The sordid tale behind S Africa’s mine strife

Tension at Lonmin mine seethed for more than a year amid dire living conditions, union rivalry, and corporate practices.

Strikers at Lonmin's Marikana mines eventually reduced their demand and settled for a 22 per cent raise [File: Reuters]

Marikana – a quiet, dusty mining town northwest of Johannesburg along South Africa’s rich platinum belt – was catapulted into the limelight with a gory display of lethal state violence on striking miners more than a month ago.

Determined to fight for what they believed was their basic right, the conviction of the club and sword-wielding strikers was affirmed when bullet-riddled bodies fell before the lens of the international media.  

Unbeknown to most, tensions at Lonmin PLC, the world’s third-largest platinum mine, had been seething for more than a year.

Embittered mineworkers were caught between corporate mining practices, union mudslinging and a disconnect with their representatives, which only exacerbated the wage dispute and literally left the strikers out in the cold since August 10.

On Tuesday, workers, unions and Lonmin finally came to a  wage agreement. Workers accepted a pay rise of about 22 per cent, to $1,200 a month – down from the original $1,500 demand.

No union in South Africa is said to have ever brokered such a high pay rise, and while some workers were still skeptical, all agreed to leave the Marikana “hill of death” and return to work. Strikes at other mines, however, continue.

Failure to assist 

It was work as usual for most at Lonmin’s Karee mine, one of three in Marikana, when 3,000 rock drill operators exchanged their tools for traditional weapons on August 10.

A whisper of frustration was also circling the air that morning.

Striking miners gathered for more than a month on the Marikana ‘hill of death’  [File: Reuters]

Daluvuyo Bongo, of the National Unions of Mineworkers (NUM), said after discussions with its members fell through, workers said the unions no longer represented them.

He received word that strikers were heading to NUM’s Marikana office, and were planning to burn it down – along with anyone inside. Two security guards were killed and NUM representatives attacked.

“They were violent and uncontrolled,” said Bongo.

The armed strikers marched to the company’s management offices. They demanded a monthly pay rise to 12,500 rands ($1,500), but Lonmin management refused to speak to the workers, said Bongo.

Bishop Jo Seoka, president of the South African Council of Churches and Bishop of Pretoria, had mediated on behalf of the strikers.

He said it was not the first time that employees demanded more money. Workers approached the unions and their employer for a pay rise in July, but Lonmin refused to assist.

That is when trouble began, Seoka said. 

‘First mistake’

Lonmin cited a wage negotiation agreement – outside of which they cannot negotiate – when asked why the operators went on strike on August 10.

“The rock drill operators went on an illegal strike after asking for an increase over and above the wage agreement we had confirmed with our bargaining forum,” a Lonmin representative, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.

But just a month earlier, the company agreed to a $92 per month housing allowance increase, after the operators embarked on an unprotected strike.

“This was Lonmin’s first mistake,” said Gideon du Plessis, secretary general of Solidarity, a smaller mine union.

Mahamed Rajah, professor of labour law at the Graduate School of Business Leadership, University of South Africa, agreed that a wage negotiation agreement had been binding.

“If there was a two year agreement in place, then the employer can’t negotiate over those issues until that period is up.”

Lonmin was “in effect, in violation to the collective agreement”, said Rajah. 

Union betrayal

Only the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) held any credibility with strikers on August 16, as police tried to disarm them.

“AMCU saw the workers’ plight,” said Bishop Seoka. “They were more sympathetic towards them.”

“They were stripped of all their years of service and all the long service benefits. So they started as brand new employees

– Gideon du Plessis, secretary general of Solidarity

Gia Nicolaides , a local reporter who had been at the scene of the strikes every day since they began, said living conditions in the Marikana community were dire. There was no running water and no sewage system. 

“There were dirty nappies and human faeces scattered everywhere. It was particularly dirty,” she said.   

Strikers said they were betrayed by their unions, according to Nicolaides.

NUM was also accused of soliciting bribes and corruption.  Its leadership at the Marikana branch was suspended for refusing to hold required elections, leaving mineworkers without representation. 

Making matters worse, Lonmin fired all 9,000 of its Karee employees when workers embarked on a strike against NUM in May. 

“They were stripped of all their years of service and all the long service benefits. So they started as brand new employees,” said du Plessis.

Du Plessis said the strikes started out peacefully. “There were no reports of high levels of intimidation or carrying weapons.” 

Things deteriorated drastically, however. Two police officers were hacked to death by strikers on August 13, and three days later police opened fire, killing 34 miners and wounding 78 others. The area where they were gunned down is now called “the hill of death”. “This is more an issue of a wage demand, but the killing of the 34 strikers escalated the situation,” said Bishop Seoka. 

Union rivalry

NUM’s Bongo blamed rival union AMCU for the bloodshed.

Al Jazeera made numerous attempts to contact AMCU for comment. Calls and messages were not returned.

  Police opened fire on strikers on August 16 killing 34

At a press briefing in June, AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa said the union had been a victim of a smear campaign. He also accused NUM of “monopolistic tendencies”, saying it behaved as if it had a “veto to represent the working class”.

Mathunjwa said AMCU does not believe in violence.

Du Plessis accused the AMCU of playing a “destructive” role in the wage negotiations.

“The meetings that they [did] attend, they [did] not participate in the debates. Some of the meetings, they left early, so it’s very difficult to negotiate with them,” he said.

Du Plessis also said he believes the fired chairperson of NUM’s Karee branch, Mawethu Steven , played a role in the unrest. Steven was hired by AMCU and started recruiting members. He was also living at the Marikana settlement, but he is now nowhere to be found.

“The police [are] looking for him … He is hiding at the moment because the word is out that he was the instigator,” du Plessis said. 

Political battles

The plight of the striking miners became embroiled in a bitter political struggle playing out in the country.

Julius Malema capatalised on mining strikes

The ruling African National Congress will elect its leadership in December – a decision that will most likely determine the country’s next president.

Keen to influence this decision, expelled youth league leader, Julius Malema , has been addressing crowds of miners and their suppporters, encouraging them to continue strikes and for others to join. He also blamed President Jacob Zuma for the killing of their colleagues.

Malema’s call has reverberated across the mining sector, with two platinum mines and a gold mine also hit by strikes.

“If Malema can create instability in the country, it will make President Zuma look bad, because it would make Zuma appear unable to maintain stability,” said Du Plessis, whose organisation Solidarity filed charges of incitement against Malema. 

“Obviously Julius Malema has an axe to grind, but the poor Lonmin employees [were] basically a rent-a-crowd for Julius Malema.”

Follow Safeeyah Kharsany on twitter  @safeeyah

Source: Al Jazeera