While former mining magnate Cyril Ramaphosa prepares to take up his post as deputy president, striking platinum miners have taken to the road, touring the country in the hope of winning over public opinion towards their cause – and generating funds to sustain workers who have now been without pay for over four months. It’s an acknowledgement that their struggle is as much an ideological battle as it is a practical one. The campaign will also take in rural areas to give support and advice to other workers, like the farm labourers of the Western Cape, whose protests for a living wage shook the province over a year ago. Are we seeing the seeds of a true workers’ revolution being sown? By REBECCA DAVIS.
It’s Sunday evening in Observatory, a Cape Town suburb traditionally populated by students, academics, lefties and artist-types, and the crowd packed into a small bar seems to reflect those demographics. They are here to listen to three mineworkers’ representatives explain the fight for a monthly wage of R12,500 that has seen South Africa’s platinum workers strike for just over four months. Posters and T-shirts remind the audience to “remember the slain of Marikana”.
In this room, there is clearly a great deal of goodwill and empathy towards the striking miners. But the presence of the touring mineworkers suggests in itself that there is a critical PR battle to be won beyond these friendly walls. Democratic Left Front organiser Mercia Andrews hinted as much to the Daily Maverick, saying that part of the reason for their national trip was to “shift public opinion”. The media, Andrews suggested, was barely bothering to speak to mineworkers in their coverage of the strike, and spreading misinformation about aspects such as the alleged intimidation of workers emanating from union AMCU.
Audience members were repeatedly reminded that all funds generated from the evening would go towards the miners’ solidarity fund. They are funds that are by all accounts desperately needed, for communities deprived of vital breadwinners’ salaries during the strike. This weekend, NGO Gift of the Givers reported that they were sending doctors into affected areas to deal with an outbreak of malnutrition cases. The NGO is more often found dispensing aid to places ravaged by natural disasters, so it’s a sign of the severity of the situation.
This is the longest strike in the history of the democratic South Africa, characterised by a steadfast determination on the part of workers that their demands are just and overdue. Reports of a breakthrough between AMCU and mining companies, brokered by the Labour Court, were dismissed as false this weekend. The mineworkers on stage on Sunday evening in Cape Town were adamant that they wouldn’t be returning to work any time soon.
“We are not turning back without getting this money,” said Jacob Khoza, an Amplats shop steward who works in Rustenburg. “We are working in a 1,9 metre space drilling. They are getting huge bonuses. We are getting nothing. This is our Africa, this is our platinum.”
Khoza and his two colleagues – fellow Amplats shop steward Ramatsela Etsang and Lonmin worker leader Molefe Phele – made reference several times to the mid-May announcement that Anglo American Platinum executives would take home R25, 3 million in a bonus-share scheme. Amplats CEO Chris Griffith went into damage-control mode afterwards, explaining that the “seemingly insensitive timing of bonus scheme announcements” was the unavoidable result of JSE reporting regulations. But the news has clearly steeled the resolve of the striking workers, serving to highlight the vast chasm separating executive pay at the company from that of the workers underground – and also reinforcing the perception that the mining houses’ claim that workers’ salary demands are unaffordable can only be a lie.
“That money is there,” said Khoza. “We see our CEO get a bonus as we are on strike. We ask how he can earn this bonus when we are on strike.”
All three acknowledged that they did not have a solid grasp of the economics guiding negotiations. What they know is that the R5,000 or R6,000 currently being paid to workers doesn’t stretch far.
“I was there at Lonmin in 2012 trying to negotiate [before the Marikana massacre],” said Molefe Phele. “They are talking business language. I don’t know percentages, I just know money.” With the demands of supporting multiple family members, he said, wages are spent just days after salaries are paid.
“After three days you’re left with 0.00 in your account,” Phele said. “Then you are forced to go to a loan shark. Once you’re in, you’re in forever.” Since the strike began, banks near Marikana have reported workers streaming in with loan applications to try to fill the gap left by salaries. “Most of them could not be approved because they have already been blacklisted,” a consultant told the Sunday Independent recently.
“They say the money we get is enough because we are not educated,” Ramasela Etsang said on Sunday. “We agree we are not educated, but we want to send our children, brothers and sisters to school.” Father-of-three Phele reiterated that one of the reasons why their salary demands were necessary was to break their children out of the cycle that has kept generations working underground.
“Our fathers worked at the mines. They earned peanuts,” he said. “We don’t know [economics] because we are not educated. But we know 12,500. Without that money we’re not going back to work.”
The mineworkers expressed unhappiness over the mining companies’ attempts to break the strike, particularly through the use of direct SMSes to workers urging them to return to work. They voiced concern, too, about the increasing presence of police on the picket-line. The shadow cast by the Marikana massacre still looms large.
“Police are coming there, and they will start provoking,” said Phele. “They are brutal. But we have decided, if they come to us we just sit down and fold our arms.”
There was a sense of betrayal, too, towards a government of former revolutionaries seemingly failing to protect the rights of workers. Referring to the 1987 mining strike led by erstwhile National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, Etsang said: “We saw them taking sticks and raising them up, but now we are not allowed to raise sticks. We do not know what’s going on in government.”
Ramaphosa’s 1987 strike cost over 40,000 workers their jobs. This time round, the mineworkers say the same cannot happen. “If you come with a strategy to retrench, there will be no operations,” Khoza said simply.
“If they want to shut the mine, they can pack their things and go back to America,” Etsang said. It’s a refrain we’ve heard continuously from striking workers. A Business Day report a fortnight ago suggested one possible reason behind this fatalistic approach: that workers believe that Chinese or Russian business will take over the mines if it comes to that. On Sunday, there was no mention of this perception. The battle was framed in terms of simple fairness: “exploitation is exploitation,” Andrews reminded the audience.
And this message of worker exploitation is one that they intend to take throughout South Africa’s rural heartland. Andrews and fellow Democratic Left Front organiser Thembi Luckett explained to the Daily Maverick that the mineworkers will be travelling to speak to workers in the Western Cape’s fruit-growing areas, the Eastern Cape, Free State and KwaZulu Natal. They are seeking solidarity for their cause, but also want to open up communication channels and dispense advice between sectors.
Organisers suggest that the miners’ strike constitutes a critical moment for middle-class South Africans, too, to rally around workers’ rights.
“What happened at Marikana provided young people of our generation with insights into how power functions, and what it means to be in post-Apartheid South Africa,” UCT Left Students Forum coordinator Ruach Slayen told the Daily Maverick. “This is a potentially politicising space.”
However the platinum strike ends, there’s a sense that a wider workers’ struggle is only just picking up pace. DM
Platinum Strikes: Let’s see yo’ cards, boys, in the Daily Maverick
Photo by Thapelo Lekgowa.