Volume 11, No. 35, 27 September 2012
The unfortunate and tragic events at Lonmin-Marikana Platinum Mines in perspective - the culpability of mining capital`s drive for super-profits and its devastating consequences
By Chris Matlhako, SACP 13th Congress Central Committee Member
"... the desirability of using large numbers of black unskilled labourers under the direction and supervision of a relatively small number of white skilled miners... stressed the importance of reducing working costs" (Nkosi. 2011: 211)
If we are to make sense of the unfortunate and tragic events that occurred at Lonmin-Marikana Platinum Mines and the subsequent developments thereafter, including the diverse and wide media coverage (national and international) the events received - an honest analysis of the South African MINING CAPITAL`S DRIVE FOR SUPER-PROFIT, is an important point of and for serious and thoughtful contemplation. This has become even more urgent with the potential spread of wildcat `strikes` and unprotected actions of workers across the sector, coupled with the inflammatory rhetoric of sorts, making this a time bomb waiting to explode.
These events also occur against the backdrop of the ongoing deepening, persistent and grinding poverty, high levels of unemployment and inequality, almost 17 years of the democratization process, where mining according to the Chamber of Mines in 2011 (Introduction to the Chamber of Mines 2011), reportedly `contributed about 19% of GDP (8.8% directly); over 50% of merchandise exports (if secondary beneficiated mineral exports are added); about 1 million jobs (about 500 000 jobs indirectly); about 18% of gross investment (10% directly); approximately 30% of capital inflows into the economy via the financial account of the balance of payments; about a third of the market capitalisation of the JSE; 93% of the country`s electricity generating capacity; about 30% of the country`s liquid fuel supply; the largest contributor by value to black economic empowerment in the economy (in terms of the value of BEE transactions completed) and about 10% to 20% of direct corporate tax receipts (R33 billion in 2008, R10.5 billion in 2009)`.
Notwithstanding the political grandstanding that has accompanied the unfortunate and tragic events, these matters - mining capitalists drive for super profit and its ancillary tactics, have clearly demonstrate the urgent need for a profound reflection in the sector in order to ensure its sustainability and primary role in our socio-economic and political trajectory as a nascent democratizing and transforming nation. Indeed, there are also important international developments worthy of paying attention to - which can be useful in the important national debate that must be undertaken to ensure it (mineral resources sector) plays its particular role in the process of democratization and transformation. For example, Norway`s approach towards its most important resources (oil and natural gas) is factored into its national growth and development trajectory in a particular manner, which contributes towards overall efforts towards growth and development. Similarly Argentina`s recent approach towards its natural resources, is worth a look-in.
According to Dr. Morley Nkosi (2012) writing in his recently released book `Mining Deep: The Origins of the Labour Structure in South Africa`, noted that, as president of the Chamber of Mines and speaking at a mine managers` centenary celebration, Bobby Godsell is quoted as having said: "From the earliest days the mine manager has been much more than a producer of minerals out of the ground. He`s been mayor, chief constable, magistrate and occasionally priest". A phenomenon that still prevails today, albeit in different forms, but essentially the same. This many ways reflects the basis upon which the sector was constructed over the years and unfortunately not much has changed in a fundamental way, outside of the policy of `accommodation` adopted by mining capitalists. This much is in many ways also reflected by the huge (racialised) gaps in remuneration and other labour related matters, such as the insistence of mining capital to use short-term contract labour (labour brokering), which bears all the hallmarks of the colonial-apartheid period of mining capitalists highlife! Therefore, historically mining has never played the kind of role that allowed for inclusive development and growth of the entire people`s of the country and should in the democratic dispensation, fundamentally restructure much of what has been part of its background.
There are many facets of mining that must be tackled to ensure fundamental transformation of the sector, but SA mining capital(ist) dealings with labour-related matters (in post-apartheid democratic SA), are also matters requiring urgent attention. In fact this is the basis of the labour structure that has characterized the sector over many years. That mining capital still relies on an discredit method of dealing with labour and recruitment, boggles the mind. As Wessel Visser notes in his paper, `Racially divided class: strikes in South Africa, 1973-2004`, "... history of industrial relations in South Africa, especially pertaining to strikes, is to a great extent also a reflection of the country`s racially divided past".
However, this is to be expected because, this (super profit motive) has served the sector well during the colonial and apartheid years and until now, it`s still untransformed in a democratic South Africa, despite making accommodation through some share-schemes of sort and having BEE components on boards. As SACP 13th Congress Central Committee statements points; "[I]t is not possible to understand the tragedy without understanding how profit-maximisation corporate greed has deliberately sought to undercut an established trade union and collective bargaining… "
This consideration is important for a number of reasons, not least to ensure that, as we attempt to deal with complicated and interconnected elements of the tragedy, through among others, the outcomes of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry, we develop far-reaching responses to deal with the root causes to avoid future recurrence - which at the heart of, is the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality, further exacerbated by the perpetuation of the colonial-apartheid labour structure in this sector.
This country has as a matter of fact witnessed far too many of these occurrences, as the July 2011 study by Wits senior researcher Dave Bruce, the `Operation of the Criminal Justice System in Dealing with the Violence at Amplats` poignantly points out. The Greater Rustenburg platinum belt and indeed other areas, which historically have been connected to mining operations confront similar challenges.
Mining labour structure
The events that preceded and finally culminating in the fateful day of shootings and deaths on the 16th of August, are amongst others, a direct outcome of the untransformed labour structure of the mining sector - its corollaries of a primitive and untransformed recruitment strategy (which still has its basis in the colonial-apartheid heydays of mining capital`s consolidation and industrialization of South Africa - that of the abundant but controlled availability of cheap labour) and its racial and exploitative basis, are still intact. The very basis for the establishment of the association of the Chamber of Mines back then was to ensure whatever competition existed between the mining companies then, was limited to other factors, but as it relates to the labour and reducing costs, there was unanimous agreement and collaboration on this front, which still persistent even today.
At the heart of this, is recruitment tactics and labour engagement in the sector, which continues to reproduce the historic (colonialism of a special type) features which are deeply and intractable social and economic phenomena in our country. As Ncube points out,`the vexing question, however, still remains - how will the current labour structure be re-organized in such a way that it eliminates it`s dual, hierarchies and exploitative character based on race and colour in keeping with the tenets of our new constitutional democracy? If it does change, what form and shape will it take? Will the growing power of black trade unions contribute, in some way, to solving the poor black problem? (Nkosi. 2011: v).
This (primitive super-profit drive) which was played out much more visibly these past few weeks and culminating in the tragic deaths of workers and police; begs the question: To what extent is South African mining capital willing to go in their pursuit of super-profits and at what price?
Unfortunately, much of what is offered as analyse to try and explain the events and ultimate culmination into that fateful days of the shootings and deaths of miners and police (approximately 44 people, the injury of more than 70 persons and the arrest of more than 250 people), is lost in the wrong prisms (upcoming 53rd ANC Conference in Mangaung), political grand-standing and apportioning of blame - either the state (police), the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and/or (somewhat a belated and half-hearted critique of the NUM`s so-called `rival` the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Not much has been made of and about the (e.g. the strike) events that led to the divergences between AMCU and NUM and the historic basis, which has fuelled this so-called `rivalry`, including the methods of intimidation, vigilantism and war-lordism and downright lumpenism that has characterised the existence of AMCU over time and in particular. Since those who facilitated its formation (AMCU) had really wanted it to be an instrument to undercut the power of NUM in sector, so as to ensure the one element which they have control over is manipulated to realise the profit margins.
Very few if any of the analyses, have come close to attempting to decipher the role of mining capital - its `strategies` historically and into the new democratic South Africa, of dealing with strikes, its exploitative character generally, at being as the root cause of much of the problems that still beset labour and other social-related issues of mining in the country - all in the endeavour to realise super-profits. Its dealings with strikes, use of primitive recruitment whose basis is ethnicity and festering rivalry between workers through tribalism and ultimately sponsoring rival unions to try and break the power of NUM, lie at the heart of the strategies employed by mining capital(ist) over time including into the democratic South Africa. Importantly, the untransformed labour structure, the Weihahn Commission in the early 1970s allowed black trade unions to exist but essentially maintained a hostile posture towards them. Argues Nkosi (2012); "... critical role played by South Africa`s gold meant that the labour structure in the gold mines of South Africa had to be retained , maintained and buttressed n the interests of the world`s financial system, in which the City of London was the center. That this labour structure was exploitative and destructive to black workers in and on the mines did not seem to matter very much to those whose objective was to accumulate gold at whatever cost".
The Lonmin-Marikana Platinum Mines events are a further toxin in a complex and dynamic situation, both on the home-front (nationalization debate) and internationally (financial and capitalist crisis where commodity-prizes are in downward spiral), the much vaunted Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies and it`s implications on the socio-economic and political terrain are all impacting to varying degrees on much of the South African polity. That the violent character of mining in South African has continued into the democratic dispensation unabated, is a serious cause for concern and indictment on the part of the democratic forces (progressive trade unions), the state and mining capitalists.
The Judicial Commission of Inquiry
It is in this context, that we must welcome President Zuma`s Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances ofthe tragic events, and its wide-scope of investigation - for this is an important starting point. The Judicial Commission Inquiry also demonstrates, in our view, the critical nature of the events and an endeavour on the part of the South African democratic state, to leave nothing uncovered and to find sustainable solutions to the issue by covering a wider-scope of interrelated issues. Because, indeed these matters are interrelated and this has not necessarily been accurately reported on and about by the mainstream media and other sources in the midst of the confluence of subjective posturing and political brinksmanship.
Through the wide-scope investigation, we believe, is a suggestion to seriously probe much deeper, these and other related elements of the tragic events, which relate for example, to amongst others a backward warlordism and lumpenism continuing to manifest in the recruitment networks of mineworkers and has become a such an endemic phenomenon in the informal settlements in close proximity to the mining operations. Such was an experience in former mine compounds and now the reality of many an informal settlement close to mining operations, where networks of criminal gangs control recruitment from rural areas and violently intimidate local communities and tribal chiefs in the vicinity. This, coupled with tribalism and ethnicity have been actively festered by and used by the mining bosses to drive a wedge between workers and a useful tool to try and break the back of powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Indeed, the terms of reference of the Commission as outlined cover a wide-enough scope, which incorporate these issues - to probe `Lonmin`s policies generally, including the procedure, practices and conduct relating to its employees and organised labour`. Failure to take a much wider and deeper examination of this matter, will not allow democratic South Africa to deal with underlying characteristics of the mining sector, its contradictory role, including its crucial economic role as an important pillar for transformation. Therefore, we cannot agree more with what is suggested by the Bench Mark Foundation, `Communities in the Platinum Minefield: Policy Gap 6` research report proposes, the state; "[S]hould amend the various laws pertaining to the different aspects of mining, such as health and safety, environment impacts…"
A direct outcome of this analysis, would mean deciphering the basis for undertaking a deeper and closer look at the `strategies` of SA mining capital(ist) pursuance of this objective - the drive for super profit, and the implications for such on a number of socio-economic and related aspects, e.g. communities in close proximity of mining operations have always had major concerns regarding mining operations and/or its perceived lack of investment and on environmental issues, and it`s recruitment policies among others.
Historic character of mining and its exploitative nature in South Africa - dealing with strikes and (black) workers
The historic relationship in South Africa of mining capital(ist) and the colonial-apartheid nexus is well-recorded. It is sufficiently detailed that among others, South Africa`s mining capital(ists) did not just benefit from the racist system, they helped design it. In the late 1890s, Genmin`s owner George Albu proposed that legislation be passed to force black South Africans to become cheap labourers. "The law is not the same for the kaffir as for the white man", Albu is reported to have stated. Albu`s views were generally shared by all the country`s mining bosses, and sadly permeate sections of the white management establishment, that still treats black mineworkers with disdain.
In fact becoming a mineworker (in South Africa) has been a violent, dehumanizing process and this violence continues even today.
In its submission to the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings into business and apartheid, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) explained: "Capitalism in South Africa was built and sustained precisely on the basis of the systematic racial oppression of the majority of our people ... Employers collaborated with the apartheid regime from the outset, supported apartheid in all its manifestations and benefited from apartheid capitalism with its exploitative and oppressive nature ... Far from being innocent of racial oppression, it was precisely the captains of industry - particularly those associated with the diamond and gold-mining industry - who pioneered many of the core features of what later came to be known as apartheid."
It is widely known that historically, mining capital has consistently earned high profits, though traditionally they have kept expenses to a minimum by paying low wages. Mining has become synonymous with exploitative labour policies, including the use of migrant workers on limited contracts, strict workers control in company compounds, and difficult working conditions. Generally, labour costs were (and continue) to be especially important in determining profits, because the price of commodities, though set throughout the 1960, are today at the mercy of international market-prices. Even when price commodities was allowed to float, mining capital(ist) could afford to produced less and still earn even greater profits.
It is also a fact that mining capital has had no regard for black lives in and on the mines. The scale of the South African mining capitalists` disregard for workers` lives is breathtaking: approximately 69,000 mineworkers died in accidents between 1900 and 1993, and more than 1 million were seriously injured over time. The most chilling example of how South Africa`s mining capital(ist) put profits before workers` safety occurred on September 15, 1986, at Gencor`s Kinross gold mine. In what was one of the worst accidents in South African mining history, 177 mineworkers were killed in an underground polyurethane fire. Shortly after the disaster, the names of white miners were released, but their black co-workers were only identified by their ethnic groups only. Gencor management subsequently obstructed and sabotaged the investigation of the tragedy and a poorly prosecuted case, the company was acquitted of culpable homicide.
Further, on New Year`s Day 1986, 30,000 workers at Impala Platinum (Implats) mines in former Bophuthatswana (Phokeng) went on strike for higher pay and other improvements. Implats refused to recognise the workers` union because it chose to abide by the `independent` apartheid-created Bophuthatswana`s anti-union laws (while continuing to recognise the South African-based whites-only union). Six days after the strike began, 25,000 workers were dismissed. Implats permitted Bophuthatswana riot police to attack workers with teargas and dogs.
Similarly, mass dismissals and repression took place during strikes at Gencor`s mines in Bophuthatswana in 1991 and these were used as tools to breaking the back of strikes and the use of scab labour always led to violent clashes between workers. Bruce`s study of `the operation of the criminal justice system in dealing with the violence at Amplats`, paints a grim picture of the interconnectedness of the issues, and principally the destructive role played by mining bosses in their attempts to realise super profits. The research report narrates the `violence is understood not as "conflict" but as being related to the efforts of a particular group of people associated with the Workers Mouth Peace Union (WMPU) to establish their authority as a union on the Amplats mines as well as to establish their authority more generally particularly in the informal settlements in the areas in which the mines are situated`. The research sketches a picture of rampant war-lordism, vigilante activities, intimidation, murder and political lumpenism dovetailing with the coming unto the scene of 5 Madoda and there after, the Workers Mouth Peace Union (WMPU). It is against this background that we should seek to comprehend the emergence of so-called `rival unions` in the sector.
Mining capital(ist) in democratic South Africa
Fast-forward to post-apartheid democratic South Africa, where that symbiotic relationship (apartheid capitalism) was somewhat disturbed, but not entirely disrupted, mining capital(ist) re-organised their `strategies`, within the framework of the new freedoms (new labour regime), but essentially retained the racist, demeaning and arrogant posture, which further contaminated the labour relations system in the mining sector. The deeply entrenched system of racially steeped employment in the hierarchy of mines still persist even today, where the top echelons are still held by skilled white males and the predominantly lower unskilled labour-intensive menial work done by blacks. The value system that underpinned mining capitalists then remains intact despite the changes enacted. As the Bench Marks Foundation Report also suggests, there are indeed huge transformational questions the mining capital(ist) has to undertake in respect of a whole range of issues such as the immediate communities in the surroundings of the operations, environmental issues and most importantly the labour-related matters.
It is also in this context, and founded on the fact that the large base of labour (unskilled, less education, migrant, rural and recruited from vast dispersed areas of the southern African region) in the sector with desperate sociological, cultural and economic backgrounds, has been viewed just as a mere instrument of profit-making - a cheap pool of labour. This, we want to argue, forms the basis and premise of `strategies` employed by mining capital(ist) to try and deal with strikes, and in particular to try and weaken a dominant progressive and leftwing trade union - the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
In the recent period, mining capital(ist) `strategies` have shifted to much more innovative methods to try an undercut the power NUM. `Rival` (since scab labour has been outlawed) unionism in the workplace, has found favour with management, as a direct tactic to divide and counter the bargaining power of the NUM. This has been a major aspect in post-apartheid South Africa labour relations regime. Whereas the labour regime has changed significantly from `the British-induced labour ethos - the `adversary system` to the `conciliatory system` of the European continent, as Sachs observed, mining bosses continue to tap into the banal base of the past, referred resonating with what Godsell referred to. Even when they deal with the trade union in the sector their view of the trade union is in essence very backward and racist. Visser also observes that South African labour history in the twentieth century was characterised as an era of political turmoil as well as of large-scale and serious endemic industrial unrest, which culminated in a number of major strikes. This industrial strife formed part of a cathartic process in which the relationship between capital and the state and its subjects in the field of labour took shape.
Historically, the working class and thus labour relations, in particular pertaining to strikes in South Africa have been racially divided, and the strategies and tactics of mining capital(ist) also followed these patterns over the years. Whereas, the white working class (even in the mining industry) found accommodation with colonial and racist policies of the authorities, black working class has had to endure the unleashing of the brute force of the police to break-up strikes, mass dismissals, festering of tribalism and cultivating `rival unions`. It is also in this period, that we also witness the emergence of the phenomenon where NUM`s structures and leadership become a turf-battle for control of the union. Mining capitalist hand is all but visible as these division among others led to the formation of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) in the Witbank area. This has led to sustained and cultivated programme to further deepen the `rivalry` through tribalist and ethnic-inclined recruitment, resulting thereafter in criminal (warlords) networks, who control employment and recruitment lines of the black work-force. Many workers come from the rural-hinterland, with very little formal education if any, and are recruited through a tribal and ethnic affiliation and brought to the proximity of the mine, where they would stay in an informal settlement until a `job` arises. This pool of workers is also a source of scab labour which in many instances result in violent clashes often and organized along tribal and ethnic lines. Therein the power of the criminal warlords manifest as they seek through intimidation to maintain hegemony in the area (informal settlement) and also enforce strikes and others.
Lately the phenomenon of `business unionism` has evolved as an active endeavour to oppose the dominant unions (generally) in the sector - the National Union of Mineworkers. `Business unionism` can be observed through the manifestation of, but not exclusively, the increasing frequency and intensity to challenge for leadership position in the unions, based on the belief that once leadership has been supplanted, a new outlook can be imposed by those who `paid` for such a campaign and victory.
The `unitarist management practice` and the exploitation of the (black) majority have been at the heart of the labour relations problems in the mining industry in particular, for a very long time. It is in understanding the efforts (strategies and tactics) of the mining capital(ist) to deal with strikes in the sector, which is at the heart of providing a comprehensive response to this matter, and therefore, hope the Presidential Commission of Inquiry will among others also deal with these matters thoroughly through a wide-ranging mandate.
Though the democratic state has endeavours to bring about transformation in many areas of the South African socio-economic and political terrain, the single most important sector in many respects has escaped this process and has continued to reproduce colonialism of a special type features legacy of the past. Former mining compounds have now been replaced with informal settlements in close proximity to the mining operations and these have become dens of warlords and criminal networks that control recruitment and employment lines in the mines. The absence of police and other state facilities, services and infrastructure has resulted in these informal settlements being areas of control for warlords associated with mine recruitment and their criminal networks who hold entire communities to ransom and from time to time would be intimidated.
Lack of development and employment opportunities for locals also play into the tribalism and ethnic categories which would at different periods also result in violent clashes in the communities. Mine operations and it`s dismissive attitude towards local development within their proximity and fundamentally altering the employment and recruitment processes will continue to yield tensions.
The reviewal of the labour structure and appropriate legislative frameworks are required to ensure that the mining capitalists conform to the transformation goals set in a profound and fundamental manner. That almost 20 years into the democracy, mining labour structure remains and continues to reproduce racial and tribalism festering elements is total unacceptable and irresponsible. Part of this will also have to deal with the culpability of mining bosses and their continued efforts to try and undercut trade unions where they organise.