Q&A: Understanding the Marikana strikes

What wider implications will ongoing strikes after the “Marikana massacre” have for South African politics?

South Africa mineworker Lonmin''s Marikana mine
Workers continue to strike in Marikana, demanding a 300 per cent wage hike [Reuters]

Johannesburg, South Africa – The town of Marikana in the North West province of South Africa made international headlines on August 16, when police opened fired and killed 34 miners engaged in a protracted strike action outside the Lonmin platinum mine.

The killing sparked international outrage and a national commission of enquiry was set up to investigate what has become known as the “Marikana massacre”.

Meanwhile the strike itself has continued unabated, as workers have remained resolute on their demands for a 300 per cent wage hike that experts say the industry will not be able to afford. But the protracted strike has revealed severe tears within the labour movement. The violent rivalry between National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has raised hard questions over the labour movement’s ability to represent workers adequately during a time of rising worker insecurity, unemployment and economic strife.

With NUM traditionally seen as the vanguard of the well being of miners, developments in Marikana suggest that biggest union in South Africa might be in a midst of a crisis that signal a shift in industrial relations in the country.
Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa speaks to Crispen Chinguno, a researcher of Industrial and Economic Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg about the multiple layers of the strike action that could have wider implications for South African politics.
Azad Essa: Miners have been striking for the past four weeks over poor pay and living conditions. But what are the wider issues at play here?

Crispen Chinguno: The hostel type accommodation [developed under aparthed] has been phased out since 1994 and now the majority of miners live in informal settlements, in shacks or mkhukus as they refer to them here. In these settlements there are no roads, electricity, water or proper sanitation … there are virtually no services. The workers in the mines have become too fragmented when compared to the era before 1994.

Crispen Chinguno

There are those who directly work for the mines and some of these live in better conditions but most are in squalid conditions. But their proportion is fast diminishing as employers prefer subcontractors. The proportion of workers in the mining industry hired by subcontractors is growing. Some of them earn as low as R1800 a month ($220). These are the miners who are hardest hit.

Mining companies are increasingly using subcontractors, as they attempt to reduce the number of permanent staff and reduce costs and many miners are now hired as temporary or casual labour, including the rock drillers.

At some mines, there can be as many as 40 subcontractors and labour brokers employing miners on behalf of the company. Take the case of the Impala platinum mine for example, at least 42 per cent are working through sub contractors. This has affected the unions ability to organise and as a result it has become difficult to build worker collective solidarity. Thus violence becomes the tool to forge worker collective solidarity.

AE: There are many questions over the 300 per cent salary hike demanded by workers especially during a time where mining industry has slowed due to the global recession. Is this fair criticism?
CC: This is not surprising. Journalists are not taking much time and care to understand the connection between the communities where these mine workers live and their workplace. What happens at the workplace and the community are inextricably connected. The miners live precarious lives both at home and work. Most informal settlements are illegal and they know they can be moved out at any time. Their conditions are so bad such that they can hardly send their kids to school. They can hardly feed their families.

It is imperative that we connect the two worlds, then understanding their demands for a 300 per cent wage hike will suddenly not appear as ‘unreasonable’ or ‘outrageous’ as has been reported. Miners are challenging a system that is based on exploitation and inequality that persisted for the 150 years history of the mining industry in South Africa; an unequal and absurd model of sharing surplus. If they win in this struggle it may extricate them from the trap of poverty and inequality. Workers know that the mines are making huge profits.
AE: But why now? What has happened for miners to have become so resolute about their demands?

CC: I think they have now realised NUM – which helped fight against apartheid in the workplace and in society – is no longer on their side. They feel the union has been co-opted and compromised. As a result, they have lost confidence in it. They see the union as captured by management.

This is a common problem with trade unions. As they grow bigger they go through what Lister calls goal displacement, in other words, they move closer towards articulation of the interests of management and at the same time drift away from the interests of their membership.

AE: What role is the rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), playing in this dispute?

CC: It is a union that has existed since 1998 – and for all these years – it has tried to make a breakthrough towards organising workers in the mining industry and was facing formidable challenges. They made a breakthrough at Lonmin Karee in 2011 and then at Impala where they now represent thousands and NUM has almost been dislodged.

This situation [in Marikana] was an opportunity for them to make a breakthrough in an industry and in an environment where it is difficult for new unions to make an impact in the workplace because of a collective bargaining agreement and labour relations regime that protect hegemonic trade unions. To get full recognition, unions need to have a membership of at least 50 per cent. This closes room for small trade unions and avoids trade union competition .This is designed to promote big trade unions. So AMCU seized this opportunity and you cannot blame them.

AE: Is it significant that AMCU has able to make a breakthrough in the mining sector?

CC: If you want to understand the socio, economic and political order of South Africa, you have to understand the mining industry. What this tells us now is that we might be experiencing a shift in the labour relations regime in the country. We may be moving away from the hegemonic trade union regime, to a new era where there can be more than one big union in an industry – representing black workers on the shop floor.

This is a direct challenge to COSATU’s principle of ‘one union one industry’ – and this is why we have had this violence in Marikana. Of course you have these small former white unions still existing. They are a legacy of the past and now usually represent the more skilled workforce. They do not appeal to the shop floor black working class. To have a big union not affiliated to COSATU  and appealing to ordinary black shop floor workers especially in mining sector is something new.

AE: The big question then is if these developments pave the way toward a break from labour and the governing African National Congress (ANC)?

People know that that the government grossly miss handled this case and it has opened the way for political opportunists and [President] Zuma opponents to capitalise on it.

CC: In way it is the big question that many trade unions in Africa have faced. How should the trade union relate to the ruling political movement? Should it forge an alliance or be independent? In the African context, this is a question that has been asked in Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and many others. It often pops up now and then. Some argue that the South African model of alliance is best way to influence the political system. However, others argue that the union lose independence and become less critical. And I have been asking workers in my research if they would still vote for the ANC – and most of them say they will continue to do so.

They remain overwhelmingly ANC supporters. As is it stands it seems many are, not connecting the shop floor issues with the national politics. This however, may change in future and may be the beginning marking the erosion of ANC hegemony in South African politics. This is not to say that the events of Marikana won’t influence what happens at the ANC policy conference in December. People know that that the government grossly miss handled this case and it has opened the way for political opportunists and [President] Zuma opponents to capitalise on it.

AE: Finally, how do you see this labour dispute being resolved?

CC: The parties are still bargaining through other means. I mean through non conventional means. It is a question of power at play here, that is, between the workers and their employers. The way this event unfolded has somehow strengthened workers. It has emboldened them. They have gained sympathy. It has consolidated their solidarity and militancy. It has created martyrs. This situation cannot be resolved by signing peace accords. The peace accord signed by Lonmin, NUM, Solidarity and UASA is not going to make any change to this impasse. It’s an accord that has the wrong people on the table.This situation can only be resolved by a compromise by the workers and the employers. But in this equation the employer has to concede more. The employer need to understand that the problem is a challenge to the industrial relations system and cannot be resolved by the current regulations.

Source: Al Jazeera