Parts of South African state out of control

November 25, 1992

By Steve Painter

The South African government has got itself into deep trouble by failing to dismantle the apartheid system's death squads and other secret organisations of political destabilisation, says South African mineworkers' union leader James Motlatsi, who visited Australia recently as a guest of the United Mine Workers. These secret organisations were set up to destabilise neighbouring states, particularly Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, but now their operations have ended in these areas, they're continuing their dirty work in South Africa.

Much of the recent violence which has disrupted the process of political change is due to these organisations running out of control, says Motlatsi. The De Klerk government is responsible for this, because it decided around 1990 to retain these organisations, hoping to use them for its own ends.

Now, however, they are the focus of a serious struggle in the state apparatus. They are a big problem for the government as well as the liberation movement. Some of the organisations consist of blacks recruited from neighbouring countries. These are often responsible for provocative incidents of "black on black" violence.

Meanwhile, the government is in a mess because the process of change is stalled and "the economy is in tatters, unemployment is growing daily, there is no new investment". This, in turn, dramatically increases social tensions as there is no social security for unemployed blacks. Around 50% of the black workforce is unemployed.

De Klerk calculated that new investments would flow as a result of decisions to unban the black political organisations and release imprisoned black leaders, but the investors are still holding back because of political instability.

James Motlatsi is president of the National Union of Mineworkers, with 290,000 paid-up members, one of the most powerful organisations in South Africa. Cyril Ramaphosa, a former NUM leader, is now national secretary of the main liberation organisation, the African National Congress.

Only 10 years old, the NUM had to recruit most of its members by underground political methods in an industry that was an economic pillar of apartheid. Motlatsi was in Australia with his wife, Mapule, to study the methods of the much older United Mine Workers.

He says it's important to keep up international pressure on the South Africa. Without such pressure the regime wouldn't have begun dismantling the apartheid system, and it might still allow the process to stall. In that case, the country could easily drift into civil war, "and then there would be no winners, we would all be losers".

The NUM has long recognised the importance of international action. It supported economic sanctions against South Africa even when these led to retrenchments in the mining industry. "We lost members because of that, but we had to make sacrifices to get rid of apartheid".

Change is slow in the mining industry, says Motlatsi. "Working conditions are still appalling. Every year, about 700 miners are killed and 10,000 injured." Most of the casualties are black, as whites are mostly employed as supervisors and rarely work in the most dangerous situations.

Only recently, after a six-year court action, the NUM forced a South African mining company for the first time ever to pay compensation to the families of mining disaster victims. The case involved a 1986 accident in which 177 miners died, 172 of them black.

Discrimination is still deeply entrenched in the structure of the mining industry. Whites are never employed below the level of supervisor, and are paid 10 times as much as black miners. Whites can live together with their families, while the black miners are recruited on one-year contracts from remote areas and crammed, often 30 to a room, into single-sex hostels. Whites work an 80-hour fortnight, while blacks work a 96-hour fortnight. When their contracts expire, the black miners must return home for a month or two, and then they might get a new contract.

Some companies still won't allow miners to march or hold meetings, and union organisers have to give managers a list of any topics they want to discuss with their members on the job. Access to mine sites must be negotiated with each company, and some resort to tricks such as granting access only when the workforce is underground.

However, even though it is denied legal recognition, the NUM is making progress. "Just lately we have succeeded in scrapping job reservations, under which blacks could not be classified as skilled miners."

Even though the NUM is influential in the ANC, Motlatsi is cautious about the future of this relationship. "We are an important player in the political changes, not only through Cyril Ramaphosa but because other officials and members of NUM are key regional and local leaders of the ANC. We don't just rely on Cyril.

"We have influence now, but there is a question whether this will still be the situation when the ANC is the government." This question has come up at the general secretariat of COSATU, the South African union federation.

"The working class often doesn't enjoy the benefits of the politicians who are elected to represent them. Take the Labour Party in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany, or perhaps even the Labor Party in Australia.

"Politicians are very good when they want to go to parliament, but even though we have many members playing an important role in the ANC, I wouldn't want to say that we will enjoy maximum protection when the ANC forms the government." n

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