Solidarity is urgently needed for striking South African mineworkers at a platinum mine in Rustenburg whose dispute has become extremely bitter. In August around 5,000 workers, members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the biggest affiliate of Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) embarked on a legal strike for a wage increase.
Facing particularly harsh conditions, these mineworkers are among the lowest paid with one of the most intensely exploitative regimes with three blasts a day where other mines have one. Their demands included a 15% pay increase and improved benefits.
Two days into the strike, without warning the workers received notice from the NUM leadership that they had settled for a 10.5% increase. The leadership’s justification was that other mineworkers had agreed to this. The leadership’s capitulation cut across attempts to build solidarity with workers at other mines.
The workers frustration with their leadership’s decision to sign an agreement without their consent spilled over into anger when the union leadership ordered them back to work. The workers rejected the agreement and resolved to carry on with the strike. The leadership’s action effectively rendered continued strike action illegal. Increasingly desperate, the mineworkers staged a sit-in underground at the mine and have been accused of alleged ‘boss-napping’.
The mine bosses’ response was to sack all the workers. Protests were organised to demand the workers’ reinstatement. The mine bosses, with a horrific history of repression, exploitation and inhuman brutality, interpreted the union leadership’s role as an opportunity to slash the workers’ conditions. They announced they would only be prepared re-employ the workers on reduced pay and wipe out all their previous work history including pension credits and other benefits.
Under pressure a small number drifted back to work but this was the exception. The main effect was to increase the workers’ determination to fight on. Thousands remained on strike and attempted to re-occupy the mine. Mine security and police with dogs, armed with live ammunition and willing to shoot were unleashed against them. So far three have been confirmed dead, with an unknown number missing. Many were arrested. Those in hospital were in effect under arrest. The NUM had turned its back on the workers.
For the workers it was completely unacceptable for the union leadership to remain silent whilst the bosses unleashed such attacks on them. They organised a protest march to the Cosatu congress in September.
Following discussions with members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), the Socialist Party’s sister party in South Africa – at the conference to discuss with Cosatu members and to sell the DSM paper, Izwi La Basebenzi (Voice of the Workers) -- Mametlwe Sebei, a DSM trade union activist and media and campaigns coordinator of the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of South Africa (Mewusa) travelled to Rustenburg to assist their struggle.
Mewusa was able to assist in determining the number of workers killed, to secure the release of those detained and to arrange legal representation. Seeing a more militant leadership and also the opportunity to remain connected to other workers, the workers renounced their NUM membership and the entire branch joined Mewusa en bloc.
The significance of this is that Mewusa belongs to a different trade union federation – the National Council of Trade Unions. For South African trade unionists the memory of the sacrifices made to build the trade unions especially Cosatu which played a central role in defeating the repressive Apartheid regime at a time when joining a union was literally a life and death question, is still alive. They do not quit their unions easily. When they do, it reflects the depth of their frustration. These workers were in an incredibly difficult situation where their leadership had betrayed them and opened them up to vicious attacks by the employer.
Whilst seeking practical help on the way forward the mineworkers are also open to the DSM’s socialist ideas. Mewusa succeeded in securing the release of 34 jailed workers on bail. Access was won for the families of those arrested but hospitalised. Those mineworkers who remained in hiding underground in protest surfaced on hearing news of renewed struggle under the new leadership of Mewusa.
DSM and Mewusa put forward a programme for the struggle. This included calls for a mobilisation of other mineworkers in the city and workers elsewhere. They also raised the idea of linking up with the local communities. Rolling mass action is planned which will raise the crucial question of nationalisation and the need for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. The struggle continues with renewed determination. A demonstration is planned for Saturday 12 December.
Further reports will be carried in the Socialist as the movement develops and can be read on the website of the DSM, Socialistsouthafrica.co.za