Something happened in South Africa yesterday which may be a portent of some extremely dangerous developments in the near future in that country.
There was a gun battle at the Lonmin Marikana mine in North West province between members of a breakaway mining and construction union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the officers of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Members of AMCU were protesting low rates of pay for miners, who currently earn a monthly salary reported by the BBC to be around 4000-5000 rand (equivalent to 484-605 American dollars per month, roughly the same in Canadian dollars owing to the near-par status of these two currencies at the present time). That’s $5808-$7260 per year. Or, flip this around, that’s $16-20 a day. That’s barely subsistence-level, and certainly not enough to raise children on. AMCU was, quite reasonably, holding out for a good deal more. Their demand was for 12500 rand per month, which translates to a monthly salary of $1512, or a yearly salary of $18144. That’s still a poverty wage by our standards, but one which could help thousands of South African miners minimally address the needs of their families.
This is the underlying reason for the tragic clash that resulted, by current counts, in the deaths of 34, the injury of 78 and the arrest of 259 people. South Africa is still a poor country, where working people have long had to accept minimal pay for hard labour.
This is an underlying reason we might forget if we follow further some of the particulars of what happened. The miasma of South African politics infects this story completely, making it hard to focus on that one thing that really matters, that people in South Africa are still achingly poor and need relief from the conditions into which they are routinely thrown.
Though AMCU is right to choose now to demand something even moderately approaching a living wage for its members, the decision to promote violence as a strategy for achieving that wage has contributed directly to the unnecessary escalation of conflict. Unfortunately, AMCU’s strategy has everything to do with an escalation of “rhetorical violence” in South Africa of late. Even South Africa’s president goes out of his way to be seen singing “struggle songs” that make shooting machine guns seem romanticised and the killing of opponents seem normal. AMCU is caught up in that culture, as are many, and unfortunately, now we see where it has led many of their members – to death, to suffering and to jail, with no victory for their cause even remotely in sight.
AMCU split off from the more mainstream union movement, which includes the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Solidarity. The NUM is part of the Congress of South African Trades Unions (COSATU) which is one of the members of South Africa’s governing Tripartite Alliance coalition, along with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. Solidarity is a largely-white trade union which tends for that reason to represent a more privileged class of workers.
The NUM has largely complained thus far about how AMCU is undercutting its efforts to achieve progress at the mines, while thus far skillfully deflecting any discussion of how one would know any progress is happening. The NUM is worried because their membership is dropping, both at the Lonmin mine and at the Impala mine, where management is seeking to have them deregistered for representing less than 50% of the workers. Those numbers may not be right, but clearly NUM is worried that its membership is dwindling, and this may be related to it failing to deliver improvements in the lives of that membership. Yet, Frans Baleni, the general-secretary of NUM, dismisses AMCU as a group of “expelled” members of NUM. So here is a leader of a union crowing about expelling members at a time when its own members are dwindling.
Solidarity, by contrast, in a delightful display of the opposite of solidarity, is actually now calling for the _firing_ of striking miners. “This illegal action is not a labour dispute, but merely criminal behaviour aimed at destabilising a workplace and a well-functioning labour relations system,” says Gideon du Plessis. Oh yes, labour relations couldn’t be better. I mean, that’s obvious, isn’t it? Workers en masse get into a gun battle because they make $16-20 a day. Labour relations are nothing but smooth.
That I criticise NUM and Solidarity should not be taken as carte blanche treatment of AMCU, which fairly clearly is responsible for the bulk of the violence. A total of 10 people were killed in the violence at Lonmin preceding the gun battle, Three were members of NUM, two were security guards and two were members of the police force. The remaining three were protesters, AMCU has made claims of physical intimidation by NUM, but if there has been such intimidation, it has been carefully hidden, while the brandishing of machetes and axes by AMCU has been all over every media source in South Africa. It is much more likely self-defence or retaliation from NUM, which has pretty clearly been targeted by AMCU for pushing a different line with management than they favour.
Are you confused by all of this? Don’t worry. It _is_ confusing. But there’s one thing that is pretty clear about the whole mess – none of this would have happened if South African mines paid miners a minimally decent wage. The sad thing is that the violence diverts us all from that recognition. Justice for South African miners seems further off than it’s ever been.