Oct 29, 2012
The wave of wildcat strikes that began with the Lonmin platinum miners in Marikana last August has now lasted two months. Strikes extended to the platinum sector despite the massacre of 34 strikers on August 16th. And far from slowing down, the movement seemed to constantly revive, despite the increasingly repressive policy of the South African government and the bosses, and despite attempts by union leaders to get striking workers to end their strikes.
Mid-September marked a second stage in the movement, with the strikes extending to other mining sectors, while the Marikana workers gained an important wage increase from Lonmin management. After the win at Lonmin, the movement of miners accelerated, extending to the chrome, gold, coal, iron ore and diamond sectors.
On October 7th, the press reported the strike spreading to new mines every day. Twenty-four mining companies were paralyzed, with 100,000 workers on strike. This doesn’t include the 40% of mine workers employed by contractors to the big companies.
What’s more, these wildcat strikes have begun to spread to other industries. On September 27th, the workers at the Toyota assembly plant in Durban began a wildcat strike for wage increases and won after four days on strike. In the province of Limpopo, at the other end of South Africa, city workers held a wildcat strike for better wages.
Even more important was a national strike of tens of thousands of truck drivers, which began on September 24th. It extended to a strike of workers at Transnet, the government railroad and port monopoly.
The authorities did not remain passive. The Minister of Justice announced on September 19, there would be exceptional measures against the unrest. South African President Jacob Zuma authorized the deployment of the army in the entire country to “reinforce the police.” Everywhere the order went out to refuse permits for demonstrations or rallies on public roads.
In regions affected by the strike movement, strikers were prohibited from demonstrating and even meeting in enclosed areas. But the strikes continued, with raging battles against the police and the army. In the Rustenburg region and the Carltonville gold fields, strikers defended themselves by erecting barricades and burning the vehicles of the repressive forces. The police killed at least four strikers in the course of these confrontations, although it’s impossible to know the real number of victims.
The big companies also went on the offensive. On October 5th, Anglo Platinum, the biggest platinum company, announced the immediate firing of 12,000 strikers. The next day, another company of the platinum sector, an affiliate of Anglo-American, fired 2,500 additional strikers. A gold-mining company, GoldFields, evicted 5,000 strikers from company hostels where they lived. But workers continued their movement and the companies soon had to back down.
During this time, the miners’ union leadership tried to take control over events. It opened negotiations with the Chamber of Mines, to amend the union contracts for gold and coal, and it obtained a union contract for the platinum mines.
No doubt the coalition of the government, the union leaders and the mining companies hopes these great maneuvers will be enough to restore order. We will see. After all, last January, the miners of Impala Platinum had also been fired following a wildcat strike, and they suffered police attacks. But they continued to fight, forcing the rehiring of most of those fired and they won an important wage increase.
With all these strikes, the workers and the poor everywhere are angrily expressing their deep discontent. Beneath this anger, there is the social time-bomb left over from the apartheid era. This era created a large, highly-concentrated working class, with a militant tradition that is recent enough to be appropriated by its younger generations. At the same time, the dismantling of apartheid, orchestrated as it was by the Western and South African capitalist classes, left a society which is one of the world’s most unequal. The result of this combination is a social time-bomb waiting to explode.