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Vol. 76/No. 38      October 22, 2012

(front page)
South Africa miners undeterred
by firings, evictions, cop attacks
Reuters/Mike Hutchings
Miners on strike against Gold Fields in Carletonville, South Africa, after eviction from company housing, Oct. 2. Three days later, bosses allowed workers to return as strike continues.

October 10—Some 80,000 miners in South Africa—out of some 500,000 workers at mines across the country—are engaged in wildcat strikes in at least five provinces.

Mining bosses are firing workers, evicting some from company-owned housing and threatening to shut down mine shafts. President Jacob Zuma has called on miners to go back to work and his African National Congress government has sent in cops to bust up demonstrations. The ANC led the fight that overturned the white supremacist regime in 1994, and has been the ruling party since.

Miners and other workers across the country were inspired by rock drillers at the Lonmin Platinum Marikana mine who won a 22 percent wage increase Sept. 18 after a five-week strike in which cops killed 34 miners. Platinum, gold, coal, chrome, iron and diamond miners have disregarded calls by union officials to end their strike and in many cases formed their own strike committees.

Workers in other industries are also going on strike. Autoworkers at Toyota’s Durban factory won a wage increase through a three-day wildcat strike that ended Oct. 4. Some 28,000 truck drivers began a walkout Sept. 25.

“We live in shacks. There is no running water. No electricity,” rock driller Mtopo, who is on strike at the Samancor chrome mine, said in a phone interview from South Africa’s North West province Oct. 8. Mtopo speaks Setswana and spoke to the Militant through a coworker who speaks English. “We don’t get enough money to see our families every month, sometimes only every three months.”

Safety on the job is also a concern. “Some of the people who get injured, management fires them, they say you got yourself in danger,” he said.

His coworker, Solomon Putu, an assistant surveyor in the mine, said the company had promoted delegates of the National Union of Mineworkers in the mine to supervisors, “leaving us on our own.” The National Union of Mineworkers is a member of the ANC-allied Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Key source of world’s minerals

South Africa is the world’s largest source of chrome, manganese, platinum, vanadium and vermiculite, and mines more than 10 percent of the world’s annual gold production. It is the fourth largest producer of diamonds and fifth largest producer of coal.

While some of the large operations are owned by South African capitalists, United Kingdom-based corporations, including Anglo American, Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Xstrata are dominant.

South African-based Gold Fields Ltd. evicted hundreds of workers from company-owned hostels in Carletonville, but agreed to allow workers to return, switching the water back Oct. 4.

Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), the largest platinum mining company in the world, sent text messages to 12,000 strikers Oct. 5 telling them they were fired. Workers there have been on strike since Sept. 12.

“Amplats is within its rights to fire the workers because the strike is illegal,” National Union of Mineworkers spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka told the Militant, “but we think it’s the wrong move if you want to end the strike and get people back to work.”

The NUM, Congress of South Africa Trade Unions and Chamber of Mines issued a joint statement Oct. 4 saying that they would begin discussions Oct. 9 “to respond to the demands workers have been making recently.”

Like other mining companies, Amplats says the drop in the price of platinum has shaved profit margins and they can’t pay a wage increase. Amplats did not respond to interview requests.

“Their problem is not our problem,” Amplats winch operator Evans Ramokga said in a phone interview. “We don’t know about the selling of platinum. The only thing we know is that every day the platinum comes up out of the mine. If you don’t meet their target, they dismiss you. We work hard and every day we go over their target.

“Miners earn 4,000 rand [$450]. The shift supervisors get 30,000 a month,” he said, “and the higher up supervisors get 80,000.”

Ramokga said the mines should be nationalized “and run by the government of South Africa. The profits should stay here, not be taken back to London.”

“The fight at the Marikana mine inspired workers,” Mametlwe Sebei, a leader of the Democratic Socialist Movement who is active in a strike committee set up by workers at Amplats, said by phone. “The bosses are going to do everything they can to avoid another example.”

Strike ‘fever’

Cosatu has officially opposed the wildcat strikes. It issued a joint statement with the NUM that said Lonmin Platinum “made a grave error” in granting the Marikana miners a wage increase because it “threatens every foundation of the industrial relations systems.”

“After the Marikana events, a fever spread throughout the mines,” Dan Sebabi, secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions in Limpopo province, said in a phone interview Oct. 9.

Sebabi had just returned from a visit to the Bokoni Platinum mine where the company has fired almost 2,000 striking workers. “In the early days of a strike if you say end it, they will cut your neck off,” he said. “I know the anger.”

Recognizing that the strikes will continue regardless of the position of the union officialdom, Cosatu and NUM leaders have been traveling to the struck mines and trying to garner support from miners.

“In the old days the shop steward worked in the mine,” said Sebabi, explaining the hostility that many miners have toward the union leadership. “Now let’s say you become the branch secretary, you don’t have to go underground anymore, you have a landline and air conditioning.

“I listen to the workers carefully,” he said. “The workers are not saying ‘we don’t want the union.’ They are saying they don’t want the representatives of the union.

“I try to work with the committee they have elected to consolidate and handle the demands properly. I told them they have to appeal the dismissals, we don’t want them to lose their jobs,” he said.

Cosatu is demanding that a commission of inquiry be established to “investigate the employment and social conditions” of the miners.

“We’re not going back to work until they give us what we want,” said rock driller Mtopo.
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