South Africa: Historic win for striking miners

July 6, 2014
President of South Africa's Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union Jospeh Mathunjwa at a rally of Lonmin strikers at

The stadium in Phokeng outside Rustenburg in South Africa's North West Province exploded in jubilation when the end of the longest strike in South Africa's history was announced on June 23.

Men and women waved their arms victoriously in the air and resounding ululations and cheering reverberated as a great burden of domestic hardship lifted. Workers had changed history.

The platinum mine workers had valiantly resisted the dogged state and corporate bid to smash their strike, despite the personal hardships they had to endure. They dealt a blow to capital because they held out determinedly, accumulated five months of unpaid accounts, became black listed, kept their kids out of schools through necessity and went without food.

“Five months is a long time to go without ― but it is what you do when you want to change history”, says a community leader, Andile (not his real name as he is under investigation by police).

“We had told ourselves that we will not give up ― that united we are going to break this economic hold over us, and we did.” He thrusts his fist into the air defiantly.

Outside the stadium, a group of women are dancing and singing under a tree. Their ecstasy is palpable.

We approach them and they gather around us all talking at once. We single out Nomzi Jikane, whom we had interviewed a week earlier in the long queues waiting for food parcels from Gift of the Givers. She is breathless and excited, but when we ask her what this means for her she lets out a long and exhausted sigh.

“The stress levels have been so high here”, says Jikane. “It is us women who have suffered, watching our children starve … but we supported our husbands' choice to stay in this strike.

“And we were not starving because of the strike ― we were starving when they were employed also. How do we work for nothing with nothing to show that we are employed? We only 'survive' on the money he is paid ― we do not live.

“And we know that the government owns these mines too. [African National Congress leading member Cyril] Ramaphosa is a mine boss. But today we are showing them who is the boss ... and it is us.”

In response, the women begin to sing again.

Andile tells us: “Their song is about what a liar [ANC President Jacob] Zuma is and the greed of foreign bosses … and also telling their husbands to use the money wisely.”

We have gotten to know Andile over the weeks we have been here filming interviews with striking miners and have also been to his home ― a tin shack in a settlement close to mining company Lonmin.

There are no taps, toilets or brick structures in his village ― just shanties. Before the miners go off to work, they have to get rid of their morning shit first by throwing it in a hole and burying it.

Their small children have to fetch water late at night from a single tap across a road so that they can cook and wash the next day. It is a difficult and sparse existence. Wives spend a lot of time collecting firewood to cook with, as there is no power.

When someone gets really ill, ambulances cannot enter their village as the roads are bad. The sick person must be carried to a place the ambulances can reach.

Andile is radiating with happiness, so our next question to him feels like a killjoy. We ask how he is going to get back on his feet after not earning anything for so long.

“I am behind on everything,” he says. “My accounts, school fees, loans. It will take me a long time to come right you know. We will continue to eat small, small meals and just get through this.”

He is a rock drill operator so his salary goes up by R1000 (nearly $100) a month, which is a 20% rise, the highest increase ever achieved.

In the next two years his salary will go up by another 10% per annum, bringing his wages to almost R10,000.

However, this is still a very low wage to earn when one considers that an Australian mineworker can earn as much as R2.2 million a year with lots of leave and benefits, Bench Marks researcher David Van Wyk said.

Mineworkers are sharply aware of the discrepancies between their salaries and those earned by overseas miners. They are even more aware of the huge difference between what they earn and what the top executives earn ― telling us it is about R23 million.

This is apparently roughly what the chief executive of Lonmin, Bennetor Magara, earned last year in salaries, shares and bonuses.

“These people, our people, do not want to work with us anymore”, says Andile. “They have become capitalist mlungus [whites] … that is what they are. They are the ones who are exploiting us so that they can keep their profits.

“Yes, we know about the white CEOs, and we expect that from them because whites treated us like that always. It is hard for us to think of another Black man as the enemy to us, but that is what they are.

“They shot and killed us to protect their profits. It is them we are fighting … them and their profits. They want to keep us like the white man kept us ― as his dogs, cheap labour ― and we are saying no. We will not be their dogs.

“We want to earn a salary for our children’s houses too. Look at me. No house here and a mud hut at home, while [Zuma's] children go to the best schools and have big houses. That is fine, but we want enough money to build houses too.

“But look now, today we have changed that and now change will happen. United we will never be defeated. But it is not exactly what we wanted, so the fight is not ove r… We still live like poor dogs.”

And with that, Andile has hit the nail on the head, as things will never be the same in the platinum belt again. Nor in South Africa, as this historic moment has shown that united, workers can and will effect change and amend history.

With mineworkers pitted against mine bosses, the media and the state, they have struck a big blow against capital. It has the potential to systemically alter both the mining industry and big business in this country.

What we must not forget is that many of the mineworkers are still earning way below the R12,500 mark. They still live in poverty without services and infrastructural support.

They are still living on the edge of the breadline, though employed by mega wealthy corporations with strong BEE [black economic empowerment] investments.

It is, however, a resounding victory that has struck fear into the guts of the mine bosses, their BEE partners and the state. It signifies the potential for widespread change that could have a domino effect on the wider working-class struggle and wage relations in the near future.

[Abridged from">SACSIS. Gillian Schutte and Sipho Singiswa are filmmakers and social justice activists who work at Media for Justice.]

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