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South Africa - New declaration of class war

Hillel Ticktin analyses the importance of Marikana

6 Spetember 2012

The strike of the Marikana Lonmin platinum mine workers in South Africa is historic. For the first time since 1994, an important group of workers have come out openly in protest against the ‘official’ African National Congress/South African Communist Party trade union. This is not the first non-ANC strike: for example, workers struck at the Mercedes Benz factory in Uitenhage on a clearly leftwing and internationalist platform some years ago. However, the factory was not a critical part of Mercedes Benz internationally and the strike was defeated, without much impact. There have been other protests among the half a million workers in the South African mines, but they have been contained.

The killing of some 44 persons at the Lonmin platinum mine has shown the world the reality of social relations in South Africa under the ANC and SACP. At last there is an end to the illusion that Nelson Mandela, backed by the Communist Party, had overthrown a system of discrimination and mass poverty for the majority, and wealth and opportunity for the few.

Affiliates to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) are like those in the former Soviet Union - controlled by the bureaucrats in power. The Communist Party served and serves in the government which controlled and controls incomes and appoints the personnel in leading posts in the trade unions. The SACP has been compared to a tennis player who hits the ball over the net and then runs around the other side to return it.

The fact is that leading members of the ANC, such as the long-time former general secretary of the miners’ union before 1994, Cyril Ramophosa, are multi-billionaires, holding shares and jobs in major mining companies, including, in the case of Ramophosa, Lonmin.1 The salaries of the trade union bureaucrats are much like those of British unions: many times the wages of ordinary workers.

“But almost all of the strikers feel the established National Union of Mineworkers has failed them - caring more about mine bosses and political leaders than the worker in shafts. The dominant NUM has been able to keep peace in the sector by typically limiting the duration of strikes to periods that do not cause major harm to the bottom line of mining firms or the purse strings of miners who lose out on wages.”2

Wages are abysmal, insufficient for basic food requirements, let alone decent housing. In spite of talk of building millions of good homes for the majority in 1994, the state did little, leaving the issue to the private sector. The vast shanty towns continue to exist. The exact situation with wages is contested, in that Lonmin talks of wages per worker of around 10,600 rand per month, whereas workers say they are actually paid 4,200 rand (13.5 rand=£1).3 As one observer pointed out, “Wages and salaries as a proportion of national wealth have fallen, relative to profit, in recent decades. In the past 15 years, the richest 20% were the only people to experience growth in real wages, whereas the lowest decile endured the greatest decrease.”4 No doubt the Lonmin miners also lost out, receiving increases which did not compensate for inflation.

In short, the market rules and provides for its usual beneficiaries.

With the rapid decline of gold production in South Africa - from roughly 1,000 tonnes per annum at its peak to less than 200 tonnes today - platinum mining has taken its place as the major export from the country. One researcher has made the point that gold production is continuing to fall and that the major mines are nearing exhaustion,5 after causing considerable environmental pollution. Anglo-American, the South African economic colossus, has got out of gold mining completely. Hence the considerable importance of the boom in platinum. Since platinum is the major catalyst used in car exhausts the world over, and South Africa is the world’s major producer, the transfer from gold to platinum is fortuitous - and critical to the economic viability of South African capitalism. If production of platinum in South Africa diminishes, it will create a problem for global car manufacturers, and for attempts to deal with climate change.

Opposite effect

The strike itself might have been less immediately important had the police not shot the strikers on August 16, when 34 were killed and 78 wounded. The company, Lonmin, could have conducted negotiations and come to some kind of settlement, whether through a lock-out and starvation strategy or through concessions or a combination of the two. The further action of the government in incarcerating some 259 workers plus the intention of blaming the workers for the event to the point of indicting them, effectively on murder charges, had the opposite effect to that intended. It raised the issue throughout the population. The government, ANC and SACP have attempted to justify their actions by spreading negative and tendentious propaganda about the strike, strikers and the shooting itself. This, in turn, can only inflame the situation. Given the reports of torture of the miners themselves, the company, the police and the state now stand indicted before world opinion.

The Benchmarks Foundation report, Communities in the platinum minefields, says platinum mining operations at Marikana include “high levels of fatalities” and that the “residential conditions under which Lonmin employees live are appalling”.6

Jay Naidoo, former minister in the Mandela cabinet of 1994, has come out with a sharp critique of the situation: “Many of the leaders [the masses] revered have abandoned the townships for the Armani lifestyle previously exclusive to leafy white suburbs. They have long lost touch with the disgruntlement brewing in society. To compound the situation, a new, predatory elite of middlemen is unashamedly corrupting state officials and stealing tenders and licences. They cloak their crime of looting the state treasuries with militant, populist rhetoric that further inflames the already difficult reality.”7

Nelson Mandela presided over a settlement in which formal discrimination was abolished, but the market ruled. Top ANC/SACP officials became billionaires and an African junior bourgeoisie and middle class was created, while the situation of the majority did not improve. For the working class, mass unemployment of over 40% remained, while pay was insufficient for survival. Life expectation is low, to a considerable extent because of Aids, but the Aids epidemic could have been greatly reduced if not for the refusal to supply anti-retrovirals much earlier.

Given the outflow of capital from South Africa, both because of the flow of profits from the mines, like Marikana, and because the South African middle class and bourgeoisie is sending its savings abroad, investment has not gone into what is required. Shanty towns and migratory labour remain, and the government programme for housing is dependent on private enterprise. Talk about nationalisation of the mines - supposedly one of the aims of the ANC programme, the Freedom Charter - has been revived, but it will remain at the level of ‘talk’, as it has for the last 18 years.

The problem is capitalism itself, not the existence of corruption - of course, corruption does not help, but is not the fundamental cause. Without the state mobilisation of the money earned in the mines to provide the wages, housing, etc, little can change. The desperate struggle for existence in South Africa means that it is one of the world leaders in crime and most particularly in numbers of rapes committed. The government has done little to alter this situation.

Classical victory

To understand the class relationships in South Africa today it is necessary to understand the nature of capitalism in South Africa, before 1994, and its history before that time. The settlement in the period 1989-94 amounted to an agreement that there would be no attempt to move to socialism or even social democracy. Instead, a so-called black middle class would be built up, and formal discrimination abolished, but the existing professional middle class inside and outside the civil service would remain and keep their pensions intact, while business would not be touched. So-called “black economic empowerment” incorporated a small layer of blacks at the top of the ANC and Communist Party plus a few others. Even there, the central direction and ownership of most important big business remains where it always has been. The legally agreed migration of big capital to the London stock exchange shows where real power lies.

On the other hand, it was agreed that the South African government would maintain strict fiscal discipline. Indeed it became the favoured pupil of the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment, therefore, remained in the region of 40%-60% of the workforce, wages remained low and housing abysmal. The ANC/SACP did not even try to emulate the social democratic policy of the west European countries after the war and go for industrial expansion, a state-provided housing policy with full employment, etc. Nor for that matter did it try to copy the policy of Japan and South Korea, although urged to do so by some of their friendly economists. That would have involved a deliberate programme of high tariffs and support for the building of industry. By doing so the ANC/SACP would have crossed their friends in power in the USA and Europe, but at least they would have been on record as trying.

All this represented nothing less than the victory of the classical capitalist class in South Africa, which had always opposed apartheid, preferring to employ the cheapest labour where possible. Discrimination against so-called ‘non-whites’ was a policy which the capitalist class accepted as a means of maintaining capitalism itself, through using white workers as a privileged layer who could police industry and the economic system as a whole. However, such an economic form was expensive and inefficient and hence the capitalist class in South Africa, and in the west, was not displeased when they found they could remove it without worrying about the stability of the system itself - successful talks between the USA and the USSR were conducted on the subject. At the same time, the Afrikaner capitalist and middle classes abandoned support for their own privileged working class, while the internal opposition was effectively contained.

The SACP was probably the most slavishly Stalinist of all communist parties, having the dubious distinction of supporting the invasion of Czechoslovakia before the event. That not only meant that it was bewildered when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, but that it would continue its never-ending ‘stages’ line. In other words, in the first stage they would deal with apartheid, then with something else and something else - until some time in the far future they might think about capitalism. Without any understanding of the present stage of capitalism, they accepted reality and became managers of a transition to a classical capitalism, without the incubus of racial discrimination. Inevitably that meant little or no change for the majority. Indeed, the end of the cold war necessarily led to the present crisis in capitalism, and that has worsened conditions in South Africa.

In effect, the method of abolition of formal racial discrimination has not changed the real situation of the majority - but it has robbed them of the means of changing it. The official trade unions act in the interests of those managing the system itself. That is why the platinum workers’ strike is a new declaration of class war which can only reverberate throughout South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world, even if there is not yet any party to take up the issue.



2. ‘South Africa seeks mine peace, wage deal may be elusive’ Karachi Business Recorder:

3. A England, ‘South Africa: a mine of contention’ Financial Times August 24.

4. M Reddy, ‘Marikana the latest chapter in a long saga’ Johannesburg Mail and Guardian:

5. “… it must be accepted that the Witwatersrand goldfields are now 95% exhausted and production rate will fall permanently below 100 tonnes per year within the coming decade. Given the energy and environmental problems associated with ongoing groundwater control, water-resource contamination by acid mine drainage and the possibility of widespread mercury and other factors of pollution caused by illicit underground ore-processing by the zama-zamas, the glory days of South African gold mining appear to have arrived finally at an ignominious end” (CJH Hartnady, ‘South Africa’s gold production and reserves’ South African Journal of Science Vol 105, No9-10, September-October 2009).

6. ‘South Africa Lonmin mine massacre puts nationalisation back on agenda’ The Guardian August 29. The article’s strap reads: “Mining the world’s richest platinum deposits means misery, death, poverty, illness and environmental damage for many.”

7. J Naidoo, ‘A wake-up call for South Africa’s Armani elitists’ Financial Times August 27.


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