As miners at the Lonmin platinum producer in Marikana returned to work Thursday, President Jacob Zuma authorised the domestic deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to deal with continued unrest in the mining sector.
After a six-week wildcat strike, workers at the Lonmin mine near Johannesburg accepted a pay increase of between 11 to 22 percent.
Their determined fight for a rise in pay, from a paltry 5,000 rand ($500) a month to 12,500 rand ($1,513), was conducted in the teeth of brutal police repression, sanctioned by the African National Congress (ANC) government and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
On August 16, 34 striking rock drillers were massacred by police as the ANC sought to quash the grassroots revolt against the NUM, which is widely reviled as a company union. Some 270 strikers were arrested, as the government implemented a bar on “illegal” gatherings, declared a state of alert and carried out raids on poverty-stricken mining shanty towns in Marikana.
The miners’ defiance meant Lonmin was forced to include the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), as well as representatives of a substantial number of non-union workers in pay talks.
While the deal falls short of their original demands, miners celebrated it as a significant victory. In addition to the pay rise, they are to receive a one-off payment of 2,000 rand to cover their losses during the strike.
Lonmin acting CEO Simon Scott defended the settlement, stating that it had been made under “extraordinary circumstances” in which the “social fabric of SA” was jeopardised.
Thousands gathered at the Wonderkop stadium in Marikana to hear news of the deal. Singing victory songs, they denounced the NUM with one banner stating, “Death Certificate; first name: NUM; cause of death: corruption.”
The pay deal has been denounced by some commentators and sections of the media for potentially encouraging a “contagion” of unrest.
Nomura International analyst Peter Attard Montalto said, “Lonmin caving in and offering both to tear up the existing wage settlement for this year and then agreeing such a substantial increase for workers surely risks creating moral hazard and contagion.”
In the Financial Times, Andrew England warned that “Lonmin’s strike was resolved not by the miners’ unions but by informal representatives of the strikers including miners, community leaders and the South African Council of Churches. Workers at other mines, some of whom have also staged disruptive actions during the Lonmin crisis, may see the Lonmin outcome as a precedent. If they conclude that illegal strikes are effective, that can’t be good for the industry’s stability.”
Representatives from the ANC and the NUM have been most vocal in condemning the deal.
ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe said the settlement had put the nation on a dangerous path, while NUM general secretary Frans Baleni complained, “The normal bargaining processes have been compromised.”
The NUM was now getting demands from workers across the mining sector for similar pay deals, Baleni said.
“It does suggest that unprotected action, an element of anarchy, can be easily rewarded, people can do certain wrong things with impunity and that means that it can roll over to other operations.”
It was fears of “contagion” that had led other platinum producers, such as Anglo American (Amplats) to close their operations at neighbouring mines in the Rustenburg region.
Emboldened by the Lonmin miners’, workers at Amplats and elsewhere had taken wildcat action to press their own pay demands.
Amplats re-opened its operations earlier this week but could barely manage a 20 percent attendance. As the Lonmin deal was announced, protesters gathered near the mine. Police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the protest. A police spokesman said, “we are not tolerating any illegal gatherings.”
One miner was reportedly run over and killed by a police armoured car. Miners and their supporters barricaded roads with rocks and burning tyres to prevent police entering the area. Reuters quoted one community representative stating, “The mood here is upbeat. … The workers are celebrating Lonmin as a victory.”
Wildcat action continued at Impala Platinum, the world’s second largest platinum producer, and at Samancor chrome, north west of Johannesburg.
It has also spread to the gold sector, with 15,000 miners at the KDC West operation of Gold Fields on an illegal strike now for almost two weeks. They are demanding parity with the Lonmin miners and for the resignation of the NUM leadership at the mine.
Gold Fields spokesman Sven Lunsche insisted that, “we are not going to negotiate salary, and we cannot.”
Gold Fields won a court order outlawing the strike last Monday and had threatened to sack its workforce unless they returned to work Thursday. Miners insisted they would remain out until their demands are met.
“The gold mining industry, unlike the platinum industry, negotiates in a collective bargaining forum”, Lunsche said, adding that this arrangement had worked well for the industry and the trade unions for almost two decades.
“The best outcome would be if NUM convinces them to return to work”, he said.
On Wednesday, Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the COSATU trade union federation had hurriedly left the organisation’s 11th annual conference along with NUM officials to try and persuade Gold Fields miners to return to work.
Vavi warned them they could be sacked if they did not report for work Friday and promised to raise their demands with management. But he was met with cries of “we are not going back to work.”
On Thursday, workers at AngloGold’s Kopanang mine became the latest to join in wildcat action. AngloGold is the largest gold producer in Africa. Workers at the mine, which employs 5,000, are demanding a monthly salary of 12,500 rand.
The same day Zuma authorised the deployment of SANDF personnel anywhere in the country to deal with the growing unrest.
His letter to the National Assembly stated, “I have authorized the employment of one hundred and thirty seven (137) South African National Defence Force personnel for service in cooperation with the South African Police Service in the prevention and combatting of crime and maintenance and preservation of law and order in the Marikana Area, North West and such areas within the Republic of South Africa as needed. The employment is for the period 14 September 2012 to 31 January 2013.”
In fact, some 1,000 troops had already been sent to Marikana the previous weekend to aid police raids, without an official announcement by the president. In order to sanction this blatantly unconstitutional move the Ministry of Defence had issued a backdated notice authorising the deployment.
On Friday it was confirmed that an arrest warrant has been issued against former Youth League leader, Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC in April.
Malema has sought to use the unrest as part of a factional struggle against Zuma and to press for his re-admittance to the ANC. In the last weeks he has addressed striking miners, supporting their pay demands and calling for the nationalisation of the mines.
On Monday, police had barred him from addressing a crowd of miners in Marikana.
Malema’s lawyers said they did not know the charges against him but that he would not be jailed and is expected to appear in court next week.