South Africa

What’s mined is yours: the fall of capitalism in SA’s platinum belt

By Mandy De Waal 9 October 2012

A lone, frightened voice was channelled from an Amplats mine near Rustenburg to South Africans tuned into SAfm on their radios. "There are people outside fighting with the police. I'm shaken, I don't know how we will get out,” the voice stammered. It could just as well have been the voice of the mining capital in South Africa, wondering if it would survive in the face of contagious strikes and surging, militant socialism sweeping across the country. By MANDY DE WAAL.

“I’m at the Bathopele shaft. Our shaft is the only one working,” the voice of an unnamed woman said during a call to SAfm after striking miners briefly blockaded Anglo American Platinum’s (Amplats) only operational shaft on the morning of Monday 08 October 2012. 

“There are people outside fighting with the police. I’m shaken, I don’t know how we will get out,” the woman continued, adding that some 800 people had been trapped underground.

The woman, who added that she was an Amplats worker, said miners were targeting township residents who hadn’t downed tools. “We stay in the same area, so if you are not at home, they go and kill your family, and still Amplats doesn’t care,” she said.

Amplats was asked for verification of the incident, but didn’t get back to Daily Maverick before deadline. A strike organiser, Gaddhafi Mdoda, said workers wanted to ask managers at Bathopele to release their colleagues so that the miners would be united in their call for wage increases. “They did have some fights with the cops, the cops tried to disperse them,” Mdoda told AFP.

But the police denied that there had been law enforcement action at Amplats. “There were no incidences today and the police didn’t have to use any means of force to disperse anyone,” said national SAPS spokesperson Dennis Adriao, who added that he’d spoken to the general at the operation centre on the ground in the besieged North West platinum belt. “The police have high visibility in the area, but if there was any action at all, it would have been noted.”

Adriao said the police were “enforcing the law” by not allowing people to walk around with illegal weapons, and added that any groups of people constituting “illegal” gatherings were being made to disperse. “If there are any illegal gatherings of fifteen or more people, the police will warn the crowd to disperse and then they will they will have to disperse,” Adriao said.

Last Thursday, 48-year-old Mtshunquleni Qakamba was shot dead after police fired on a group of miners gathered on a hill adjacent to Anglo American Platinum’s Merensky reef near Rustenburg. Strike leaders say they found spent cartridges at the scene of the shooting the next day, and allege the mine worker was killed with live rounds. The incident is being investigated by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

There was also trouble at an Amplats mine situated south of Thabazimbi in Limpopo. A National Union of Mineworkers official and SABC journalist were forcefully removed from the company’s Northam plant. NUM spokesperson, Lesiba Seshoka, said a local union leader went to address workers at the Swartklip Union mine who had been threatened with mass dismissal by Amplats.

The journalist and union official were surrounded by nine security officials who verbally threatened the pair and subjected them to insults and racial slurs. “It has become very clear that the company promotes racism through procuring security and other services from racists and their companies, and that it has no intention to empower African people,” Seshoka said. 

Amplats was asked for comment on the incident, and more specifically to explain why the security guards had evicted the pair with force and what action would be taken against the guards. Again Amplats had not responded by the time that Daily Maverick was on deadline.

A total of 12,000 workers were fired from Amplats operations near Rustenburg last week, but employees of the globe’s biggest producer of platinum say they’re ignoring these dismissals. “The dismissal does not threaten us. If the mine is going to dismiss us, no one is going to work at the mine,” Mdoda told Mail & Guardian.

Earlier, Mdoda addressed workers at the Blesbok stadium outside Rustenburg, encouraging them to intensify protests. “This is the beginning of the war,” Mdoda said to rousing applause.

“This is the division that Anglo is making between us, the black people, us, the working class. So bad things are going to happen, and I am not sure if Anglo American and the leaders of the land in South Africa are going to take the responsibility of that blood that is going to be shed,” he said.

Reuters estimates that some 75,000 workers have downed tools in South Africa’s mining sector since August, and predicts that the spreading strikes will affect growth and government efforts to reduce budget deficits.

The international wire service said labour actions had “tarnished South Africa’s reputation among foreign investors” and “raised questions about President Jacob Zuma’s leadership”.

“International investors are really quite concerned around South Africa,” Mohammed Nalla, an analyst at Nedbank, told Reuters. “Structurally and fundamentally, the outlook on the rand is deteriorating.” The rand has now dropped to its lowest level since the beginning of 2009.

Economist Chris Hart of Investment Solutions told EWN that the country could be headed for a recession if the mass strike action continued. “Inflation is going to be rising, as well as unemployment. We are looking at a recession, probably in the next year or two,” Hart said.

The words were hardly out his mouth when late on Monday 08 October, news came of a possible public sector strike. The SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) said it had filed notice of a national strike set to begin at the week’s end, and that it was consulting with its 190,000 members to determine if the strike would commence. The strike would be in protest against the SA Local Government Association, which was in dispute with Samwu regarding wage issues.

In an interview with Union Solidarity International, Samwu spokesperson Tehir Sema spoke about worker disenchantment with the capitalist system in SA. “For the first time in South Africa, we are seeing workers standing up, speaking out about the capitalist onslaught and also joining leftist formations like the South African Communist Party, and aligning themselves with progressive movement to ensure the country’s economic trajectory is realigned, especially towards the labour-intensive sectors that country needs to invest in,” Sema said. 

“The country will have to do something very quickly, and drastically change the way in which we do our day-to-day business. There is clearly going to be a radical shift in our economic policies,” he added.

Workers in the mining sector, which is being crippled by labour action, have articulated through their leaders that they want a more militant, leftist approach that would see operations owned and run by the workers themselves. 

Across the impasse, the government is pointing fingers at mine bosses (many of whom are ANC heavyweights or benefactors) and waving about the mining charter, which to date has been little more than an ineffectual “gentleman’s agreement”. 

And local capitalists are running scared, either trying to patch things up with workers (as happened at Lonmin) or taking a heavy-handed, tough approach as witnessed at Amplats.

This coming Saturday (13 October), thousands of workers are expected to march through Pretoria towards Parliament. One of their demands will be that mines are “democratised”.

Capitalism the world over is in crisis, and South Africa’s crony-driven version of the “free” market system be any exception? A question we might well see answered in the coming months, by voices that will insist on being heard. DM

Read more:

  • Amplats counters trend in wildcat strikes at Mail & Guardian
  • Mbeki warns of ‘Arab spring’ at IOL
  • Breakdown of labour strife gripping SA at BDLive
  • Watch Samwu’s Tahir Sema being interviewed on YouTube

Photo: Residents walk past a sign warning motorists of industrial action at a gold mine near Carltonville, west of Johannesburg October 2, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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