Alone, they fought against all their enemies: the company, its blackmail and its armed guards; the strike-breaking organized by the NUM, the strongest of the regime’s unions in South Africa; the democratic bourgeois state that tried to subdue them with machine gun attacks killing 34 of them. But not even this infamous massacre could stop them: as of today (Monday, September 3) the strike, which has lasted for three weeks, is ongoing.
In the mines of South Africa, the greatest economic power on the continent, there were 518,000 workers employed in 2008, that is, 7.8% of the workforce employed in the private and non-agricultural sector. To these we should add the same again in the ancillary industries.
Via a collection of large private companies, the major imperialist powers have held South Africa’s precious primary material reserves in their blood stained hands since the nineteenth century. Before, during and after apartheid, the South African bourgeois state became guarantor of the exploitation of the national proletariat on behalf of global capital.
When what is at stake, as in Lomnin, is not just a wretched increase "compatible with the rate of inflation", but a rise of as much as 300%, then the victory of the workers in a single mine becomes a threat to capitalist interests, because, due to the number and concentration of mines and deep seated traditions of proletarian struggle in South Africa, there is a risk that it may generate a general strike movement.
The strike at the Marikana mine is not an isolated incident shattering the social harmony, neither is it abnormal with regard to the extent of its demands, the determination of the strikers, or the violence that has resulted. Last year, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry expressed "concern at the violence, damage to property and intimidation that occurred in the recent wave of strikes".
Furthermore, for some years, struggling miners have increasingly often found themselves in conflict not only with the company and the State, but also with what was once their union, the National Union of Mineworkers. In 2009 its President, Piet Matosa, attempted to stop a strike at Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd., (the largest platinum mine in the world, at Rustenburg, 40 km north-west of Marikana, with 30,000 employees, 20,000 of them unionised), and was stoned by the miners, almost losing an eye.
Last year on May 17, in Karee mine, which is owned by Lonmin as well and very near to Marikana, the miners went out on strike not against the company, but against the regional leadership of the NUM, which had suspended the union leaders at the mine. Since the strike occurred without prior notice, under South African legislation it was therefore "unprotected", or, as it is erroneously described, "illegal": workers can strike but the company is free to fire them. Evidently the union leaders in this mine were genuine representatives of the workers, since, at risk of dismissal, they had gone out on strike to defend them... from the NUM.
Lonmin wasted no time, and, in accordance with common practice in the South African mining sector, on May 24 it dismissed the entire workforce of 9,000 miners, in order later on, after the strike was over, to rehire a large part of them. It is a process by which the company can select its staff and reduce wages, as during reinstatement any minor advantages accrued due to seniority, or performance related bonuses, are removed.
The result is that most of the NUM’s members left to join the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, a new union created in 1998 through a split from the NUM and which, according to its leader, Joseph Mathunjwa, now counts 5,000 workers at the Karee mine among its members, making it the largest union there. Commenting on what happened, the NUM national spokesperson, Lesiba Seshoka, stated that in the mines there "is a growing culture of indiscipline and we have arrived at anarchy", attributing this mainly to "angry and impatient" younger workers. An outburst that highlights the difficulties this regime union is having keeping control of the workers.
On 20 January of this year 4300 rock drillers began an indefinite strike at Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. against a union agreement, signed in October by the NUM, which awarded a salary increase only to the higher grades. The miners requested a rise that would bring their net salary up from the current 3500 to 9000 Rand, an increase of almost 300%. On 24 January, the company dismissed all 4300 miners but on 30 January 12,500 other miners came out on strike in solidarity with their sacked comrades. The NUM however accused the rock drillers of preventing others from going to work.
Impala Platinum held the AMCU responsible for the running of the strike, and defined it "illegal". It seems however that miners had started the strike of their own accord and that the AMCU took it over with the objective of obtaining recognition from the company of its so-called trade union rights. In 2007 the NUM had reached an agreement that reserved bargaining rights to whichever union had half plus one of the members, thus the NUM itself. Citing this agreement, the company refused to bargain with the representatives of the AMCU and any other workers’ representatives who did not belong to the NUM. The strikers responded that they no longer recognised the NUM as their representative.
On February 3 the company also dismissed the 12,500 workers who had gone out on strike in solidarity with the drillers. At this point the 17,500 newly redundant workers formed pickets near the mine to prevent the resumption of activities. The company tried to break the strikers' front, announcing the reinstatement of about 4,600 workers. Pickets and gatherings led to violent clashes between strikers and strike-breakers, with three casualties. The February 17 strike soon turned into a riot, with the erection of barricades in the streets of Rustenburg, a police station aflame and 350 arrests. The NUM openly did everything it could to break the strike, urging the workers to return to work. On the March 21, the company claimed to have re-employed 8,368 employees, 1,074 of whom were drillers. The joint operation of the company and the NUM eventually got the better of them and on March 5, after six hard weeks, the strike ended, with the diggers defeated and nearly 2,000 miners out of 12,500 out of work.
At Kroondal on August 2, nearly 200 miners who had been laid off during a previous strike in June attacked the platinum mine owned by Australia's Aquarius Platinum, some armed with incendiary bombs. In the fighting three miners died.
The strike at Lonmin at Marikana saw a similar disposition of forces in the field. Out on strike on August 10 were the lowest paid workers , the three thousand drillers, out of a total of 28,000 miners. Based on the experience accumulated over decades of struggles, and very recently at the nearby mines of Impala Platinum in Rustenburg and Karee in Marikana, the miners gathered armed with sticks and machetes, ready to confront the police, the NUM scabs and the company guards.
The drillers are demanding a salary of 12,500 Rand, compared to their current one of around 4,500: here as well the demand is for a tripling of the wage. The company has so far not ruled on the claim, the NUM however have spoken on their behalf calling the demand "unsustainable".
After three days of strike action, August 12 saw the first violent clashes between strikers, scabs and police, resulting in ten victims. Some strikers say they saw NUM snipers and that NUM members were inside armoured police vans, because voices from inside were speaking fanakalo, the language of one of the miners' ethnic groups, that the police do not know, as cops are chosen, in order to better convince them to shoot on the workers, from other groups. The workers did not restrict themselves simply to self-defence: two cops were killed and maybe two security wardens as well, and among the workers killed it is not clear how many were strikers and how many were scabs.
The company, the bourgeois press, the NUM and the Communist Party of South Africa have described these clashes as a struggle between the militants of the NUM, and those of the AMCU, pointing an accusatory finger at the latter. But the workers, as it emerged after the strike, if on the one hand they kicked out the NUM didn’t choose the AMCU as its union either, or its representatives as their leaders. Certainly, as has happened in the strike at Impala Platinum, the AMCU has earned plaudits.
It remains to be seen whether this union was either not able to gain the trust of the striking miners or did not want to represent them and, in the latter hypothesis, it either took that decision because it didn’t want to stick its head too far above the parapets until they had adequate forces to withstand a fight with the NUM, the mining companies and the bourgeois state, or because, in this proletarian conflict, it has no urge to fight, but merely wants to replace the NUM in the role of harmonious and peaceful union of the regime. Publicly the AMCU recognizes the validity of the drillers’ demands, its militants are an active part of the strike, but it rejects violence and is very respectful of the law.
On August 16, after six days of striking, the police opened fire on a group of several dozen miners with machine guns, rifles and pistols. Eventually the death toll was 34. Several witnesses claim that many of them were killed afterwards, in a manhunt involving collisions with armoured cars and subsequent well aimed gun shots.
But we do not care to dwell on the atrocities, which speak for themselves, carried out by the class enemy, or invoke a justice that cannot exist in a society divided into classes. And we do not believe that, once it is revealed how barbaric the bourgeois are, that indignant so-called "civil society" will lift a finger in the defence of the workers. Although the autopsies prove that most of the miners were shot in the back, we are not led to call them victims or to protest their innocence: the workers are certainly guilty of the charges brought against them – of defending their lives, with the necessary means to do so, in this and a thousand battles both past and future.
The police accused the workers of having attacked them. Good, it does them honour! It is this courage and determination, not by portraying themselves as victims, that proletarians come ever closer to their liberation, namely the overthrow of capitalism; of a regime that is not, and can not, be anything other than brutal and ruthless because it is based on the defence of profit.
It seems that from the first day of the strike the drillers, camped out on a hill near the mine, had been surrounded and attacked with tear gas and water cannons, fired on from armoured vehicles and two helicopters, and driven towards police positions ever ready to open fire. Perhaps these workers, armed with machetes, decided to go on the offensive and break the encirclement only to then, faced with the barrage of fire, beat a retreat with their backs to the machine guns. Not a flight resembling hunted animals, according to the pietistic version of those who traffic in the opium of democratic peace between the classes.
This is proved by the fact that 40 dead was not enough to stop the miners. The strike continues and is totally solid two weeks after the massacre, that is, three weeks after it started. The latest figures for Friday, August 31 show that 7% of staff are still at the mine, presumably the management, and therefore the blockade of productive activity is total. This shows that the workers were aware of the risk to their lives and were still prepared to face the bourgeois bullets.
The ending of apartheid and arrival of democracy have not scratched the continuity of the bourgeois state dictatorship over the proletariat, a dictatorship that is based on class, not race. It is to obfuscate this reality that the government – supposedly to the "left", in South Africa, with an alliance between the African National Congress and the Stalinist South African Communist Party – prefers to portray the massacre as an unfortunate mishap, as an anomaly that can be resolved by an investigation, rather than as the inevitable consequence of capitalist exploitation.
In reality the South African bourgeoisie is now very apprehensive. Following the strikes over the last years, in particular those mentioned above, in which the system of controlling the workers via the regime’s puppet union has proved to be ineffective – because the workers were calling for a wage adjusted not to the needs of the national economy, that of capitalism, but to the necessities of their own lives – the bourgeoisie have to give a signal, by shooting the miners, to reassure both national and international investors that their profits are not in danger, and that the country will continue to provide them with disciplined, extremely low cost wage-slaves.
But this is not the end of it. Even now there are reports of similar demands: at the Thembelani mine slightly to the North of Marikana, owned by Anglo American Platinum, the largest producer in the world, at the Rasimone mine of Royal Bafokeng Platinum, near Impala Platinum, as well as, in the so-called "Platinum belt", the KDC gold mine West of Johannesburg.
The miners in South Africa haven’t lost their battle, let alone their war, which is the same war that wage-slaves of all countries are fighting, whatever the colour of their skin.
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNIST PARTY