South Africa: Socialist Party Councillor speaks to striking miners

5,000 sacked miners on strike

On Saturday June 26 I travelled with two comrades from South Africa’s Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) to a mass meeting they had called in Rustenburg, about two hours north west of Johannesburg. The DSM is the Socialist Party’s sister party in South Africa.

The city of Rustenburg contains 400,000 people and is best known to Australians as the host of several World Cup games at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium. However it is also a major mining centre and has the world’s two largest platinum mines.

Since last August, 5000 miners have been on strike at a platinum mine after being sacked during a wages dispute. They received little support from their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which is affiliated to the national union federation, Cosatu. In turn, Cosatu is in an alliance with the Communist Party and the governing African National Congress (ANC). The fact that Cosatu owns 15% of the shares in the same company the workers were sacked by may have something to do with the lack of support the miners received!

Socialist Party (CWI) councillor marches with striking miners

Over the next few months these miners left the NUM and joined the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of South Africa (Mewusa) which is affiliated to the rival Pan Africanist influenced trade union federation, the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu). Mewusa is a militant and democratic union that is under the political influence of the DSM.

We arrived at an informal settlement (shanty-town) just outside Rustenburg and were met by about 500 striking miners standing around on a dusty patch of land waiting for the meeting to start. The meeting was organised by Mewusa specifically for the DSM to discuss the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter.

Within minutes of arriving the workers started marching through the settlement singing revolutionary songs and pulling in more people to attend the mass meeting. One song was called “Why I am a Communist” and went: “My father was a garden boy; my mother was a kitchen girl, that’s why I am a communist”

After about 30 minutes of marching we returned to the field where the DSM leaders stood on a rocky crop above the crowd to address the meeting. I was introduced as a member of the International Executive Committee of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), a Socialist Party Councillor from Melbourne and an active trade unionist. After several chants such as “Viva the CWI” and “Viva the Socialist Party in Australia”, I began my speech.

I told them that many workers internationally had been following their struggle through the parties of the CWI. More than a decade and a half since the fall of Apartheid it was shocking to many workers that miners in South Africa still had to strike to achieve decent wages and conditions – all this in the teeth of opposition from the ANC government and the bosses.

I explained that in a real democratic and militant union, the members controlled their leadership. Even then, unions themselves were not enough as, at best, they only represent workers while at work. To ensure their voice was heard on broader issues, workers needed a party. The ANC was not that party as its recent actions had shown.

A real workers’ party should only allow their MPs to live on the average wage of workers and have the right of recall. “If you want to make money, start a business or become a gangster – keep out of our movement”, I told the workers.

Weizmann Hamilton, leader of the DSM explained that, whereas for the working class the nationalisation clauses in the Freedom Charter are meant to end their exploitation by the bosses, for the aspirant black capitalists whose interests the ANC represent, the nationalisation clauses in the Freedom Charter are not a call for socialism but instead used as a means to enrich the black elite.

They want to be accommodated by the predominantly white capitalist class, not overthrow capitalism. Today this is called ‘Black Economic Empowerment’. This is what lies behind the nationalisation call by ANC Youth League president Julius Malema. After 16 years of the ANC’s capitalist rule the gap between rich and poor is now the widest in the world. South Africa has beaten Brazil in the World Cup of inequality.

The meeting was translated into Sotho and was chaired by the most popular leader of the miners, Mametlwe Sebei, who is also a leading member of the DSM. Through his flair and ideas Sebei has won the hearts of the workers. The Socialist Party in Australia looks forward to Sebei addressing our National Conference in Melbourne on the first weekend of October.

The meeting continued in the warm winter sun for over three hours, but next to no workers left early, such was their thirst for the ideas of the union and the DSM. When the meeting opened up for discussion, one older worker compared the leaving of the miners from the ineffectual NUM to Mewusa as akin to Jews leaving from Egypt to the Promised Land by Moses in the Old Testament!

Another worker said that only at this DSM meeting did he get an explanation and analysis of the events. This had never occurred in the NUM. He asked for more political education for workers from the union and from the DSM.

When the meeting finally ended, workers grabbed me and the DSM leaders for some more informal political discussions. It was a battle to finally get back to our transport and home!

Mewusa is clearly democratic, militant and growing. If they win this strike and the miners get their jobs back, the union predicts a rapid growth for itself. Many workers still at work are watching developments closely and if the striking workers win this battle we can be assured that many more will join.

The position that the DSM has carved out for itself with these workers is extremely impressive. The challenge ahead is to extend the influence of Mewsa and to build the DSM as a political alternative to the parties that have failed to take the struggle of South African workers forward.

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June 2010