Lonmin, Platinum Industry at Root of Marikana Massacre in South Africa
44 people killed in week of violence prompting government to declare week of mourning
By Abayomi Azikiwe Editor, Pan-African News Wire – Lonmin Platinum PLC has ordered its striking workers back to the job or they will face termination. This was the latest ultimatum of the British-based multi-billion dollar firm where thousands of South African workers have walked off their jobs due to low salaries and poor conditions of employment.
On August 16, 34 workers were killed by the police and some 78 others were wounded when the workers failed to disperse from a hill near the mining facility located in Marikana in the Northwest region of South Africa at Rustenburg.
Despite the orders to return to work, it appears that most rock drill operators and their assistants have refused to listen to the company bosses. The workers are demanding a pay increase from R4,000 ($US480) per month to R12,500 ($US1,560).
President Jacob Zuma declared a week of mourning throughout the country. The people of South Africa have been in a state of shock and outrage since the culmination of a week of violence with the massacre of 34 striking workers.
The situation at the Marikana Mines had been tense for days when at least 3,000 rock drill operators, out of a workforce 35,000, embarked upon a wildcat strike demanding better pay and terms of employment. Ten people were killed leading up to the massacre, several of whom were union organizers and sympathizers of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest mining union which is affiliated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COASATU), an ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Two police officers were also killed in the wildcat strike which is not recognized by the NUM as a legitimate labor action. A smaller rival trade union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has been organizing in the Marikana Mines as well as other platinum facilities creating enormous hostilities between the smaller union and the NUM.
Although the NUM has blamed AMCU for creating the conditions for the ongoing unrest in Marikana, the rival union has denied provoking workers to take out their frustrations against the larger COSATU affiliate. Both unions, however, have blasted the Lonmin Platinum PLC for its failure to raise salaries and improve conditions within the mines and in the surrounding communities.
Deplorable Conditions in the Platinum Mining Industry
The platinum industry in South Africa is the largest in the world with the country containing 80 percent of this strategic mineral. Prices for platinum dropped in recent months after a period of trading at rates higher than gold.
Although the country is rich in platinum reserves, the overall impact of the mining of this natural resource has been devastating for workers, their families and the surrounding communities. Anger and frustration on the part of workers has boiled over in the last few months when violence has erupted in several mining facilities throughout South Africa.
At the Marikana Mines where the massacre occurred on August 16, community residents have spoken out about the current situation. One resident of Wonderkop said that “Our village is right next to the mine, it takes me five minutes to walk there. We all witnessed the shocking events of last week.” (BBC, August 19)
The same resident, a woman who called herself Kitumetse (not her real name)–who has two sisters that work in the mines– went on to say that “Lonmin should have intervened a long time ago. They knew about the miner’s grievances, they knew about the strike, they knew workers wanted management to come forward, but they didn’t intervene and were nowhere to be seen.”
Kitumetse continues saying “They dismissed their workers and let this happen. So many people died—fathers, husbands, bread-winners. Now they are threatening workers that if they don’t go back to work, they will be considered strikers and they will lose their jobs. Because of that, my sisters are going back to work.”
The Wonderkop village resident then went on to discuss the impact of the company on the surrounding areas pointing out that “Lonmin has done nothing for the local community. They take our platinum and enrich themselves but where is our royalty money going? We don’t have tar roads and our youth are unemployed.”
Even more horrendous, Kitumetse stressed that “They (Lonmin) cut off our water supply every day during the day. The water comes back only late at night. Then we have to fill the tanks and the buckets to have enough water for the next day. The water stinks and we have to buy purified water.”
One of the striking rock drill operators, Thandubuntu Simelane, said he was not going back to work and that “It’s better to die than to work for that shit. People are coming back here tomorrow (Monday, August 20). I am not going to stop striking.” (Mail & Guardian, August 19)
Simelane continued saying that “We are going to protest until we get what we want. They have said nothing to us. Police can try and kill us but we won’t move.”
Workers other than the rock drill operators have also been impacted by the strike. With violence and deaths escalating, many people have not been able to go to work.
Thapelo Mohutsiwa, a surface miner at Lonmin’s number four shaft, said of the situation that “I am scared to go to work tomorrow (August 20). I wasn’t striking because it’s not my department. I have a family to feed and I need money so I must work.” (Mail & Guardian, August 20)
Although Mohutsiwa said he was not involved in the wildcat strike he sympathized with the workers who have refused to return to the job. “If you work in that job (rock drilling) you get fucked up. You must drill the rock for the whole day covered in water. For anything more than five years you will end up being useless.”
On August 18, wives and other family members of the slain, wounded and arrested miners demonstrated near the Lonmin facilities demanding that they be given information on the fate of their loved ones. That same day a mass rally was held that was addressed by the expelled African National Congress Youth League President Julius Malema who laid blame for the massacre on the government of President Jacob Zuma, who is the current leader of the ruling ANC party.
Responses of the Labor Movement, the Communist Party and the ANC
The violence at the Marikana mines and the massacre of August 16 has drawn widespread condemnation from various sections within the labor movement, the left and the ruling ANC party.
Vusimuzi Mathosi, who was laid off of his job along with another 2,000 workers at another mine, Aquarius Platinum at Everest, is a member of the rival AMCU. Mathosi said that “This place can only be sustained with platinum. What can we do now?” (Reuters, August 19)
Aquarius closed down its mining facilities due to the worsening security conditions in the mines. In addition to the poor working conditions, the competition between AMCU and NUM resulted in violent clashes between members of the respective unions.
NUM through its affiliation with COSATU, is viewed by some workers as being compromised because of its alliance with the ruling ANC. Some workers have accused NUM of owning shares in Aquarius, an allegation that the union has denied.
At the same time NUM, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have accused AMCU of opportunism and of stirring up confrontations with the larger union movement. AMCU is often described as a-political and anti-communist which has created tensions within various mines as a result of the influence of the SACP within NUM.
The ruling ANC in a statement issued on August 18 said that it “welcomes the decision of President Zuma to set up a Commission of Enquiry following the death of 34 people at Marikana in Rustenburg. The ANC is of the view that the tragic violence needs to be thoroughly investigated to determine the cause and circumstances of all the deaths including those of the police, security and the miners.” (ANC Statement, August 18)
The ANC also “welcomes the decision of President Jacob Zuma to appoint a Ministerial Task Team to assist the Marikana tragedy deceased families with funeral arrangements including transport, identification of bodies, transportation and counseling services for all those who are affected. The ANC wants to thank the mineworkers and the people of Marikana for having heeded the call for calm and reflection despite attempts by agent provocateurs who wanted to undermine the call for calm.” (ANC Statement, August 19)
The SACP Central Committee in a statement issued on August 19 emphasized that the “AMCU leadership was once more exploiting the credulity and desperation of the most marginalized sectors of the Lonmin work-force, ‘outsiders’, contracted-workers many from Eastern Pondoland. SACP members from the area confirm newspaper reports today that the armed workers who gathered on the hill were misled into believing they would be invulnerable to police bullets because they had used ‘intelezi,’(an African plant used for cleansing) and provided they isolated themselves from women, and provided they did not turn their backs on the police.” (SACP Central Committee, August 19)
This same SACP statement went on to note that “it is impossible to understand the tragedy of last week without an appreciation of how the major platinum mining corporations, sitting on top of over 80 percent of the world’s platinum resources, have created desperate community poverty, divisive tensions, and a fatalistic attitude toward danger and death. It is also not possible to understand the tragedy without understanding how profit-maximizing corporate greed has deliberately sought to undercut established trade union and collective bargaining by conniving with demagogic forces. This strategy has now back-fired on the platinum companies’ profits themselves.”
The SACP Central Committee statement then says that the party “rejects the attempt to portray the events of last week as being essentially rooted in trade union rivalry. This narrative is no different to that developed during the final years of apartheid, when armed vigilantes, fomented, trained and escorted by the apartheid regime, were unleashed on our United Democratic Front, COSATU and ANC-supporting communities and this was portrayed as ‘black on black violence.’”
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Marikana that “The background to the violence at Lonmin lies in the companies’ undermining bargaining processes and structures. This trend has its roots at Impala Platinum where the company unilaterally adjusted wages for certain categories of employees leaving others out. This led to some elements founding a loophole to exploit, especially forces of violence. (NUM Statement, August 16)
NUM continues pointing out that “Lonmin followed suit. Ignoring an existing collective agreement, the company undermined the bargaining process by unilaterally offering an allowance of between R750-2500 to rock-drill operators outside the bargaining process.”
Class War Intensifies As World Economic Crisis Worsens
As the decline of the world capitalist system continues, the bosses and bankers will apply more pressure on the workers to accept declining wages and poor conditions of employment. Although South Africa has the largest economy on the continent and the strongest and most organized working class, the current neo-liberal policies of the ANC government cannot provide the working class with the power that is needed to win adequate concessions from the mine owners let alone the seizure of the means of production on behalf of the proletariat.
The situation facing the ANC must be viewed within the context of the overall international struggle of the workers and the oppressed against capital. The ANC government has developed one of the most advanced constitutions in the world where national and gender equality is enshrined within the law.
There have been advances in the areas of income within certain sectors, home building for millions of workers and the integration of the security apparatus and the military. However, the needs of the workers and the poor cannot be fully addressed under the existing capitalist relations of production.
As NUM noted in its August 16 statement in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, “The various social challenges that the country faces such as the ever increasing number of informal settlements next to mining areas; high unemployment; the continuous existence of single sex hostels; the increasing number of working poor exacerbated by the continuous existence of the apartheid wage gap and tribalism would if not curbed result in large scale disintegration of the South African society.”
NUM accuses the Chamber of Mines of refusing to comply with transformation targets set down by the ANC government. Yet it will be the responsibility of the ANC government backed up by the working class and the youth to enforce these goals against the profit-making aims of the bosses and their allies within South African society.
Profits within the platinum industry have declined and therefore more pressure will be exerted upon the workers and the mining communities. The recent massacre at Marikana has caused an even further decline in stock values for Lonmin and other firms inside the country.
IndexUniverse, a financial analyst firm, noted that in the aftermath of the police killing of miners “was enough to unleash an exodus from the South African rand last week…with a negative impact of about 3.5 percentage points for U.S. investors….” (IndexUniverse.com, August 20)
Just two days prior to the killings at Marikana on August 14, the SACP said of the violence in the area that “The mine bosses must take responsibility for their complicity in endeavors to undermine NUM and provide fertile ground for anarchy to prevail in the mines. Had the bosses acted in good faith within agreed parameters of agreements this would have not seen the light of day. These greedy bosses, in their quest for profits acted outside the scope of bargaining agreements and ended up with blood on their hands instead of more money.” (SACP Statement, August 14)
Nonetheless, South Africa will be forced to take on the bosses through expropriation of the wealth of the country. The ANC Youth League has been advocating the immediate nationalization of the mines and farms throughout the country as the only means to resolving the wage gaps and the lack of empowerment of the workers, farmers and youth.
The ANCYL statement on August 17 reiterated that “South Africa’s exploitative mining regime, capitalist greed and the poverty of our people is the cause. How many more people must die before we accept that the festering conditions of inequality and ownership by a select few, a white few in particular, is a time bomb that no longer just ticks, it is ready to explode and is contained only by the deadly determination of some amongst us to maintain the status quo at the expense of the majority.” (ANCYL Statement, August 17)
The ANCYL statement continues stressing that “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of live ammunition in public order policing and call on Minister Mthethwa to conduct a full investigation to explain to South Africans how it is that police turned on our people and killed them, when the right to life is paramount.”