South Africa at the Crossroads II

September 8, 2012 9:38 pm

Sheer disbelief and outrage greeted the murderous shootings by the police that claimed the lives of 34 miners and injured 78 others, at the Lonmin platinum mines. Now outrage has swept across the country, as insult is added to injury when it was announced that 270 striking miners will stand accused of their murder, with the final miner freed only yesterday due to national outcry.

An old apartheid law of ‘common purpose’ has been resurrected that holds anyone present during an illegal act – such as a demonstration –  as just as culpable as those directly involved in an offense. In this case, it seems that it was the miners’ fault that the police were ‘forced to shoot’ unarmed miners down, despite the fact that the ANC government has already announced there is to be both a ‘judicial commission’ and an ‘interministerial commission’ who will be investigating the incident. It would seem the National Prosecuting Authority is determined to attempt to lay the blame for the killings squarely at the door of the striking miners themselves.

Despite the slaughter, and the hard-nosed threats of dismissal the following day if the miners did not return to work, the strike is still holding fast and spreading to the other mines in the area.

The now widespread strike has revolved around subsistence wages of R4,000 (£307), and demands for an increase to R12,500 (£958). While the more compliant National Union of Miners (NUM) opposed strike action and were prepared to accept the lower wage, the new, breakaway union – the Affiliation of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) – opposed a sell-out. The NUM was at the industrial forefront in the fight against apartheid in the 1980s, and one of the heavy battalions of the labour movement that helped to form the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). But since then, as a part of the governing ‘Tripartite’, COSATU is joined at the hip with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). A closer look will reveal that Cyril Ramaphosa, the former leader of the NUM and close supporter of Mandela himself, now sits on the board of Lonmin, and owns 15% of the company’s shares.

Ramaphosa himself has been instrumental in influencing his former union in opposing the strike. As a result, workers have been leaving the NUM and are rallying around the more militant AMCU whose leaders are prepared to defend their members’ pay and conditions. This has led directly to fierce, sometimes, violent clashes between the two.

Divide and Rule

In order to dislocate the efforts of the AMCU, the NUM have sided with the company in attempts to break the strike using violence. Predictably, strikers have had to defend themselves. Mistakenly, the AMCU members have, in some instances, escalated the fighting and a car was torched containing two company security guards who died. In a separate incident, two policemen were hacked to death. It was these incidents that gave the government the excuse to send in the police to ‘restore law and order’ and the rapidly falling platinum share prices.

Talks that were being held were cut short on August 15th, as Lonmin negotiators walked out and announced that ‘the matter was in the hands of the police’. Subsequently, police opened fire on the demonstrating strikers as it was claimed that officers were being charged by workers armed with spears, sticks and machetes.

However, TV pictures beamed around the world suggested otherwise. Strikers appear to be quite distant from the police line and officers maintained a sustained automatic rifle fire. A photographer present has suggested that some of the strikers were actually running away, and were shot in the back.

The North-West Regional SACP has called for the arrest of the striking union leaders, openly blaming them for the massacre, with hardly a word of criticism of the police.

Para-Military Force

Now the real horrors of the former racist apartheid era seem to be recalled with further evidence that some miners were not advancing while others were hundreds of metres away offering little or no threat. It appears the police are being held in reserve for any further activity from the miners. The families were not allowed access to see the injured miners, many of whom were being held in poor conditions by security men. There were concerns about mistreatment. The police remained intransigent towards any attempts to calm the situation.

As one ANC government minister said, off the record: ‘What do you expect to happen when you allow your police to become a para-military force?’

A force that was, in the final analysis, instrumental in the former white minority government’s racist apartheid system.

Enter the Demagogue

More worryingly, political maverick and expelled ANC Youth League leader, Julius Melema, has entered the fray on the side of the strikers. He is looking for a return to mainstream politics after being expelled and temporarily sidelined by the ANC government.

Malema is a questionable populist figure and was a beneficiary of the rising black middle class who have embraced capitalism. He is prepared to use the dispute, and the understandable anger of workers, as a platform for his own political career. He was expelled from the ANC for a series of misdemenours – among them, his tendency to use racism against whites, advocating his support for the expropriation of farmlands from white landowners, such as took place in neighbouring Zimbabwe. incredulously, he also supported Robert Mugabe’s record on ‘political and human rights’.

He also reinforces his radical image by calling for ‘nationalisation of all lands and mines without compensation’. Yet he is no socialist. He is highly suspected of being involved in lucrative fraud and corruption with businesses who seek out government tenders.

In playing to the gallery, and creating a new political power base, if he succeeds in hijacking the strike movement, he will only lead ordinary workers down a cul-de-sac designed to benefit his own career.

Workers’ Unity

Rather than be used as a bargaining chip for the likes of a Malema, workers should call for unity between the two miners’ unions, and call for support from other unions.

In the long term, COSATU should begin to break from the ANC/SACP Tripartite Coalition. It should form a political party of the genuine left with its own independent programme to implement socialist policies of nationalisation of all industry and the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control. Each representative should be subject to immediate recall and should not receive more than the average pay workers they represent rather than join the political elite in filling their pockets with the bribes of the capitalists.

Then, a programme can be launched to utilise the considerable wealth of the country that is concentrated in too few hands to combat the poverty that blights the majority of the South African population. Public investment in housing, education, health, transport and infra-structure can ensure a substantial rise in living standards and go a long way to eliminating the high crime rates and boosting higher skills. Progressive taxes would make sure the rich are paying their fair share towards economic recovery instead of the blatant exploitation that has been the hallmark, not only in South Africa, but throughout the continent. Such a programme, if put into place, would be a beacon in other African countries to the extent we may see a new ‘African Spring’, but more effective than the troubled North African/Arab Spring that flounders due to the lack of positive political alternatives.

A few years ago, there were calls from within the movement for COSATU to make such a break. The massive public sector strikes of 2010 of 1.3 million workers did untold damage to the relationship between COSATU and the ANC government of Jacob Zuma. Such calls for a breakaway from the ANC/SACP may well be heard again in the coming period. They could receive a huge, resounding echo that can cut across South Africa’s social divisions and ‘economic apartheid’.

The situation is fluid and volatile; only a decisive lead from the workers’ movement could make a real difference before government reaction re-groups. If the workers’ movement fails to seize the moment, we could see more bloody scenes like those at Marikana, or the blind alley of another political charlatan.

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