By Toby Moorsom
On Aug. 16, 2012, the South African Police Force (SAPF) gunned down a group of striking miners. Following the first hail of bullets, they hunted down the remaining workers in commando fashion, shooting many in the back. In total, 34 were killed and scores of others injured in what’s been dubbed the Marikana massacre.
It is understandable if most Canadians felt very distant from this tragedy and therefore swept it aside as one more piece of horrible news that we can do nothing about. The reality, however, is that Canadian mining companies had much to gain from the South African government taking more assertive action in settling the strike.
At the same time, our union movement has in the past provided various forms of international solidarity that have bolstered the power of the most aggressively anti-worker elements in this conflict.
The primary antagonists leading up to the strike were in fact the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), an organization that has been the recipient of millions of dollars in aid from the Canadian sources, including labour unions. The NUM leadership is completely enmeshed within its parent body, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), an organization with a formal alliance to the Canadian Labour Congress.
It is also entwined with the leadership of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The collusion between all these parties and the Lonmin management is what resulted in the disgusting assault on the miners at Marikana. These workers had been repeatedly failed by the post-apartheid order.
Still half are living in dilapidated shacks in one of 38 ethnically-fragmented settlements. Many are illiterate and chronically in debt thanks to collusion between banks, lawyers, Lonmin, and a legal system that allowed them to garnished fees from paycheques of indebted employees.
20 years ago, the then-Canadian International Development Agency and a multi-union solidarity fund had allocated a portion of a 1994 donation specifically to NUM for building worker residences and promoting efforts to include housing in collective agreements.
Yet the real issue at the heart of the wildcat strike that led up to the massacre at the Lonmin mine was actually an approach to unionism. It is an approach in which NUM leadership was brought onto the side of management and failed to represent the workers. Mine ownership, state and union power are thoroughly intertwined.
South Africa After Apartheid
The transition from apartheid in 1994 ended formal political and legal racial discrimination, yet the economic power of South Africa’s predominantly white capitalist class was bolstered.
In the following 2 years, ANC leadership was schooled, wined and dined by the World Bank and various international advisors, and by 1996, the party core had embraced neoliberalism and adopted the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) program. It prescribed harsher fiscal policy than the World Bank imposed on the rest of Africa under duress.
South Africa has yet to achieve the expected economic growth, let alone employment, that was promised.
A small Black elite has emerged with help of Black Economic Empowerment initiatives, but these have often resulted in grotesque schemes that prey upon the public sector and the economies of the surrounding region.
Meanwhile, South Africa now holds the highest youth unemployment rate in the world and only about 35 per cent hold jobs in the formal economy. At the same time, services like water, electricity and waste disposal have been privatized under regressive tariff structures, while many remain without access.
The contradictions of the economics of the post-apartheid era and the hit South Africa took during the Great Recession of the late 2000s laid the ground for labour unrest.
The Marikana Massacre and the NUMSA moment
South African labour is facing an historic upheaval as the country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has been pushed out of the national Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This came about as their opposition to ANC economic policy put them at odds with unionists aligned with the party.
A battle coalesced when NUMSA called for an end to the Tripartite Alliance between COSATU, the SACP, and the ANC, established in the final days of the anti-apartheid struggle.
NUMSA, South Africa’s largest union with 300,000 members, has a history of left activism. It has opposed the criminality, corruption and lack of democracy within the ANC. It also opposes the ongoing support the ANC receives from the SACP.
They have criticized the SACP for “welcoming” privatizations, allying with business, failing to address unemployment and regularly sugar-coating regressive ANC policy.
Issues of business-unionism were at the heart of the Lonmin strike-turned massacre. Some were members of the Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union (AMCU) that split from NUM because its SACP-affiliated leadership failed to address issues faced by the most precarious workers doing the most difficult and dangerous work.
When they mobilized independently and took their concerns to the offices shared by NUM, ANC and SACP, they were shot at and two miners were killed.
In the 1980s, then-activist Cyril Ramaphosa built up NUM and COSATU until he became Secretary General of the ANC in 1991. During the Marikana strike, he was Chair of the National Planning Commission and ANC Deputy President-elect.
He also sat on Lonmin’s Board of Directors (as part owner) and today, according to Forbes, has a net worth of $700 million. In the days before the massacre he had been pressuring the Police Commissioner on Lonmin’s behalf for more serious action, describing the strikers as “dastardly criminal.”
Though not a member of the SACP, Ramaphosa has maintained their support.
One might think the Lonmin disaster would promote inward reflection among unionists, yet instead in the following months the SACP led a push to vote NUMSA out of COSATU for its desire to break the alliance with the ANC.
The Launch of the United Front
Sent out in the wilderness, NUMSA has called for the building of a United Front, to forge a political alternative with some resemblance to the United Democratic Front from the anti-apartheid days, bringing together workers, students and social justice organizations. They are perhaps the only union fighting for benefits for all workers, whether or not they are unionized, and they are committed to expanding in non-unionized sectors.
They seek a society defined by the Freedom Charter of 1955 that set targets of full employment and the sharing of national wealth and land by those who work it.
At least 7 other prominent unions have pledged their support for NUMSA’s challenge to the alliance. Many disgruntled members from unsupportive unions have attempted to join, forcing NUMSA to face allegations of poaching.
Many demonize NUMSA – some suggesting its forthright Secretary General, Irvin Jim, is sectarian and corrupt. Yet these portrayals are driven by fear and distract from the seriousness of the concerns NUMSA presses boldly.
NUMSA’s activities have attracted interest from labour and the left from around the world, but there is still a long road ahead. NUMSA’s commitment is to a long-term process of building a socialist society, and this vision emerges from deeply democratic processes involving rank-and-file members.
There is no timeline for the formation of a party and/or an alternative labour forum, though both are targets. Where the process lacks capacity it at least offers inspiration.
Rank-and-file unionists in Canada should be allying with this movement, and the first thing we can do to support it is to get our own unions to make official statements opposing NUMSA’s removal from COSATU.
We can let NUM leadership know we are unimpressed with the use of our solidarity funds. Beyond that, we need to be examining the various ways Canadian businesses are enriching themselves on the continued impoverishment of South Africans.
During the Marikana strike, for example, the ANC government was also facing pressures from other mining companies. Canadian-owned Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. was threatening to cut jobs if their new Platreef mining project didn’t get government approval. And in 2014, they received approval for the $1.6 billion mining project, now based in the Limpopo province. The Globe and Mail refers to the venture as “one of the biggest platinum projects in the world.”
Ivanhoe Mines is joined by Platmin, Eastern Platinum, and Platinum Group Metals as companies that hold significant rights in South Africa.
While labour unrest in South Africa – including the 5 month long wage strike by Platinum mine workers in 2014 – has impacted South Africa’s “attractiveness” to Canadian mining companies, it nonetheless remains a point of interest for many Canadian resource extractors.
These corporations and their lobbying vessels continue to intensify pressure on countries across the world to erode national regulations, taxes and tariffs, and even worse, intensify labour control measures. It is at this take-off point that we can begin to understand Canadian complicity in the Marikana massacre and other disasters.