James Anderson writes from Johannesburg: Thirty four people killed and about 80 injured in clashes between striking platinum miners and police in Marikana, North West Province, South Africa. Trade unions accuse the police of instigating a massacre. President Jacob Zuma has announced an inquiry into the tragic events.
What is behind them? Is the social fabric of post-apartheid South Africa fraying or falling apart?
World platinum prices have fallen so wages are being squeezed. Lonmin, the London-based conglomerate, produces about 12 per cent of the world output. Workers are demanding a doubling of their wages or an increase of about $1000 a month. Lonmin has closed the mine in the wake of the violence.
The police state that about 3,000 striking miners gathered on a hillside armed with spears, machetes and guns. About 3,000 police faced them with weapons, armoured vehicles and helicopters. The police maintain that the demonstrators fired the first shots. The latter deny this.
South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. The African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, is accused by activists of cosying up to the big unions and conglomerates. Grass roots members and supporters are being ignored. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) dominates mining in the country. The breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has been set up to challenge the NUM. The Association is accused by the NUM of using threats to gain members and making promises it cannot fulfil. A similar pattern can be observed in the transport industry. A breakaway union, made up of former members of the dominant union, is now challenging the main union. Again it is being accused of bully boy tactics to gain members.
One reading of this situation is that the main trade unions have become complacent and too closely associated with the ANC government. President Zuma needs the support of unions to win re-election. So union leaders have been granted favours to keep them on side.
Another reading is that the breakaway unions have been set up as Trojan horses to undermine union power in the country. Neo-liberal economics favours a deregulated labour market which allows employers to squeeze wages and dismiss workers who defend their rights.
Many of the striking miners are migrant workers. Not only do they have to feed themselves, they are also responsible for their families back home. When platinum prices drop workers earn less or are made redundant.
Officially about a quarter of South African youth are unemployed. Unofficially the real situation may be that half of them are jobless. They are angry that the country has achieved a political revolution with black majority rule. However there has been no economic revolution. The old conglomerates still dominate the country’s economy. South Africa is the leading producer of platinum, the second largest producer of gold and the third largest exporter of coal in the world. So why has this wealth not been spread around?
Under apartheid, trade unions were heavily influenced by Marxism. Since 1994, union leaders have come to terms with capitalism and are enjoying its fruits. It is not surprising that a new generation of union leaders are leading the revolt against the union barons.
The world economic situation is challenging. Expect more strife between the haves and have nots in South Africa. The country depends heavily on mining. If world prices collapse the rich will have to surrender some of their wealth if social conflict is not to become endemic.