Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lonmin Miners' Victory Sets "Dangerous Precedent" For South African Elite

Happy rank-and-file miners...
On Tuesday, workers at the Marikana platinum mine decided to accept a pay rise of between eleven and twenty-two per cent. Though this victory falls a long way short of the trebling in wages they had initially demanded, and came at the loss of the thirty-four comrades murdered by police, it represents a huge gain against a background of generally deteriorating compensation packages around the world. It was achieved by a group of miners who had organised and armed themselves, and it is for this precise reason that the head of the establishment Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has warned his corporate and government colleagues of the miners' "dangerous precedent".

Speaking to an audience of delegates at the equivalent of the UK Trades Union Congress conference, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi asked:
"If those workers forced the hand of the company in that fashion through an unprotected strike, what stops Driefontein [a gold mine in the West Witwatersrand Basin] in doing the same? [...] We are not saying that workers do not deserve their money, but if we are not careful this may mean an end of the central bargaining system in the country. [...] Workers will just embark on wildcat strikes and steam ahead and force us to follow them."
It is hard to imagine a more stark expression of the separation of material interests that exists between union bureaucrats and rank-and-file workers, in South Africa and around the world. The miners got a much needed boast to their meagre pay packets, and instead of being happy about it, Zwelinzima is worried that their largely successful example will be copied by workers throughout mining, and other industries, ultimately circumventing the unions' role as industrial cops.

...worried trade union bureaucrat
The particular relationship of the South African trade unions to the government and ruling class is an unusual one, owing to the specifics of the post-Apartheid settlement which the African National Congress (ANC) made with international capital. COSATU sits alongside the ANC and the South African Communist Party in government, making only occasional and mild criticisms of the ANC's pro-big business orientation.

But leading members of this 'Tripartite Alliance' - or those connected to them - certainly have the potential to reap big rewards from the exploitation of South African workers. For example, ANC Justice Minister and Jeff Radebe - who has been heavily involved in the Marikana struggle - is related to huge mining riches through his wife and brother in law. The founder of the National Union of Miners, Cyril Ramaphosa, is director of Lonmin, and also therefore has a stake in miners' immiseration. And last week it was revealed that Zondwa Mandela - the grandson of ANC figurehead Nelson Mandela - is at the head of an asset-stripping gold mining company which has not paid its five thousand employees for more than two years.

Elements of the South African elite may have pressured Lonmin to put forward a relatively high offer, because of the effect that the Marikana massacre has had in igniting militancy throughout the lucrative mining sector. But as Vavi warned his co-conspirators, this is a risky strategy. Much now depends on whether the wave of miners' struggles has just peaked, or is only beginning to build.
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