South Africa

South Africa

2012 SA mining strikes for dummies

Whether you’ve been at sea for the last two months or are simply overwhelmed by the constant reports of mining industry strikes, there’s no reason to worry. GREG NICOLSON has prepared a cheat sheet on the most significant period of labour unrest in decades so you can fluff your way through conversations.

Strikes have roiled the mining industry for the past two months, but we need to go back to January to find their origin. That was when Impala Platinum gave one category of worker an 18% pay rise to meet industry standards. Excluded workers went on strike and shut the mine down for six weeks. Violence abounded and the country’s largest union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), accused its smaller rival, the Association of Minerals and Construction Union (Amcu), of fuelling the fire to gain members.

Critics said it was Impala’s pay rise, awarded outside of the usual framework, that convinced workers they could break the standard bargaining timeframes and demand immediate increases.

The wave of protests was then triggered by what happened at Marikana in mid-August. Within a week, nearly 45 people were killed, bringing world-wide media attention to the strikes. The police killed 34 killed of those workers and the stakes were instantly raised. Employees across the industry were galvanised and Julius Malema used the unrest to create a political platform for himself and convince workers to demand more.

But we’ve learned the unrest had been brewing for some time. Many workers live in squalid conditions, are heavily in debt and see executives making a killing. They hear union leaders like Zwelinzima Vavi say, “All the policies that have been adopted in the last 18 years have failed to deliver on the fundamentals: unemployment reduction, poverty elimination and the reduction of social and economic inequality.” Yet they don’t think the trade unions have done enough to change them.

Who’s striking?

Industrial action started in the Rustenburg platinum belt, but it has since reached most other sectors. Some reports suggest as many as 100,000 workers are striking across the industry, and the strikes have affected the who’s who of mining – Lonmin, Aquarius, Impala, Anglo American Platinum, Royal Bafokeng Platinum, Xstrata, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Gold One, Harmony, Kumba Iron Ore and Samancor. 

In August, almost all Lonmin’s 28,000 employees went on strike before workers accepted pay rises from the platinum producer of between 11% and 22% and a R2,000 payment after 42 days. Anglo American Platinum, the world’s largest producer, had suspended operations due to safety risks. It has fired 12,000 striking miners who refused to return to work, and with attendance so low most Rustenburg operations are unable to function. It had lost R1.1-billion in revenue by 12 October. Atlatsa Resources fired almost 3,000 employees at its Bokoni platinum mine and is only operating essential services. Impala Platinum has been more relaxed since the January strikes but the company issued a 4.8% pay rise in September to avert violent industrial action.

The labour unrest has moved from the platinum mines to the gold industry. With 24,000 workers away, none of Anglo Gold Ashanti’s six mines are operating. The strikes have been going for almost a month, costing the company 30,000 ounces of gold weekly. Gold Fields has 23,540 of its 35,700 workers on strike, has lost R1.2-billion in revenue. It has told workers to return or lose their jobs. After firing almost 1,500 workers, Gold One has suspended operations at its Ezulwini mine for a month to ensure worker and asset safety. Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu mine has been closed for two weeks while 5,400 workers strike, costing the company between 20-25 kilograms of gold a day.

Police cleared 300 strikers from Kumba Iron Ore’s Sishen mine. It has lost R1.2-billion in revenue and hopes to restart production now those who occupied have been fired, cleared or arrested and charged with extortion, intimidation, theft and malicious damage to property.

What’s with the violence?

The majority of the strikes have been unprotected and staged against the wishes of the NUM. Workers’ committees have fiercely rejected the dominant union and have said its leaders are cosying up to management to enrich themselves. As tensions have flared, striking workers have intimidated, attacked and killed NUM representatives and those who try to attend work. There are also suggestions that NUM officials fired on agitated workers prior to the explosion of violence in Marikana.

The police have failed to control the violence and at times caused it. After two officers were killed at Lonmin on 13 August, evidence suggests the police deliberately killed workers during the Marikana massacre. Workers still resent the police for the deaths and torture of arrested miners. Arrests and raids into workers’ settlements have caused more deaths and further stoked the violence.

The strikes have also seen workers shift from the NUM to Amcu. Cosatu and its affiliates have blamed the latter for the deaths of its members. “These acts are part of an onslaught on the NUM and Cosatu and the working class as a whole. They are intended to intimidate workers into submission, but they will not succeed,” read a Cosatu statement.

What does the world think?

The international media initially focused on the Marikana shootings. Reporters and viewers watched aghast as footage of police opening fire on the miners was played across the world. In the following days they reported on the ludicrous arrest of the miners, their torture, reports that many of the killings might have premeditated by police and the poor living conditions of the miners.

Focus has since shifted to the economy. Influential publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Financial Times are suggesting South Africa offers “emerging market risks for developed world returns” and pay rises may worsen the situation. There are widespread fears that despite mining’s prominence in SA, neither government nor unions have been able to control the situation.

What’s at stake?

The economy has already taken a big blow. President Zuma has acknowledged the likelihood of lower investment. “A dip in investor confidence will result in lower investment and job creation,” he said. “Lower foreign investment can raise the cost of government borrowing since foreigners hold about 37% of all rand-denominated debt.” Both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s rating agencies have downgraded the country’s credit rating, increasing the cost of borrowing. 

Moody’s is predicting growth of only 2.5%. Standard & Poor’s said the problems are long-standing and the “political, economic and fiscal ramifications of South Africa’s social tensions could deteriorate” beyond previous expectations. The doom and gloom is a big blow to the economy that’s already facing the euro-zone crisis and struggling to create jobs. The mining sector will restructure for the future and could shed up to 200,000 jobs in the next decade, according to economists.

But the strikes have brought unprecedented attention on issues previously ignored. Business Day has reported that both the Chamber of Mines and NUM want an inquiry into the issued behind the unrest – “the fairness of the wage structure on the mines; migrant labour and living conditions; and the industry productivity gains needed to afford a fairer deal for workers”.

What’s being done address the situation?

The ANC government has been criticised for its muted response since the strikes began. Critics say leaders are distracted by the party’s upcoming leadership contest, and other than launching an inquiry into the Marikana massacre little has been done to end the strikes or ease investor fears. Zuma began a crisis summit with business and civil society leaders last week and is urging cooperation on the issue.

The NUM’s future is at stake and it’s been scrambling to take an official role. It was able to engage the Chamber of Mines to try to end strikes in the gold sector. Employers refused to meet the workers’ demands, but did make significant concessions that wouldn’t break the official bargaining agreement. The offers were rejected by workers.

The response from mining companies has varied. It seems, however, they are taking are tougher stance on continuing unrest. If neither the government nor the NUM can negotiate the workers down from their demands, the employers are increasingly issuing workers with the ultimatum – stop the strike or get fired. 

What’s in the crystal ball?

Mining strikes will have a large impact on South Africa’s future. It’s exposed a gap between elected union and political leaders on one side and the workers they represent on the other. The ANC and its alliance partners are now being pushed to fill that canyon with more progressive economic policies.

With no one taking responsibility for the crisis, former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema stepped in to take a leadership role. His populist cries for nationalisation have hit a chord with striking miners, who detest their continued exploitation from capitalists. The ANC is now under pressure to expand the role of the state in the mining industry and take action on past socialist rhetoric.

Mining Minister Susan Shabangu has tried to rubbish the idea of nationalisation, but it remains more prevalent after the mining strikes than at Malema’s height. Fights broke out at the ANC’s policy conference when the issue was discussed and it eventually resolved to push “strategic” involvement. It won’t go away and will be a dominating issue of Mangaung. Depending on what happens in the leadership battle, nationalisation of some sort could be played as a card to unite opposition groups. 

The unrest will be a shot in the arm to groups representing workers and the poor. The ANC has failed to address the crisis or show its allegiance to the worker. At the same time many of them are profiting from mining giants. There’s also suspicion the party was responsible for the brutality from the police. The story has unravelled in the nation’s media and could sow the seeds for future movements claiming to be the real representatives of the left. DM

Photo: Striking Marikana Lonmin miners march to deliver their demands to Lonmin management. They hold up the image of Mambush, one of the strike leaders killed by police. Marikana, North West Province, South Africa. September 5, 2012. Photo by Greg Marinovich.


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