The winners and losers of the platinum strike in South Africa

Will the trade union that organized the strike will unify and rally workers outside of the ruling alliance.

Police shoot at running Marikana miners.

On January 23 this year the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a firebrand breakaway of the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), took an estimated 50,000 mineworkers to the plateaus of Rustenburg to demand a R12,500 (about US$1,250) basic salary. For months – without pay, their families going hungry and their spirits waning – the workers were assiduous. While the mining companies were spurting money, they too were not budging.

Five months later, the workers are estimated to have lost between R42,501 and R52,000 in pay. The business journalist Alec Hogg argues that it will take workers over a decade to recover this amount. The mining firms, on the other hand, are estimated to have lost between R11 billion and north of R24 billion, depending on who you ask.

On Monday 23 June, the workers and firms announced that they had reached agreement and clinched a 3 year deal. The two lowest bands of categories will receive a R1 000 increase for the first three years. Other categories will receive between 7.5% and 8%; benefits and allowances will be fixed or rise with inflation.

A question many are asking is who won the five-month and 26-day battle?

Critics of Amcu (and labour in general) have weighed, calling the deal a “hallow victory” for Amcu (hint: a loss). Mr Hogg, for example, points out that: on January 29, six days into the strike, “the mining companies offered increases of between 7.5% and 9% with the higher figure tagged for the lowest paid workers. This offer, incidentally, was increased on April 17 to between 7.5% and 10%. If [Amcu] had accepted the offer received six days into the strike, the lowest paid worker’s monthly earnings would have increased by that 9%, or R644, to R7 798.”

According to Mr Hogg, the difference between the offer made by mining firms in January and the offer accepted five months later is a meagre R356.

In my view, any analysis of the gains and losses made by workers on purely financial terms will be insufficient, if not utterly flawed.

While one could properly quantify the losses and the meagre, almost negligible, economic benefits of Amcu’s exercise, the extra-financial gains are weightier and more significant. The answer to the question ‘who won’ requires some digression.

In 1912 the South African Native National Congress – now African National Congress – was founded to “address the just grievances of the black people” with the Union Government. Shortly, in 1913, the Native Land Act was promulgated, further aggravating situation. Natives were rendered landless pariahs in their country of birth. More policies were written and laws passed which further alienated natives. In 1948 the voting minority gave green light to a more brutal regime, entrenching race-based discrimination, repression and economic exclusion.

In 1955 the Congress of the People agreed to draft a Freedom Charter. That too did not help. Instead of making concessions, the regime tightened its noose. It offered black South Africans a deal: to leave South Africa and gain independence in homelands. Liberation fighters rejected this deal and opted, instead, to intensify the struggle. They were either killed or thrown into jail, where many spent between 10 and 27 years.

In 1990, after scores of the movement’s members had been thrown in jail, tortured or slaughtered by the regime, the movement agreed to a deal. To any observer, the deal was a loss for the movement. The demands for land, for nationalisation or common ownership of strategic sectors, which had been at the centre struggle, were stacked off. For a short while the newly-formed democratic government even went to bed with the apartheid regime in a “Government of National Unity”.

With the economy in the hands of apartheid beneficiaries (white and some black), the apartheid status quo of economic, social and cultural exclusion persists. Black South Africans remain wanting in rural areas, outside the economic epicentre. Basic services – like education, clean water and health infrastructure – remain concentrated in former “white areas”. Blacks must thus assimilate themselves into social, political and economic cultures. Except, this time, they do it for carrots and not to avoid sticks. Twenty years after democracy, many still ask who won the 82-year battle.

The answer is, in my view, more complex than demand versus gain. While (black) South Africans attained very of little their social, cultural and economic demands, their bargaining position has improved considerably. As equal citizens in a democratic republic – even if as poor as church mice – we wield significant political power and socio-cultural potential. The constitutional settlement negotiated between 1990 and 1996 is a springboard on which we can launch ourselves to a better deal –– that is if we try hard enough.

Comparably, mineworkers are in a terrible bargaining position. For centuries mines have been the driving force behind the South African economy, with cheap (migrant) labour as the engine. The system of race-based oppression was constructed, partly, to keep black mineworkers outside the economic epicentre.

Further, economic laws of supply and demand dictate that mineworkers (who are in oversupply) are disposable.

The bargaining position of mineworkers is further weakened by the alliance between labour and the government. Leaders of COSATU often capitulate under government pressure and give in to “market demands”. The government and the market are synonymous, which makes labour subservient. This is where the Amcu strike comes in.

Having persisted for 5 months, and made it out alive, workers have made their biggest show of strength since 1949. They have also reduced the platinum stockpiles which serve as a cushion for mining firms. This is a benefit of the strike which is not measurable through economic models.

The strike serves an even greater purpose for Amcu (and labour in general). It has solidified support and showcased Amcu’s tenacity under pressure. Because Amcu is apolitical (and thus does not have the support of the tripartite alliance or the government), the strike was driven purely by workers for workers’ interest. This should increase Amcu’s support base.

The strike is the start of a new era in South African labour politics. COSATU has been plagued by infighting. The interests of labour appear to be taking the backseat as the rank and file of the alliance scrambles for political power and government positions.

Amcu, on the other hand, is an outlier. By rejecting politics, it found a niche in workers who are less bothered by who is the president of the day. These workers are concerned with their own interests –– the politics of bread.

This makes Amcu a wildcard, which is why market-minded academics, pundits and other political players were against the strike. “The market” takes comfort in knowing that the ANC-led government has control over the labour movement. Very often, the government will intervene and labour backs off. This was impossible with Amcu because it does not have a stake in government. If Amcu had succeeded, it would have further eroded ANC support by uniting workers outside the alliance’s reach.

The fact is Amcu came out stronger, with the trust and support of workers. The union showed potential members and supporters that it was single-minded and capable of withstanding national and international pressure. The government, which is usually in the deep pockets of tax-forking mine bosses, has also awoken to the potential power of a united worker front.

Amcu is the clear winner! While it may be true that workers made an economic loss that may take years to recoup, they have also made significant political gains. These gains are a springboard for future shows of strength and they improve the bargaining position of organised labour in the country.

Whether the Amcu will grab the opportunity to consolidate its gains by unifying and rallying worker outside of the alliance is the first question we should ask. The second is whether it will resist the urge of politics, and thus remain independent and incorruptible, at least politically.

Further Reading

This is Freedom

The AIDS activist Zackie Achmat reflects on South Africa’s 5th democratic elections in this interview with Cape Town independent media outlet, GroundUp.

‘The Blood Diamond Myth’

It would be interesting to hear people’s opinions about this argument by writer Adam Hochchild (the author of King Leopold’s Ghost: ) published earlier this year in  Mother Jones magazine:

In the 1960s, many Americans …