No peace is to be found on Rustenburg’s platinum belt – tensions are rising at Amplats, where a worker was shot dead by police last week and 12,000 workers got sacked. Strikers said they’d die before allowing new labour on site, while police demanded that workers get permits for gatherings. But leaders of the wildcat strike say conditions for permission to assemble are impossible to comply with, and add that labour will gather in defiance of any ban. The situation looks increasingly dangerous. By MANDY DE WAAL.
“They shot that worker in cold blood. It is nothing more than cold-blooded murder, but the state doesn’t have the political courage to own up to this,” Mametlwe Sebei, a leader in SA’s Democratic Socialist Movement, told Daily Maverick. Sebei is talking about 48-year-old mine worker Mtshunquleni Qakamba, who died after police opened fire on strikers. The workers gathered on a hill adjacent to Anglo American Platinum’s Merensky reef near Rustenburg on Thursday 04 October 2012, to get an update on the wildcat strike.
The next day, 12,000 miners were dismissed by Amplats, as management and unions were set to start talks in a move that draw fighting talk from strike leaders. “Despite the company’s repeated calls for employees to return to work, we have continued to experience attendance levels of less than 20%,” read a statement from Amplats, which has lost some R700 million in revenue since the strike began.
Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) has been hit by an illegal strike since 12 September, when workers downed tools and demanded an increase to R16,070 per month. Workers have told media that R12,500 (the Lonmin strikers’ original demand) should be the standard basic pay for miners in South Africa.
But strike leaders say that Amplats hasn’t got a hope in hell of bringing replacement labour into the mines. “Nobody will come and operate these mines. If there any people we feel must go, it is them, not us,” said Evans Ramokga, who threatened that new labour would only be hired “over our dead bodies.”
To add to rising tensions, police have declared any meetings held without consent in the area illegal. “People are living in a state of emergency in Rustenburg, and the police are saying that there is a regulation that we must apply for permits to hold any gathering,” said Sebei, adding that workers needed to get a new permit for each meeting, and that law enforcement officers have told them each permit must stipulate a separate and different context for each meeting.
“The police are making it impossible for us to meet, try and update workers on the strike situation, or to get a mandate from the miners to negotiate. Each time we want to gather, the police say we need a separate permit and there are all these conditions. This during a strike where the situation can change dramatically from minute to minute, and we need to communicate effectively with the workers,” Sebei – who is helping to co-ordinate independent strike committees in Rustenburg and beyond – complained.
Sebei said that the workers had decided to continue in defiance of what he called police impositions on the miners’ right to gather. “That man (Mtshunquleni Qakamba) was killed because the police and the military are supporting the mining bosses by the command of the government, and are engaging in a savage onslaught on workers and civilians in the township every night. They are throwing tear gas into the shacks virtually every night.”
Last week, Sebei says, workers had applied for permits but were getting no response from the police. “First there was a sit-in at the mines underground. We did this for two days, but the management switched off the water and air, and we were forced to come up. We then had to meet with the workers to get feedback from them, which is our democratic right. Workers must get reports from us on a daily basis,” the strike organiser said.
The workers went to a place called ‘the mountain’ near Amplats to gather and discuss strike issues. “The police came and surrounded us on Thursday, like they had done the day before. They said they would give us ten minutes to disperse and then they started to count. But they counted like this: ‘Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven…’ Even before they got to nought the teargas and bullets came.”
After the fire the workers took the body, and wouldn’t surrender it to police. “The workers took the body and called us, and we arranged for the media to independently identify the killing. We took photos of the body and we took this to the media. The media called the police but even then the police refused to confirm the death. The media had to come to Rustenburg and to see the body for themselves. The police then came to collect the body the next day in the full view of the media. If it was not for the workers, Mtshunquleni Qakamba would have died in oblivion. No one would have known about his death.”
Police were unable to comment on the death of Qakamba, because the matter had already been referred to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate for investigation. “The cause of the death and all its circumstances are currently under investigation by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) as the incident appeared to have arisen from police action,” Colonel Emelda Setlhako told News24.
“The police instructed the mineworkers to disperse, but the instruction was ignored. The crowd began stoning the police who then had to use stun grenades, rubber bullets and teargas to disperse them,” she said.
Sebei said that there had been five to six other killings that had not been reported. “The police are killing people, but it is not being reported because the police refuse to confirm when they take bodies. That is why the workers took that body, so it can become a matter of public attention.
“When we went back to the site yesterday, we saw that there were cartridges on the ground. This showed us that the police used live bullets. This man, he was hit on the body, he was bleeding from the chest. We found… cartridges showing that live ammunition had been used,” Sebei said.
The strike organiser said that in the middle of September an armoured police vehicle drove over a man at the Sondela informal settlement near Amplats. (http://dailymaverick.co.za/article/2012-09-25-meet-evans-ramokga-a-thorn-in-amplats-side )“That ‘hippo’ incident – the police never told us what happened to the man, and they refuse to declare his death to the media,” said Sebei, who added that strike leaders were conducting a campaign of non-violence, but said the police and mine bosses were pushing them into a corner.
“We are trying to observe discipline, but the government and the state needs to remember that a man on the edge of the cliff knows no reason. The management and the police are pushing these people into a corner, and then are telling them to comb their hair, while a noose is being tied around the workers’ necks.”
Earlier, National Union of Mineworkers’ spokesman, Lesiba Seshoka, warned that the strike would turn dangerous. “It is likely to happen now; the strike will get more violent,” he said. “You can see the anger. This is going to take a new dimension.” Seshoka said workers’ demands were “genuine” even though the strike was illegal. “It’s like you can’t extinguish a fire with petrol. You have to act in a manner that promotes dialogue.”
There are plans for a meeting between management and the unions on Monday 08 October, after which Sebei said workers would be updated at the Blesbok stadium in Rustenburg. “The company has fired 12,000, which is unfortunate. But if Anglo wants to take this to its logical conclusion, it will need to fire the rest, and here we are talking about 70,000 workers because of all the subsidiary companies that have entered the strike. You can’t fire that many people without precipitating a civil war, and that is an eventuality we definitely don’t wish for, so we are hoping the talks tomorrow will be more constructive,” said Sebei.
As strikes ripple beyond Rustenburg’s platinum belt to South Africa’s greater mining sector and allied industries, what comes next will have a significant impact on the economy.
Mining capital has supported ANC elitism and created massive wealth for the few, and well-connected, while operations sustained living conditions that compare well with those under Apartheid, or earlier when there was no pretence at protecting workers rights.
Workers say they want the mines to be ‘democratically nationalised’, meaning that they want mining to be put under the control of the working class to alleviate poverty and service delivery failures, while giving labourers a fair wage and reasonable lives.
In the headlong clash of ideologies, what looks almost certain is that mining will never be the same again. DM
Photo: Striking platinum miners march near the Anglo-American Platinum (AMPLATS) mine near Rustenburg in South Africa’s North West Province, October 5, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall