rightward split from the ANC—as their presidential candidate. WASP’s pursuit of coalitions with bourgeois parties and politicians is the principal reason Spartacist/South Africa opposed giving them critical support in this year’s elections.
The Strikebreaking Role of WASP
WASP also played a truly scandalous, strikebreaking role on the eve of the current AMCU strike. On 20 January, just before the start of the strike, WASP convened a press conference in Johannesburg featuring some dissident AMCU shop stewards who threatened to quit the union and sue AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa for defamation! WASP spokesperson Mametlwe Sebei made his own contribution to the media’s violence-baiting of AMCU, arguing that since the ANC wants things to turn violent, Mathunjwa “is playing right into their hands” (Mail & Guardian online, 22 January). Predictably, WASP’s press conference—held the same day the Chamber of Mines issued a threat to interdict the strike—was promptly seized upon by the bourgeois media and other enemies of the AMCU workers as a welcome tool to sow confusion and demoralization among the mineworkers. The day after their press conference, WASP felt compelled to issue a statement titled “Support the Mineworkers’ Strikes!” in an effort to cover their behinds.
Not even the vicious murder of the Marikana workers in front of their faces could dissuade the DSM/WASP reformists from their longstanding reactionary view that “police officers are also workers,” along with prison guards and security guards. While denouncing police brutality, the WASP manifesto for the recent elections states that “WASP supports decent wages and conditions—including not having to risk your life on the job—for rank-and-file police officers.” The lessons drawn by many of the Marikana mineworkers, who spoke bitterly about how the cops are now “dogs” to them, are far beyond the fake-socialist DSM/WASP. Cops, prison guards and security guards out of the unions!
Consistent with their touching faith in the bourgeois state, WASP has supported NUMSA taking COSATU to the bourgeois courts to reinstate Zwelinzima Vavi as COSATU general secretary and hailed the court ruling reinstating Vavi as “a victory” for COSATU members (4 April). Soon after this “victory,” Vavi used his regained office to campaign for Jacob Zuma and the rest of the bourgeois ANC/Tripartite Alliance ministers responsible for the Marikana massacre!
We Trotskyists of Spartacist/South Africa oppose taking working-class organizations and leftists to bourgeois courts as a matter of principle. By dragging COSATU into court, the NUMSA leaders helped establish a precedent for direct bourgeois intervention into the affairs of the union. For the independence of the proletariat from all bourgeois parties and the state! Labor must clean its own house!
For a Black-Centered
The mining industry, a partnership of the Randlords with U.S. and British imperialists, is the backbone of the South African economy, accounting for more than half of its exports. Through “black empowerment” deals, the bourgeois-nationalist ANC has created a layer of black front men who act as a buffer between the overwhelmingly black African proletariat and the white bourgeoisie. Despite cosmetic changes in the corporate boardrooms, South Africa remains a seething pit of racist rule where blacks are kept at the bottom. The three mining companies that AMCU is striking against produce more than 70 percent of the world’s platinum. The mineworkers, with their hands on the economy’s central resources of gold, diamonds, platinum and coal, have substantial social power. To effectively mobilize that power, a class-struggle leadership must be forged to replace the pro-capitalist sellout bureaucrats. But economic struggles are not sufficient to overturn the racist capitalist order that keeps the miners living in poverty.
Conditions in South Africa cry out for the forging of a revolutionary workers party that rejects all forms of class collaboration and acts as a tribune of the people. Such a party would unite the struggles of the township poor for housing, electricity and clean water, the fight against brutal oppression of women and the needs of unemployed youth and students behind the social power of the working class. Immigrants from neighboring countries like Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, etc. form a significant section of the South African proletariat.
“Illegal” immigrants face the daily threat of deportation, while all immigrants face the possibility of pogromist violence in the townships. They are targeted for attacks by the cops, such as the killing in February 2013 of Mozambican taxi driver Emidio Macia, who was tied to the back of a police van and dragged to his death. The capitalist rulers push xenophobia in order to divide the working class, inciting different sections of the oppressed to fight over crumbs rather than uniting along class lines. We demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants!
The aspirations of the black masses for freedom and equality cannot be fulfilled under capitalism but require workers revolution to overthrow the capitalist state and expropriate the bourgeoisie. As with Lenin, the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat is what defines us as revolutionaries. We are for a black-centered workers government where those who labor rule, which is the application of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to South Africa.
The liberation of the working class requires an internationalist perspective. Our program is for a socialist federation of Southern Africa in which the relatively advanced South African economy can be put to use on the basis of rational planning and collectivized ownership of the means of production to raise the living standards of the masses throughout the region. This must be part of fighting to link up with workers revolutions in the imperialist centers and creating an international planned socialist economy to lift Africa and the rest of the semicolonial world out of poverty and social backwardness.
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The Partisan Defense Committee, the social and legal defense organization associated with the Spartacist League/U.S., has made a contribution to the AMCU strike fund. We encourage trade unionists and other readers to do likewise. Wire contributions to Standard Bank in the name of the AMCU Association of Mineworkers and Construction Strike Fund, Account Number 332-748-634, Branch Code 052750, Swift Code SBZA ZA JJ. Address: Corner of OR Tambo and Mandela Drive, Saveways Crescent Centre, Witbank, Mpumalanga 1035, South Africa.