The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 71/No. 48      December 24, 2007

(front page)
Miners strike in South Africa,
protest deadly job conditions
AP/Jerome Delay
Miners march December 4 in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Organize or die,” said one sign.

A quarter million miners conducted a one-day strike across South Africa December 4 to demand safer working conditions. Tens of thousands of workers rallied in downtown Johannesburg, some donning mining gear, others with shovels and signs saying “No more,” “Safety is a human right,” and “Pay us a living wage.”

Despite the mining bosses’ earlier pledges to lower the fatality rate by 20 percent a year, about 200 workers have been killed annually since 2000. Last year 199 miners were killed, 133 of whom were gold miners.

The National Union of Mine Workers (NUM) reported that this year 226 miners were killed as of this past September.

The NUM announced the walkout in October, a week after 3,200 gold miners were trapped for more than 30 hours underground when the elevator broke at a mine 50 miles from Johannesburg. In response to the disaster, South African president Thabo Mbeki called for a safety audit of the country’s mines.

The strike affected 60 companies at about 700 mines across the country. Gold Fields, the largest gold producer in South Africa, said that “just under 70 percent” of its workforce joined the strike. Company spokesman Andrew Davidson said that at the Kloof mine up to 94 percent of workers did not report for the morning shift. A miner at that mine was killed in a rock fall just two days after the strike.

South Africa has the world’s deepest mines, with some reaching depths of well over two miles. In their competitive drive for the highest returns, mine companies continue to dig deeper and deeper for “precious” metals, making the mines more susceptible to rock falls and other dangers.

Matt Brenzel, an official of a ma South African asset management firm, voiced bosses’ concern that increased attention on safety will cut into production. “You are going to spend more time ensuring safety and you won’t be able to haul out as much,” he told Bloomberg News.

“If the big companies do not do anything to improve safety, we will be back on the streets again, we will stop the mines with a two- or three-month strike,” declared NUM national spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka.

South Africa is the world’s largest producer of gold, platinum, vanadium, manganese, and chromium. It is also among the top producers of coal, diamonds, iron ore, nickel, and uranium, and is the largest supplier of coal to Europe. The nationwide strike affected the price of platinum; three quarters of the world’s supply comes from South Africa.

The NUM is the largest union in South Africa. It represents about half the country’s 460,000 miners, 72 percent of whom work in platinum and gold mines.

The union reported receiving solidarity from unions across the country as well as from Namibia, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Belgium.

In August a miners’ strike won wages increases of up to 10 percent. The average miner makes between $365 and $511 per week. The last national miners’ strike took place in 1987, when about 300,000 miners demanded a 30 percent wage increase.

In 2000 South African unions carried out a general strike in which 4 million workers walked out to protest high unemployment. Today joblessness in the country is more than 25 percent.  
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