October 16, 2012 3:57 pm

S African miners remain militant

Stiking miners in south Africa©AFP

Stiking miners in south Africa

One by one, the activists and miners in Marikana stood up to vent their views on the escalating crisis that is ripping through the heart of South Africa’s vital mining sector.

“We are more stubborn than they can ever imagine, and will be fighting the battle to its bitterest end,” says Mametlwe Sebei, a leader of the committee coordinating strike action. “We have defeated the fear of death. We have defeated the fear of arrest.”

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Two months into a strike that has seen tens of thousands of miners down tools and demand better wages, there is no sign that the mood is softening. Instead the indications are that workers are becoming more militant and better organised.

Another speaker weighed in, saying more had to be done to support miners who have gone for weeks without salaries to ensure the industrial campaign continues.

“We are not getting anything solid to them,” said Titus Setlahbetsa. “We must stand up and do something.”

Those attending the weekend gathering, which brought together “workers’ representatives” from the platinum and gold sectors hardest hit by the strikes, were sending a stark warning to mining companies: meet workers’ demands or prepare for more of the wildcat strikes that erupted in August.

The unrest has already cost companies and the state billions of rand, savaged South Africa’s reputation as an investment destination and helped trigger sovereign downgrades by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s rating agencies. It has also fuelled some of the worst violence seen since the end of apartheid, with about 50 people, including 34 shot by police in Marikana, losing their lives.

Lonmin, the platinum company where the unrest began, settled its six-week strike after agreeing to wage increases of up to 22 per cent. But that sparked fears that a dangerous precedent had been set as the strikes spread.

In the most dramatic example of the unrest’s escalation AngloGold Ashanti, the world’s third-largest gold producer, was forced to suspend its entire South Africa operations overnight as 24,000 of its 35,000-strong workforce in the country downed tools last month.

Complicating efforts to resolve the crisis, the traditional unions have lost their leverage over workers, who are instead setting up independent strike committees aided by socialist movements.

Industry officials are struggling to respond. But in the face of the workers’ continuing defiance, mining companies have started playing hardball and are increasingly taking disciplinary action against workers in a high-stakes effort to end the crisis.

Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), the world’s biggest platinum producer, earlier this month dismissed 12,000 illegally striking miners, as the unrest has cost it more than R1.1bn in lost revenue.

Similar action was taken this week at the country’s biggest iron ore mine, Sishen, operated by a Kumba Iron Ore, a subsidiary of Anglo American, where production was halted after just 300 of more 12,000 of its employees went on strike, blocked roads and seized equipment. Kumba said on Tuesday the “illegal occupation” had ended after police removed the strikers.

In the gold sector, where more than 70,000 workers are caught up in strikes, the situation took a turn for the worse on Monday after many workers rejected new wage proposals following talks between the Chamber of Mines and unions. This raises the spectre of more dismissals and the closure of marginal mines.

Nick Holland, chief executive of Gold Fields, on Tuesday said the company had issued an ultimatum to 23,500 strikers out of a workforce of 36,000 in South Africa to return to work on Thursday or face dismissal. He said the illegal strikes had cost Gold Fields R1.2bn ($137m) in lost revenue.

More than 100,000 miners have been sucked into the unrest. But it is difficult to gauge how many of the striking miners want to return to work and whether they could do so safely, due to the levels of violence and intimidation against workers.

The Marikana meeting gave a glimpse of how workers’ representatives are attempting to mobilise and organise. It was attended by several dozen miners and workers’ representatives who said they came from companies including Amplats and AngloGold. No officials from the traditionally dominant National Union of Mineworkers were in sight. Instead there were several members of South Africa’s section of the Democratic Socialist Movement, to which Mr Sebei belongs.

“If it was not because of DSM this strike would have been long gone,” said Gaddafi Mdoda, one of the striking miners sacked by Amplats.

Rehad Desai, a film-maker who helped found the Marikana Support Campaign to raise money to support “mobilisation” efforts, used the gathering to say workers should occupy mines to counter the threat of mass dismissals.

Pamphlets were handed out calling for a national strike, nationalisation of the mines and a “national living wage” of R12,500 a month – the original demand of the Lonmin strikers, which has become a clarion call across the industry.

Workers insist they alone have instigated the action as frustrations over pay and conditions have boiled over in an industry that has struggled to shrug off the notorious legacy of its treatment of black workers under apartheid.

“We have had enough of the oppression taking place,” said Mr Mdoda. “If they [mining companies] cannot afford to put something on the table they must just pack their belongings and go back to where they came from.”

Sphamanala Makhanya, a winch operator, has spent a decade in the mines and said he took home around R5,000 a month before he was dismissed by Amplats. He lives in a tin shack in a squatter camp and 10 of his relatives, including his four children in faraway KwaZulu Natal province, depend on his salary.

He insisted the strikers’ demands – they want a monthly package of R16,000, including benefits, but would settle for a minimum of R13,000 – must be met.

“Yes it’s difficult to survive without any wage but we are not just going to work for peanuts,” he said. “We are prepared to die.”

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