South Africa: the working class fights back

Posted: December 11, 2013 by Admin in At the coalface, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Police, South Africa, State repression, State terrorism, Unemployment, Workers history, Workers' rights, Workers' strikes
The massacre at Marikana

The massacre at Marikana: inevitable result of the policies put in place during the Mandela presidency.

The following is based on a talk delivered in London at the November 2012 Internationalist Communist Forum.  The ICF is sponsored by the Workers Fight group in Britain and the text is taken from them, here.

On the 16th August, 2012, 34 striking miners were shot dead by the police at South Africa’s Marikana platinum mine, in North West province. At least 78 more were wounded and over 200 arrested.

To explain away what was, by far, the worst act of state repression against workers since the end of apartheid, the regime claimed that the police had acted in self-defence against armed strikers. But within days, it was revealed that many of the workers had been shot in the back while trying to escape or even while lying on the ground.

In fact this was a deliberate attack against the working class, by a regime which, although it has always claimed to represent black workers, was defending the interests of the giant mining companies against the striking miners – in this case, the interests of the London-listed platinum conglomerate, Lonmin.

The Marikana massacre triggered an extraordinary display of anti-working class reaction. Both inside and outside South Africa, most commentators denounced what they called the “violence” of the miners, illustrated in their view, by their defiant, but symbolic, display of traditional weapons – sticks, spears and machetes.

Somehow, according to these commentators, this display justified the automatic weapons, armoured vehicles and helicopters used by the regime against the strikers – and, for some, the killings themselves. There were very few voices raised to decry the “violence” to which these miners were subjected by the mining companies – whether in terms of their appalling living conditions and poverty, or their dangerous work underground which exposes their health and their lives to serious risk, day in and day out, for derisory wages. All in order to extract some of the world’s most precious and profitable metals and gems.

The general reaction of the media and politicians to the Marikana massacre was inspired by elementary class prejudice. But it was compounded by another factor – the fact that, by taking strike action, the Marikana miners had not only ignored the legal straitjacket imposed on workers’ militancy in that country, but they had also openly defied the leadership of their own union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and, therefore, the entire political machinery of the regime.

However, neither the instigators of the massacre, nor the detractors of the strikers had anticipated that their struggle would inspire tens of thousands of other miners and trigger the longest wave of unofficial strikes in the country’s history, spreading from platinum to gold, chrome, coal and diamond mines – and beyond. Once started, the wave of militancy was unstoppable, no matter how many resources the state put on the ground to try to intimidate or frighten the strikers into submission – and regardless of the mass dismissals of strikers decreed by the companies. Even at the time of writing, more than three months after the Marikana miners first downed tools, not only are there miners still out on strike, but their struggle seems even to have spread to a very different (and distant) section of the working class – the agricultural labourers working in the huge export-orientated vineyards and fruit orchards of Western Cape province.

In South Africa, most of those who are on the better-off side of the huge social inequalities which have persisted since the end of apartheid – be they staunch supporters of capitalism, or just liberal do-gooders – watched the build up of the miners’ strike wave which followed the Marikana massacre, with total disbelief. One read reports using the word “backwardness” to describe a black working class which refuses to be part of what they the call “new South Africa” (they gave credence to the myth that these workers believed witch doctors’ medicine would make them impermeable to bullets – a total fabrication). Some on the South African left said the workers were utterly naïve to think they could ask for such an “unrealistic” wage rise – to R12,500 – a mere £900 per month. But of course it would have meant trebling the current average wage of rock drillers of R4,000 per month

Apparently in this post-apartheid “new South Africa”, there is no place for this working class whose struggles brought down apartheid, nor indeed for the poor, downtrodden majority of the population.

In fact, what these people call “backwardness” is an expression of the consciousness of a class which has learnt the hard way that it can only rely on its collective strength to defend its social interests. For the South African working class, especially for the miners who form its core section, this learning process goes back a long way, just as does the brutality of the South African state, whoever was it its helm. It is this learning process that we are going to retrace now, before going back to how it has shaped the current explosion of militancy.

A special system of exploitation

It is mining – for diamonds, gold and platinum, in that order – which has shaped the social and political relations in South Africa. It is above all, the interests of the mining houses grouped together – as a real cartel – in the Chamber of Mines and with direct links to the state, which stood behind the one hundred years of racial segregation entrenched between 1948 and 1950 under the legal institution of apartheid. Apartheid, as everyone probably knows, being the system of white-only rule, which imposed social controls over every aspect of the lives of the black population, the fundamental aim of which was to ensure an abundant supply of super-cheap labour.

In all of this, one actor stands out and that is the company known as Anglo American. It was there from the beginning and it is there today, playing the very same role as it always did – feeding the cruel greed of its shareholders at the expense of the working class – by extracting its blood, its sweat and its tears. Of course Anglo American isn’t the only villain of the piece. But it is a company which, over the years has diversified into almost every kind of manufacturing enterprise under a variety of disguises, in South Africa, in Sub-Saharan Africa, and around the rest of the globe. It should probably therefore be one of the first to answer for its role in the repression and super-exploitation of the black population since the discovery of diamonds in 1867 in Hopetown, right up to the violence meted out to striking miners at its platinum mine in Rustenburg today.

It may seem paradoxical, but by the mid-1980s, it was the very same vast capitalist interests, led by Anglo American, which initiated the abolition of apartheid simply because the system which had previously guaranteed their profits suddenly became the biggest obstacle to them. And this was thanks entirely to the ever-rising working class mobilisation in the urban black townships and their workplace strikes and boycotts during the 1980s, which targeted the employers and the government, making capitalism inoperable.

That said, no poor working-class South African would claim that the subsequent events, which placed the African National Congress leader, Nelson Mandela, at the helm of a black-led government in 1994 have met their expectations – not even the moderate promises of the new government to build enough homes and bring clean water and sanitation to all.

We cannot tell the whole history of the South African working class – nor even of the mineworkers – not just because it would take too long, but because much of it is undocumented or poorly documented. But if we look at some of the more important events, they may allow us to understand the significance of these fights and the lessons that need to be learned – and which need to be passed on to each new generation so that at the very least they can avoid the errors of the past and go forward to that “final conflict” to end their exploitation as a class, once and for all.

The development of the mining proletariat

The first problem that aspiring mining capitalists faced, way back in the late 1860s was the lack of a ready-made proletariat where they needed it. Of course there was a potential working class – but where was the incentive for the indigenous Africans to work for a wage in the dangerous and dusty conditions of the Kimberley diamond diggings when they could live quite satisfactory pastoral lives in their tribal territories?

One solution followed quickly – the so-called Basuto wars put paid to the rural lives of the peoples of what is now Lesotho. They became a so-called British “Protectorate” in which most of their grain-growing western lands were given over to the newly-created Natal (the same happened to Zululand which lost territory to the Transvaal, where the Boers had been given the right to self-govern). Lesotho became South Africa’s first labour reserve over 150 years ago. Today when the names of the 34 dead at Marikana are read out, there are 4 from Lesotho – out of thousands more from this mountain enclave, employed in the Bushveld’s platinum area.

Being progressively deprived of their land and therefore their ability to grow food, at gunpoint, initially the reaction of the indigenous people was to go to work for a wage in order to buy a gun to fight back. But eventually all of the wars in the remaining tribal regions were lost, although the settlers did not manage to occupy everywhere – and neither did they feel the need to. For the time being the black workers’ main way of improving both wages and conditions was to withdraw their labour completely and just go back to their rural villages – which were located in ever-shrinking areas.

Now this was in the context of South Africa becoming the largest diamond producer in the world by 1872. The growing need for workers meant depriving rural Africans of the possibility to survive off their own land and eventually it required further solutions: the first was to import workers from Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and the British colonies to the north – and the second was to employ convicts. Indeed, the compounds which housed the convicts under guard were the forerunner of the mining hostel compounds which actually exist to this day on some mines. But even this did not prevent the workers – especially the migrant workers from other countries – from returning home or leaving the mine to take a job in agriculture or the burgeoning industries, when they realised that the resulting increase in demand for labour on the mines would push wages up.

With the discovery of the vast subterranean reef of gold running under the Witwatersrand in 1886, the need for labour increased exponentially. The ore in this reef was almost all low grade – which meant an enormous amount had to be shifted in order to get the tons of gold which shareholders in this new mining industry expected. So now it really was essential to have a large and reliable, but ultra-cheap workforce of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. All the more so because, by 1898, South Africa was already the world’s leading gold producer.

However, the competing mining houses first had to come to an agreement not to rock each other’s boats by poaching workers at higher rates. Thus was formed the Chamber of Mines which combined their interests, acting as a cartel – and the labour recruiting agency under its supervision, then called the Native Labour Association, which changed its name several times, but not its function. It lobbied for the first “Pass Law” to be enacted in 1895, which together with the Masters and Servants’ Act gave mine owners theoretical control over the movement of labour. Workers were liable to arrest if they did not have their metal arm badge at all times, proving they had a legitimate job. The mine owners immediately cut wages by 30%. But Kruger’s Boer government, representing the settlers of Dutch descent in the Transvaal, did not play ball, and arrest “illegal workers”. In fact it was increasingly fed up with the role of the so-called Uitlanders or “foreigners” who had marched in and seized land and assets and above all Transvaal gold. By 1898 the Transvaal Boers were at war with the backers of this new class of foreign capitalists – i.e., the British colonial authority.

The Boers lost this attritious war, and by 1902, the new British administration was willing to tighten and implement the so-called Pass Laws and authorise municipalities to segregate Africans in locations and hire out convict labour to the mines. While there was already legislation in place to control the movement of black workers, new laws abolished once and for all their right to possess land, except in reserves too small to feed their families, and in the designated locations near the towns which had come to function as dormitories of labour, especially across the Witwatersrand. The idea was to create an excess of labour – to drive down its cost.

The Chamber of Mines 1902 survey, entitled “Gold Mines of the World”, proclaimed: “Because of the new Government there can now be an organised labour supply all over South Africa… there will be an efficient pass law ensuring no loss to the mines by desertion;…the sale of liquor will be regulated, or stopped; the natives will work on longer contract… it will be possible to reintroduce hand labour in stoping [a mining technique designed to separate the ore from the surrounding rock] instead of rock drills – and the mines will be bound not to outbid each other for workers as in the past”. Apparently the stock exchange received this news jubilantly: the gold boom which followed the Boer war saw 299 new gold mining companies floated!

There were things which the Transvaal government did, which went against the Chamber’s wishes, but were ultimately in their interests – like creating an inspectorate to ensure minimal standards for workers’ living and working conditions. At a time of labour scarcity, when they oversaw an annual death rate among their mineworkers of 80-100 per 1,000 you would think the mine owners would do something themselves to improve conditions. Workers were more than likely to contract miners’ phthisis (silicosis) from the dust in the mine – and the compounds were an incubator for every infectious disease going, including TB, which had been “introduced” by miners from Britain. There was every reason for black workers not to return.

The measures available, however, failed to increase the labour supply. Wages again had to be increased. A temporary solution was to import 63,296 male Chinese indentured labourers to increase supply. But ultimately it was the state’s intervention which provided the basis for the mine owners to prosper. The 1910 Act of Union unified South Africa under one administration. And 3 pieces of legislation introduced in 1913 laid the foundation for the apartheid state which was to come into being 35 years later. The Land Act legally confined all black Africans living within South Africa to just 8.8% of the territory! Two more Acts reclassified 47% of South Africa’s labourers as “foreign” and therefore subject to even more constraints and limitations on movement.

The first significant strikes

In June 1913 there was a strike for union recognition by white gold miners. Ex Boer war general and cabinet minister Jan Smuts sent soldiers in and they shot and killed as many as 100 strikers and bystanders before the action was quelled. What was new about this strike was that the miners made an effort to involve black miners – winning limited support. They stopped work on at least 5 mines. Six months later, another strike broke out among white workers on the coal fields involving 18,000 white miners from 63 mines – over wages and over the high rate of death and debilitation from miner’s lung. It spread to harbours and railways culminating in a general strike. This time Smuts called upon the men with whom he had fought the British in the Boer War, “to shoot Englishmen” – because the strike leaders came mostly out of the ranks of the English immigrants, who had also built the existing white workers trade unions. Martial law was declared. Nine of the strike leaders were deported to Britain.

In July 1918 it was the turn of the black workers to strike over pay. Their meagre wages had been pushed down by spiralling inflation. Strikers were driven down shafts by armed police. Eventually the bosses offered an 11% increase in wages, but since this wasn’t considered enough, workers struck again in force – with 71,000 out of a workforce of 173,000 shutting down 23 out of 35 mines on the Witwatersrand. The workers won some further piecemeal reforms, but their strike was brutally crushed – 11 miners were killed and 120 injured.

Said an unpleasantly surprised president of the Chamber of Mines, Sir Evelyn Walters: “The strike was a well-planned, disciplined campaign and not an ‘instinctive revolt’. It showed many thousands of men from a wide variety of regions and peasant communities could combine effectively. It was a new phenomenon and was the first native strike in the true sense of the word”.

The 1922 strike

The next significant strike was that of the white miners in 1922. Often called the “Rand Revolt”, it was not just a strike, but went much further – with workers staging what amounted to an attempted insurrection – a bid for power. This, along with the brutal repression they faced as a result is what makes this strike so exceptional.

In the context of the post-war slump, mine owners felt themselves under attack from both workers’ militancy and from the spiralling cost of labour, in the context of the falling price of gold – with skilled wages increasing proportionally as the requirements of an improving technology increased. They decided that if they were to restore profitability to the industry they had to reduce costs. And the biggest proportion of labour costs went to the white miners, who, thanks to the colour bar – the job reservation for whites – were the only ones allowed to do certain jobs. Reducing costs therefore meant changing the categorisation of some of the jobs and training black workers to do them. For instance giving the job of operating certain equipment to black miners, thus increasing productivity without paying the extra premium which the white miners would have demanded. The mine owners calculated this would allow them to cut 15,000 out of 25,000 jobs then occupied by white workers.

The mine owners also tried to drive a wedge into the ranks of the white miners themselves by re-categorising some jobs and upgrading others. There is evidence that they were expecting and preparing for a strike which they intended to be a showdown. In December 1921, there were discussions between the Chamber of Mines and Jan Smuts (who was now prime minister) long before the proposals were made to the miners.

It may be worth mentioning that the white miners, whether from Britain – which many were – or from South Africa, had many reasons to hate Smuts: the ex-Boers because he had betrayed them by joining the British army and War Cabinet during and after World War I; the British workers because, during that period, he had played a role in putting down strikes in Coventry and coal strikes in Wales; and the Communists from the newly formed Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), because he had been sent to put down Bela Kuhn’s short-lived Soviet Republic in Hungary, in 1918.

Perhaps the divisive tactics of the mine owners and the only recently-discovered common ground between the usually sectional white workers could go some way to explaining the slogan which appeared during this strike – viz: “Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa”. English speaking whites and Afrikaans speaking whites had been overt enemies only very recently during the run up to the Boer war. As “foreigners” or Uitlanders, English speaking whites had fought the Transvaal Boer regime for the right to vote – and then joined the ranks of the British army to defeat the Boers in a terrible 4-year long war. Many of the miners were ex-Boer soldiers who no longer had any land – having been burnt out of it by the British – or had lost wives and children to British concentration camps. So this slogan may well have been a way of stating the unity of all white workers regardless of their origins, in front of the bosses. Maybe. It is clear that the issue was not “white supremacy” on the part of many, if not most, of the strikers. The then Chairman of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Tom Matthews, told the Mining Industry Board, “You can remove all your artificial barriers [such as the colour bar] if you will agree to that one condition, equal pay for equal work done”

But although these 25,000 white workers were right to strike against the threatened cut in their wages and cut in their numbers and against their de-skilling, there is no excuse whatsoever for their prejudices to have overcome their common sense. 200,000 black workers had proved their militancy and ability to fight collectively, in front of these workers’ noses, less than 2 years previously. There was every possibility of common demands against the mine owners. Yet the white miners told black workers to stay out of the strike and on several occasions were unable to stop elements from their own ranks from actually going on the rampage against them. Yet the course of history could have been changed had they turned this into an collective onslaught against the mining houses! Why do we say that?

This was 1922, 5 years after the Bolshevik revolution, and one year after the formation of the CPSA. Several of the strike leaders were members of the Communist Party. It had its own bulletins in the strike and the Red Flag was frequently sung at union meetings. And its activists, together with many of the Afrikaner miners who had fought a guerilla war against the British 20 years before, certainly knew how to fight, if not how to stage an insurrection. However, the CPSA seemingly did not try to overcome the fatal prejudices of some of the white workers. Although it should be said that when black workers were seemingly sent against the strikers by the mine owners, and a general attack was unleashed by strikers against any black workers in their path, the CPSA intervened by printing thousands of leaflets that read: “leave the Kaffir alone! Workers hands off the black workers!. It is not they who are your enemies but the Chamber of Mines which exploits them and you.” But the CPSA never argued that the black workers were their best allies to defeat the mining capitalists! Perhaps they did not think so. Frank Glass, then secretary of the Cape Town branch of the CPSA (he was to joined the Trotskyists later), explained that the racism of the white workers disqualified them from becoming leaders of a united working class. In his opinion, the CPSA’s forces were too insignificant and the trade unions too weak to “make a revolution”. Which probably goes some way to explaining something quite different – i.e., that these activists had little idea what makes a revolution and what doesn’t.

The strike carried on till early March 1922 – and its scale and organisation even if limited to white workers, including those beyond the mines, was impressive. The workers formed “committees of action” as well as armed commandos, obtained weapons and ammunition and took over several parts of Witwatersand towns – as well as the coalfields eastwards to Witbank – and part of Johannesburg itself, running transport and distribution. They soon had key workers on strike with them – resulting in power being shut off. Even in the port of Durban, 300 miles away, power workers struck. But by the second week in March, Smuts decided to drown this insurrection in blood. By then the Boer farmers who had been feeding the strikers began to refuse to give any more. On 10 March Smuts used a riot which seems to have been instigated by agents provocateurs, to declare martial law, and brought in the army, with air support, artillery, machine guns and tanks. The workers’ positions were bombed and shelled to smithereens. Two of the Communist miners’ leaders (Percy Fischer and Henry Spendiff) committed suicide rather than give themselves up. On 17 March the trade union leaders called off the strike. In the end, 214 people had been killed, including 43 soldiers, 29 policemen, and 81 civilians. Over 650 miners were injured. 853 were charged with offences and put on trial. 18 were sentenced to death – but due to public outcry only 4 were eventually executed. Three, Samuel Long, Herbert Hull and David Lewis went to the scaffold at Pretoria Central Prison, singing the ‘Red Flag’.

After this strike semi-skilled white workers were gradually replaced by black workers although many of the more skilled positions were still reserved for whites. However no black miner was given a blasting certificate – the bosses were at least “wise” enough from their own point of view, not to trust them with dynamite….!

The political consequences of this strike and its defeat were far-reaching. In March 1924 the Industrial Conciliation Act bureaucratised the mainly white unions and not only institutionalised job reservation on the basis of colour, but also institutionalised the division between white unions and black workers. And thanks to his action in drowning the revolt in blood, by use of the army, Smuts’ ruling party lost the general election in 1924 to an alliance of Afrikaner nationalists and the English-speaking Labour Party, heralding the more decisive win of the Afrikaner National Party in 1948 – after which they were to hold power for 48 years.

The 1946 strike

The next and probably most significant strike in South Africa’s history, until the platinum miners’ strikes of today that is, was the 1946 miners’ strike. In the war years between 1939 and 1945 there had been increasing militancy among black workers despite the repressive measures used against them like War Measure 145 of December 1942, which outlawed strikes. Over 1943-44, 60 illegal strikes took place in industry nevertheless. In fact workers’ earnings increased by almost 52% between 1939 and 1945. However real wages declined. Mineworkers, especially at the end of the war, couldn’t survive on their wages thanks to spiralling inflation. Their strike, involving at least 100,000 workers was chiefly about wages – with workers demanding a daily minimum wage of 10 shillings. The strike was called by the newly-formed African Mineworkers Union (AMWU) which had been initiated in 1941 largely from outside the mineworkers ranks by various individual activists, including a former CPSA member Gaur Ratebe and a veteran trade union builder called TW Thibedi who happened to be the first black member of the CPSA. By 1944 JB Marks, also of the CPSA, had managed to get himself elected into the union leadership. AMWU now claimed to have 44,000 members – but this was probably an exaggeration. The union presented various demands to the Chamber of Mines, but got the brush off. Eventually the so-called Lansdowne Commission was set up, to consider the workers’ demands. But this too ended up offering just a few pennies in pay and a few minimal allowances.

AMWU decided to set a date for action – 12 August 1946. Mass meetings were held, but only a few thousand workers attended. AMWU had a problem of access to the workers because of the heavily guarded miners’ compounds. However when the strike started the workers themselves were in fact ready to spread the word as key individuals in each compound carried the message to the others. It was a spontaneous network, but it functioned well.

There were confrontations at all the main pits. However the strike was swiftly and violently suppressed. Police reinforcements were rushed to the Witwatersrand. Strikers were shot, beaten up and driven down mine shafts by armed police. Meetings were broken up and numerous strikers were arrested. The strike lasted just six days. This harsh response contrasted somewhat with the more lenient approach to industrial workers’ strikes a few months before. The reason for this was probably the level of fear of the capitalist class, especially in the Chamber of Mines, caused by this united display of collective action, which had been organised without any formal union inside the mines themselves. For the capitalists, the ominous implication of this strike was that workers were learning that they could organise themselves if they decided to do so.

The union offices were raided, the Communist party District Committee was arrested, and 52 union organisers and volunteers appeared in court accused under the Riotous Assemblies Act and aiding and abetting an illegal strike under War Measure 145. Although these arrestees all ended up with fines and suspended sentences, the consequences of this strike were far-reaching.

By 1947 the Nationalist Party had won the general election on a programme to implement Apartheid at every level of society – at the time dressed up as “separate development”. But while it was to institutionalise racism for decades to come it was primarily to allow tighter control than ever before, over the movement of labour. Firstly, the pass laws were made even more stringent: you had to carry your pass with you at all times, with up to date stamps from all your employers in it and if you didn’t have it or it had any discrepancy, you would automatically spend the night in a police cell. And secondly, homeland reserves (“Bantustans”) were delineated and enforced, as depositories of labour for existing industry and for new rural enterprises to be built nearby on their borders. Eventually these homelands might be given a degree of quasi-self-rule – as in fact was the case with two of them, Transkei and Bophuthatswana, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Into the 1970s and the 1987 strike

By the 1970s job reservation began to impinge on industrial development and productivity in the mines. Workers began to use the opportunity to go on strike – leading to waves of action hitting particularly the Durban docks in 1973 and several industries throughout the country. Most of these strikes were spontaneous and self-organised and of course all of them were illegal. The workers were required by circumstances to take collective leadership of their actions – in order to protect both their own activists and the strike itself – and they did so with some success. But many events inspired workers – the black struggles in the USA and black consciousness, the anti-war movement among youth against the Vietnam war, and closer to home, the eventual victory of Frelimo in Mozambique against Portuguese colonial authority in 1975, after years of guerilla war.

Then came the rising of the students in 1976 – initially sparked in Soweto by the government’s decree that Afrikaans should be the language in which all subjects were taught in black schools. The student’s revolt came at a time of world crisis, but also at the end of this wave of rising political consciousness among youth throughout the world. Black students were inspired and fearless in the face of a ferocious police response which saw dozens killed and wounded. And their wave of protest extended to workers who stayed away from work and maintained the boiling pot until the lid burst off again in the 1980s, with the mobilisations in townships and the increasing ungovernability of the country.

The government was in fact desperately trying to keep up with events and make concessions to the working class to try to somehow return to the status quo. But there was no going back after 1976. The so called Wiehahn Commission reported in May 1979 – recommending that job reservation for white skilled workers be revoked – out of necessity. For now there was a shortage of such workers. It amended the Labour Relations Act to allow registration and recognition of black trade unions. So by the 1980s, not only had the colour bar been all but abolished in most trades, but black trade unions had finally won legal status. Indeed, from the point of view of the state, this was the only way to contain their activity and workers’ militancy – by trying to bargain with them, as a means of integrating them into the system.

But the tide was not going to turn. The 1980s in fact saw an upsurge in struggle – and its main feature was that it was self-organised – with elected committees running townships themselves and organising “can’t pay, won’t pay” campaigns. In 1985, the government declared that the townships had become ungovernable and invoked a state of emergency.

By 1987, on the rising tide of this general rebellion of the black population, the NUM launched its first (and in fact last – because nothing similar has been called for since) nationwide miners’ strike. This involved an estimated 340,000 workers and, given the state of emergency, was theoretically “illegal”. Their demand was a 30% pay rise in the context of a boom in gold prices. The companies turned this down claiming they had just granted 15-32% rises in the previous negotiations.

It started with the now commonplace lethal violence – with 76 miners injured by rubber bullets on its second day. And then more were injured every day following. In the three weeks that the strike lasted, 11 workers were killed, some killed by their fellow miners for strike-breaking. The coal and gold mining houses used the tactic of dismissal to try to get workers back to work – dismissing 50,000 workers without success. 52 mines went out across the whole sector – with 44 shut completely. Nevertheless the miners did not win their pay claim – although some minor concessions were made and, in the end, most of the strikers who had been dismissed were re-employed.

Of course the irony of it all, in the light of events at Marikana this August, is that 25 years ago, the same Cyril Ramaphosa who is on the board of the mining company Lonmin today, was the NUM president leading this strike. At the time he made a pronouncement which has come back to haunt him. When Bobby Godsell, then chief executive of gold company Anglo Ashanti, spoke about the need for “liberal” business to share power with black workers, something which Anglo American was attempting to facilitate by holding talks with ANC leaders in Britain and Accra, Ramaphosa replied: “I don’t know how one shares power with people who have shotguns in their hands, people who have tear gas canisters, and I really don’t know how one shares power with people who continue to pay starvation wages”. Ironically, today, it is Ramaphosa and the ANC’s state police who back him and his capitalist peers, who have the automatic rifles, plastic bullets and tear gas cylinders in their hands.

A transition overseen by imperialism

As previously mentioned, it was mining bosses who started talking with the exiled African National Congress in the mid-1980s, when capitalism in South Africa was becoming inoperable due to the insurrectionary situation in the black townships, which threatened to spread – and indeed did in 1987 – to the mines. In this sense today we have come full circle – and what other way is there to go except in circles under this crisis ridden system?

It is the irony of all ironies that the self same mining companies, which had more or less drafted the blue print of the controlled labour system of apartheid – because it was what they needed for their mines – set the ball rolling for its orderly abolition, because it had become the one big obstacle to their profitability, thanks to the workers’ militancy. They succeeded. The black working class did not throw out the capitalist baby with the filthy apartheid bathwater. Anglo American and friends ensured that the ANC and its agreeable leadership remained in pole position in the political line-up once the transition to a new apartheid-free and democratic South Africa was achieved.

Indeed, the diplomatic efforts which eventually freed Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the personnel who managed the peaceful transition to a multi-racial South Africa under ANC rule in 1994 were overseen all the while by some of the biggest and most powerful imperialist companies, spun off from the old, colonial mining houses – especially, Anglo American and its sister company, De Beers. These are the same companies which have metamorphosed since, through changing markets and mergers, into today’s power houses – the new Anglo American (formed by De Beers, Anglo Platinum, Anglo Coal, Kumba Iron, Tarmac and a galaxy of diversified companies operating in South Africa), Anglo Gold-Ashanti (now formally independent from Anglo American), Xstrata, Lonmin, etc..

Imperialist playground

By that time, therefore, all big South African companies were either subsidiaries of imperialist companies or heavily dependent on imperialist investors. In the run-up to the transfer of political power to the black majority, the main problem for these companies and their shareholders was to ensure that their profits would be preserved – at least in the long term.

To this end, they needed local, trustworthy intermediaries to run the part of their businesses that they could not take abroad and protect it from the poor majority of the population. And since apartheid had prevented the development of a sizeable black capitalist class, the white South African capitalists proceeded to create one artificially. This was one of the issues which was negotiated behind the scenes during the period which started with the unbanning of the anti-apartheid organisations, in February 1990.

While the big companies were preparing to transfer their financial assets abroad, they offered cheap loans to members of the black middle class to buy stakes in the parts of their businesses that could not be moved out.

But the big companies chose their future trustees with great care among the members of the anti-apartheid political elite. One of them, for instance, was Nthato Motlana, a long-standing member of the ANC and one of Mandela’s co-defendants in the treason trial that ended the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s. Thanks to loans from the powerful insurance group Sanlam, he set up New African Investments Limited, which then proceeded to buy many medium-sized white-owned businesses.

Another case was that of Mzi Khumalo, a former member of the ANC armed wing, who spent 12 years imprisoned in Robben Island. Just as the negotiation process was being concluded, Khumalo was offered the chairmanship and a stake in a company set up to manage a large part of Anglo American’s industrial and mining assets in the country.

These were only some of the most prominent in a whole series of transfers of ownership from the white capitalist class to a new black bourgeoisie. And they carried on later on, after the end of apartheid, with the so-called “Black Economic Empowerment” policy, which required a certain level of black representation both among the directors and shareholders of companies incorporated in South Africa.

But these transfers were more symbolic than real. For a start, the ANC regime took full responsibility for the $25bn foreign debt of the country, regardless of the fact that its main beneficiaries had been the big South African companies. Subsequently, it allowed the country’s biggest companies to move their financial assets to London, Switzerland or New York, thereby transferring full control of large sectors of the South African economy to imperialist capital.

As to the black ownership promoted at the time of the transition by the big companies and, subsequently, by the regime, through “Black Economic Empowerment”, it was soon exposed as a con. Official figures showed that, on the Johannesburg stock market, black ownership of shares reached a peak of 12% of total capitalisation in 1998 and then started to fall without ever returning to this level.

In fact, once the transition was over and the ANC regime consolidated, the old white South African companies, which had now become multinationals operating from headquarters located in the imperialist countries, wasted no time in reclaiming most of the ground they had temporarily conceded in South Africa. Within less than a decade after the end of apartheid, the country’s economy was fully controlled by the same white capital, reinforced by imperialist capital. The only change was the presence of a minority of black faces in the companies’ boardrooms.

From crony capitalism…

What these policies did, however, was to introduce, instantly, an element of profound corruption at the very top of post-apartheid South Africa. The nationalism of the ANC had always expressed the aspiration of the black middle class to become a fully-fledged bourgeoisie. But with the transition process, the ANC and the galaxy of organisations which were linked to it soon became a vehicle for personal enrichment.

Among the representatives of this crony capitalism, some stand out. For instance, South Africa’s richest man, in 2011, was Patrice Motsepe, the brother-in-law of Jeff Radebe, an ANC grandee who has been a minister in every government since 1994. Motsepe built his fortune by using his ANC connections to obtain cheap loans and form Black Empowerment companies in gold mining. He now sits on the boards of ARMGold, Sanlam (a major insurance group) and Absa (the local subsidiary of Barclays which is South Africa’s largest retail bank).

Another example of this crony capitalism is the family of the current president Jacob Zuma himself, which is said to control 220 businesses. Zuma’s son Duduzane is co-owner of JIC, the platinum belt region’s largest labour broker (i.e. provider of cheap temps). His nephew, Khulubuse, is co-owner, together with Nelson Mandela’s grandson, of the Aurora gold mining company, which has become famous for its asset-stripping of the companies it bought using “Black Empowerment” funding.

But probably the example of this crony capitalism which explains best the frustration it causes in South Africa, is Cyril Ramaphosa. As founder of the miners’ union NUM, co-founder of COSATU in 1985 and leader of the 1987 miners’ strike, Ramaphosa was one of the most prominent representatives of black trade-unionism. Yet, following his failure to be elected as ANC vice-president in 1994, he seamlessly went on to build a business empire, using his ANC political connections. According to a recent investigation prompted by his candidacy for the ANC’s vice-presidency, Shanduka, the company set up and owned by Ramaphosa, has a significant stake in 22 companies, including a 100% stake in MacDonald’s South-African franchise and a 70% stake in the Coca-Cola franchise. But what is even more significant is that the former miners’ union leader should also have a large stake in Lonmin, the company which owns the Marikana mine, as well as in four other coal and diamond mining companies, and that he should sit on the boards of Lonmin, Standard Bank and SABMiller (a multinational brewery company).

… to corrupt union machineries

The example of the transformation undergone by the likes of Cyril Ramaphosa, brings us to a parallel mutation which took place in the trade-union movement during the transition period and its immediate aftermath.

Having been forced by workers’ militancy to recognise their unions, the big companies did all they could to turn this to their advantage. If unions were to be recognised, they had to become instruments of class collaboration capable of protecting profits from workers’ militancy. This was to be achieved by using three main mechanisms.

Firstly, more and more union officials became managers of social funds on behalf of their members. In the absence of any control from the rank-and-file, this generated a form of social promotion within the union machineries themselves which encouraged conservatism rather than militancy. Secondly, to take advantage of “Black Empowerment”, the unions involved themselves increasingly, not just in managing the social funds they controlled, but actually in managing the investment of these social funds. And thirdly, after the ANC came to power, the union machineries offered other possibilities for careerism, thanks to the revolving door through which COSATU officials regularly joined government institutions, at every level, offering all sorts of cushy jobs to members of the union machineries’ top circles.

The NUM is a typical example of the resulting mutation. Some of its top officials are the trustees of a Mineworkers’ Investment Trust which owns two companies. One of these companies, Numprop has a contract to build a residential estate for mining company Xstrata and plans another housing contract for Harmony Gold. Meanwhile, the NUM is supposed to represent the interests of workers both at Xstrata and Harmony Gold. The other company owned by the Trust, is an investment company, with a portfolio worth £230m, which has business relations which a number of big mining players, like Remgro, FirstRand and Impala Platinum. With the membership playing little or no part in the decision making, it is not difficult to imagine how the investment interests of the union machinery may take precedence over the members’ interests in its bargaining with some mining companies.

The post-apartheid mutation of the union machineries was entrenched by the framework created by the ANC regime to help the union apparatuses keep the lid on the militancy of their members. This included, in particular, a system of compulsory arbitration designed to limit the legal use of industrial action to a minimum. But since unions without members would have been pretty useless for companies, it also included the perpetuation of the check off system for union dues, inherited from the apartheid days, which guaranteed a relatively stable income to the union machineries and, in any case, made it difficult for disgruntled members to walk away from their unions.

Growing discontent with the NUM

Regardless of the militancy of local activists, all these factors have combined to turn the machineries of the COSATU union into passive instruments, which prefer to avoid rocking the boat, whatever the cost to their members.

This has been particularly true of the NUM. It remains the largest union within COSATU, with 300,000 members or so. And its general secretary Frans Baleni, considers it perfectly legitimate that he award himself a £100,000 (R1.4m) annual salary, claiming that it is “market related” – more than ten times the £9,300 average annual wage of Marikana’s rock drillers.

The NUM has such a close relationship with the big mining companies that its officials are often described by workers as being part of the human resources department. They enjoy higher grades of pay, spend a lot of their time in air-conditioned offices and are able to use company or union cars that ordinary workers cannot afford. Moreover, the local reps tend to be recruited among the better-off layers of the mining workforce – white collar, in particular – which makes the gap between them and the majority of miners even larger.

The identification of the NUM leaders with the companies’ interests has been particularly blatant in gold and coal mining, which are both covered by national agreements. The NUM leadership got into the habit of bargaining with the Chamber of Mines, behind closed doors, while policing the rank-and-file in between agreements. When members baulked at being stitched up, the NUM machinery would discipline rebel members – which often resulted in their sacking.

It was precisely an incident of this type, which led to the first organised expression of discontent against the NUM leadership and the formation of a rival union, in 1998. At the time, the NUM branch secretary of the Douglas Colliery coal mine, a devout Christian called Joseph Vusimuzi Mathunjwa, who had just been sacked, was expelled from the union after his fellow workers won his reinstatement by staging an illegal 3-week strike. Mathunjwa took away with him the 3,000 NUM members of his mine, who then formed the initial core of a new union, the Association of Construction and Mineworkers Union (AMCU), which proceeded to poach disaffected NUM members across the country.

AMCU’s numbers were far too low for it to win recognition in the sectors covered by a national bargaining system. But in platinum mining no such system existed. And this created a possibility for AMCU to put its foot in the door, by trying to win the statutory 51% membership required to win recognition in a mine.

In fact, AMCU has had this opportunity twice over the past two years, as a result of major strikes which, in some ways, were also dress-rehearsals for the recent strike wave. In both cases, while AMCU played no role in initiating these strikes, it was able to capitalise on the frustration of the strikers against the NUM leadership.

The first strike took place last year in May. It broke out in the Karee mine, another Lonmin operation right next to Marikana. It was an illegal strike to protest against the NUM, in fact – after it had taken disciplinary action against the Karee branch officers. Lonmin reacted by sacking all 9,000 workers. They then had to queue up for reinstatement under new contracts. But as a result, many left the NUM and joined AMCU.

The second strike took place in January-February this year, at the huge Impala Platinum mine, in Rustenburg, where 46,000 miners work in 14 shafts scattered over 260 square kilometres. The strike was sparked off by rock drill operators who refused the bonuses agreed by NUM officials, but it spread right across the mine. Impala’s response was to dismiss 17,000 strikers. There were many protests involving burning and looting, in which 4 strikers were killed. But after 6 weeks on strike, Impala had taken back most of the sacked workers and granted the strikers a 100% wage rise across the board. Subsequently Impala decided to recognise AMCU, warning the NUM that it could be de-recognised.

That being said, the fact that AMCU proved unable – or unwilling to offer a common fighting perspective to the striking miners during the recent strike wave probably says it all. It may not be called the NUM, but already its policy looks and feels a lot like that of the NUM.

Marikana, where it all began

The miners’ strike wave started at Lonmin’s Marikana complex, on 10 August, when 3,000 rock drill operators went on an unofficial strike for a living wage of R12,500 (£936) per month. Their demand represented a wage increase of 200% for the lowest paid. And they began to meet every day, on the small rocky outcrop adjacent to their settlement, known as “Wonderkop”, selecting their own leaders.

These workers may not have known that 112 of their number would be mown down in a hail of police bullets within a week, leaving 34 dead, but they did know what they were up against. Every recent strike in the mines – but also in other industries – has left its toll of dead and injured, as has almost every recent sizeable anti-government protest in the country’s shanty-slum settlements. And already, by the end of the first week, 6 workers, two security guards and two policemen had been killed in separate incidents.

On the morning of the massacre, on August 16th, the strikers massed their ranks tightly together on the hill and refused to disperse when told to do so. They told the hundreds of cops and, later, the army personnel who had been sent in to break their resistance, that they were prepared to die rather than give up their fight. In a show of their determination to hold their ground, they had grabbed all the makeshift weapons they could find – sticks, spears, clubs, machetes.

NUM officials were brought in on the afternoon of the 16th August, inside police armoured vehicles, to address the strikers. They were shouted down and told to leave. The AMCU leader, Joseph Mathunjwa, however, came on foot, joined the workers at the bottom of their hill and was rewarded with cheers. But he offered little more than an appeal to disperse, before leaving swiftly.

By 3.30pm, with the union officials out of the way, the armoured cars, police and army reinforcements were put in place. The police lined themselves up, encircling the 3,000 massed workers on the hill. Barbed wire was rolled out and placed in a semicircle around the main escape route towards the nearby settlement. Later it was revealed that a small opening was left through which workers were forced to flee as stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas were fired behind them. The first group through the wire – around a dozen – were shot and died where they fell. But most were murdered while fleeing further away in the bushes and among the rocks.

When the dust settled, 34 strikers were dead and 78 wounded, maybe more. More than 200 strikers had been arrested. In fact, it is likely that the real number of casualties was higher – given that not all the wounded went to a hospital for fear of being arrested and that some strikers are still unaccounted for.

The strike spreads

Almost immediately after the killings, the strike spread to the rest of the Marikana complex, where the remaining 25,000 miners joined the rock drill operators’ strike. Stoppages occurred at several neighbouring mines, including the Bafokeng Rasimone Platinum Mine (BRPM), which is managed and part-owned by Anglo Platinum. There, 1,000 workers downed tools and a group of them, bypassing the NUM, presented the company with the same demand as the Marikana strikers. Within a few days, the mine management claimed that the dispute had been resolved, but a week later, the BRPM miners were solidly on strike. There were to be many more similar attempts at playing down the strike wave over the following weeks – to no avail.

In the meantime, similar stoppages had taken place in other big platinum mines, such as the Anglo Platinum facility at Thembelani and the Crocodile River mine run by Canadian company Eastern Platinum. Mine after mine, stoppages were spreading across the so-called “Platinum Belt”, which stretches from the western bushveld complex in the North-West province – an area around Rustenburg, where Marikana is situated – to the east in Mpumalanga and further north into Limpopo province. In most cases these were not solid strikes yet. Rather, the miners seemed to be testing their strength before taking to the offensive in earnest.

Less than two weeks after the Marikana massacre, the strike wave reached a new stage, spreading to the first gold mine. On 30 August, nearly half (12,000 out of 26,000) of the workforce at GoldFields’ Kloof Driefontein Complex (known as KDC, it is the world’s 4th largest gold mine, west of Johannesburg) embarked on an illegal strike for the R12,500, again bypassing the NUM. Another big Goldfields site 150 miles south-west of Johannesburg, in the Free State province, soon followed with its 10,000 miners out on strike.

In every case, the police were there in numbers, frantically trying to disperse miners’ gatherings – fortunately without causing any casualties, this time. But on September 3rd, they were to kill another 4 strikers during a protest at Gold One’s Modder East mine (near Johannesburg).

The strike wave was still gathering momentum. On the platinum mines, the previous stoppages were mutating into solid strikes. It should be said that the marches organised by the Marikana strikers seem to have played an important, if not a decisive role in this, at least in the Rustenburg area, where the country’s two largest platinum mines – owned by Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum – were now fully involved. In any case, 4 weeks after the beginning of the Marikana strike, production had been stopped in most important mines across the “Platinum Belt”.

However, in order to strengthen a strike wave which they must have felt was not quite solid enough, on 12 September, representatives of the Rustenburg Anglo Platinum strikers announced from the platform, in a football stadium packed with strikers, that their aim was now to co-ordinate with strikers from Marikana and other major mines, to call an all-out strike in the mines across the Rustenburg area from September 17th.

It should be noted once again that, although the strikers were mostly NUM members themselves, right from the beginning they had to face the outright opposition of their union’s official structures. As a result, in many mines – and certainly in the largest – they selected from among their own ranks an informal leadership to lead their strike. It was these committees which undertook all the organisational tasks of the strike movement. In particular, judging from the reports available, they seem to have played a role in expanding the strike wave by building on the energy of the most determined and militant strikers. Likewise, these committees were the driving force behind the call for an all-out strike across the mines in the Rustenberg area, on 12 September, and then behind the suggestion to prepare for a national strike across the whole mining industry.

Lonmin caves in

After six weeks of strike at the Marikana complex, and following several failed attempts by the company to get the 28,000 strikers to agree to return to work on the basis of insignificant concessions, the situation suddenly changed on 18 September. Following protracted talks involving all kinds of middlemen, including the clergy, negotiators announced that Lonmin had agreed a wage increase worth between 11 and 22%, another increase worth 12% to be negotiated in October, plus a back-to-work bonus worth R2,000, equivalent to almost half of the wages lost by most workers as a result of the strike.

Although the rock drill operators who initiated the strike were now to earn R11,000/month, the strikers had not won the R12,500/month minimum they demanded. Nevertheless their gains represented a significant success against a company whose only response to their strike, so far, had been police violence and the threat of mass sackings.

The political significance of Lonmin’s concessions was highlighted by the immediate reaction of business “experts” who warned of an impending “catastrophe” – meaning, for mining profits – should all the mining industry go down the same road. So, an “emerging market specialist” with Japanese banking giant Nomura stated in an interview to Reuters that: “The key worry now is that 22% wage rises will be seen spreading across the mine industry. That is hardly affordable in an industry with such hefty cost pressures already”. Meanwhile, two analysts with Standard Bank – a South African bank which is heavily invested in mining – produced “alarming” comparison charts showing how the Lonmin settlement compared with the outcome of the four largest “legal” strikes which took place in 2011, in gold, coal and diamond mines and in the metal industry. All told, and assuming the company does not renege on its promises (which remains to be seen), the Lonmin “illegal” strikers had won nearly three times as much as last year’s “legal” strikers!

Towards a showdown

In the meantime, the ANC regime had begun to move. In the second week of September, Justice minister Jeff Radebe announced a crackdown on the strikers to begin on 14 September. Shortly after, Zuma’s office declared the deployment of the army across the country until the end of January, to support “the operational needs of the police”.

On 15 September, police and army personnel raided the Nkaneng squatter camp in Marikana, spraying the shacks and shanty dwellers with rubber bullets – which were to cause the death of Paulina Masuhlo, a much-liked ANC local councillor. The Rustenburg area was flooded with police and soldiers, to prevent any kind of meeting or march by strikers. And this offensive was not just confined to the “Platinum Belt”. Over the following weeks, a flood of reports showed that protests were being banned up and down the country, for the most spurious reasons, or no reason at all.

Nevertheless, it was soon clear that the Lonmin deal was having an impact. In a few cases, it prompted companies to make concessions in order to end, or even pre-empt, a strike in their mines. Thus, just after the Lonmin deal, Impala Platinum, the country’s second largest platinum company, chose to pre-empt the threat of an illegal strike by granting a substantial wage increase to its workforce – for the second time this year.

But Impala was an exception among the big platinum companies. And in most cases, the main consequence of the Marikana success was to encourage other miners to remain on strike or to join the strike wave.

So, the rest of the platinum mines remained paralysed. But more importantly, the strike wave had now spread well beyond platinum mining and was showing no sign of losing momentum. In fact, by the beginning of October, almost two months after the strike had first broken out at Marikana, new mines were still joining the strike wave every day – and this, regardless of the intimidation and shows of strength by the police. By then, a large part of the country’s historical gold mining industry was paralysed by illegal strikes, including the main mines of the two largest gold companies – Anglo Gold Ashanti and GoldFields. There were strikes as well in several coal mines, in chrome and iron ore mines and in diamond mines. In two cases, at the Samancor Chrome mine and at the Sishen iron ore mine (owned by a subsidiary of Anglo American), the strikers had even decided to stage a sit-in underground until their demands were met.

By that time, however, all the big mining companies affected by the strike wave were looking for a head-on confrontation. They were now threatening to sack thousands of strikers if they failed to return to work by a certain date.

Anglo Platinum was first to carry out its threats. On 5 October, 12,000 strikers were sacked from the Rustenburg mines and, two days later, another 2,500 at the Bokoni mine it manages in the Limpopo province.

In the case of GoldFields, a different strategy was used at first at its KDC West mine. On October 2nd, GoldFields’ security evicted 5,500 strikers from the company-owned hostels in which they lived. Did GoldFields hope that this would break the strikers’ determination and force them back to work? Or that the mostly migrant miners would return to their home lands? Either way, this was a miscalculation. Thousands of strikers immediately congregated on a hilltop nearby the entrance of the mining complex and, in a gesture of defiance reminiscent of the Marikana miners on August 16th, they vowed to remain on this hill until the company conceded to their demands.

Four days later, GoldFields had to cancel its expulsion order. However, on 19 October, GoldFields carried out its threat of sacking all striking miners who failed to resume work, after they had been awarded a small wage increase (a change in the grading structure worth no more than 2 to 3% to most workers, and agreed between the NUM and the Chamber of Mines). This time, according to the company, some strikers returned to work at KDC West and some at the Beatrix minein the Free State. But as many as 1,200 strikers were sacked on the spot for refusing to resume their shifts. GoldFields was not out of trouble yet: almost at the same time, 10,000 workers at its KDC East mine downed tools, for the second time since the beginning of the strike wave. On 23 October, Goldfields dismissed another 8,500 strikers, this time from KDC East.

In the case of Anglo Gold, the country’s largest gold company, all its mines had been closed down by the strike wave since 29 August. In October, the company announced the reopening of its mines on October 24th and threatened to sack whoever did not resume work on that date – and then it sacked 12,000 strikers when they failed to report for work.

By then, a de facto state of siege was being imposed by the police and army across the mining districts. There were more raids, more intimidation, more beating up. But, no matter what, the counter-offensive of the bosses was still coming up against the strikers’ determination. The most outspoken expression of this determination, was probably the strike committee of the Anglo Platinum Rustenburg miners whose spokesman, Gaddhafi Mdoda, had declared from the platform of a strikers’ meeting organised in Rustenburg stadium, after the October 5th sackings: “This is the beginning of the war”.

And this readiness to fight could be seen well beyond the Anglo Platinum Rustenburg hardcore of the strike. For instance, on 16 October, when the news circulated that the police had arrested two of the Marikana informal strike leaders, miners left their shafts instantly, not just at Marikana, but also at the nearby Lonmin Karee mine.

Capital’s “fire fighters”

It was more or less at that point that the leaders of the NUM and those of COSATU decided that the time had come for them to try to regain the ground lost in the mining areas.

There was a sort of division of labour between them, though. After having so overtly opposed the strike wave and given the fact that its officials had been thrown out by the strikers quite a few times already, there was not much that the NUM could do directly – at least with regards to the strikers. But what they still could try to do was to regain some credibility with the mining companies. So, on 25 October, they managed to convince the Chamber of Mines to concede some minor tweaks on wages (between 1.5% and 4% depending on grade) in coal and gold mines – obviously to allow the NUM to return to the membership claiming that bargaining by the NUM had achieved for them what weeks of illegal strike had not. But, of course, the problem was how to approach the strikers and get them to swallow such a pill – and even more so in the platinum mines, where there was not even any pill to offer!

COSATU’s role – through the personal intervention of its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, was therefore to prepare the ground for the return of the NUM, by trying to disarm the strikers’ hostility to the NUM.

On 17 October, Vavi issued a “manifesto” calling, among other things, for: “the immediate reinstatement of all dismissed miners and the cancellation of dismissal threats; solidarity actions across the economy in support of this demand; the total banning of labour brokers in the mining industry and the economy as a whole; a campaign to speed up the transformation of the conditions in the communities surrounding the mines, to provide decent houses, schools, clinics, running water, electricity and tarred roads.” At the same time, Vavi announced the setting up of a COSATU operation centre in Rustenburg led by senior leaders of Cosatu and its affiliates who were to co-ordinate the on-the-ground political and organisational response to the situation.

Significantly, the only thing Vavi had to say concerning the strikers’ wage demands was to call for the establishment of a special commission on the conditions and wages of mineworkers! That wasn’t much good for the strikers, was it? But obviously Vavi must have believed that they were so desperate, due to the dismissal threats, that they would be infinitely grateful that COSATU should go out of its way in order to “help” them – even if this help sounded more symbolic than real.

Two days later, however, Vavi was given a taste of what was coming to him. During a visit to Orkney in North West province, Vavi and his car were pelted with stones by the few hundred Anglo Gold miners he was meant to address. It should be added that the leaflet announcing Vavi’s meeting called “on all workers in the North West, and also Limpopo and Gauteng, to attend the rally and reclaim the Rustenburg area from the forces of counter-revolution”… Which probably goes a long way towards explaining the pelting and the stones! Obviously the Orkney miners didn’t see their fellow miners in Rustenburg as counter-revolutionaries, if only because they were, themselves on an illegal strike for the same demand – something that Vavi apparently didn’t know!

But Vavi didn’t give up. On 23 October, another of his public releases read: “We are aware that some mining companies have opportunistically been using such a fragile trick to cold-heartedly dismiss workers without paying them retrenchment packages that they would have been required to pay. If the mining bosses do not accede to this demand, the totality of the capitalist class will face the full might of organised workers and also will face stiff resistance in every corner of the economy”. Vavi even alluded to the possibility of a call for a general strike! Of course, what was significant in this ambiguous text was not what it said, but what it did not say – that solidarity was needed to defend the right of workers to strike for decent wages and to support their demands. But, apparently, the only problem Vavi had with the dismissals was the fact that the companies were avoiding paying redundancy money!

On 27 October, there was a new attempt by Vavi and COSATU to “reclaim Rustenburg”. Leading a demonstration of several hundred COSATU officials brought by coach from outside the town, Vavi, the NUM leader Frans Baleni and the Communist Party general secretary and Education minister Blade Nzimande, tried to “reclaim” Rustenberg – or, more to the point, to “reclaim Lonmin” as the T-shirts they wore read. However the Anglo Platinum miners didn’t like the joke, especially when COSATU officials started to beat up some strikers. They retaliated in kind. In the end, the COSATU grandees were left with no option but to run away with their bodyguards.

A balance sheet

Since these attempts by COSATU and the NUM failed to regain the ground lost, they seem to have kept a low profile, at least in the mining districts.

Meanwhile the miners’ strike wave continued into November and was even joined by smaller mines which had not taken part yet or had gone back to work once already. But when the strike ended at GoldFields’ mines, without the strikers having made significant gains, on 6th November, it seemed that the strike wave was receding.

On 14 November, the Anglo Gold strikers ended their strike as well and, the same day, the Anglo Platinum strikers in Rustenburg agreed to a proposal which cancelled all dismissals and gave them a one-off R4,500 (£320) bonus, a monthly bonus of R600 (£42), together with the company’s commitment to reopen wage negotiations as soon as possible.

Although some mines are still on strike, including a big mine run by Anglo Platinum in Limpopo province and a number of smaller ones, by now it seems that the strike wave is coming to an end in most mining areas, at least.

But already, another strike wave seems to be developing, this time among farm labourers in the big export-orientated farms. It started on 30 October in the Western Cape’s Hex River Valley, the country’s biggest table grape-growing region, where 8,000 labourers embarked on an illegal strike, outside the involvement of any of their official unions, for a daily wage of R150 (£10.60), equivalent to a 114% increase. Since then, it has spread, across the Western Cape, involving more and more industrial farms.

The difference with the miners’ strike wave is that, this time, COSATU seems to have learnt its lesson and displayed some support for the strikers’ demands right from the beginning. But this policy was exposed for the deception it was, when, on November 14th, COSATU called on the strikers to “return to work for two weeks” while negotiations on a new farming minimum wage were taking place. It remains to be seen whether this old con trick will work.

It is difficult to know, from where we are, what lessons will have been learnt by the South African working class, and especially by the miners themselves, from this strike wave. Without any doubt, the conditions in which it took place were exceptional – with the union machineries’ discredit throwing up for the strikers the imperative need to rely only on their own resources to organise themselves and run their strikes. We can only hope that a new generation of working class activists will have learnt not only that they can do it, but also how to do it, in future struggles.

And this would be all the more important given the nature of South Africa’s society, the glaring inequalities which prevail there, with an economy which, in many respects, is comparable to those of many rich countries, but social conditions which, for the majority of the population, are those of a Third World country.

The extent and length of the strike wave and the determination of the miners was an illustration of these contradictions. But beyond the miners there is a large, powerful working class in South Africa – and a working class which has, in addition, the capacity to rally behind its banner the millions of semi-employed or unemployed workers and youth who constitute its poor population.

This capacity would make it all the more vital for a party representing the social and political interests of this working class to emerge – a revolutionary communist party willing to take the lead of the struggles of its class and capable of turning each one of these struggles into a new step towards the overthrow of the capitalist system.

But there are reasons to be optimistic in this respect. Because it is precisely through experiences gained in events like the past three months of strikes, that such a party could eventually emerge.

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