South Africa: Workers confront brutal South African capitalism

The class struggle in South Africa is far sharper than in many countries. Socialist consciousness is far higher among the powerful, industrial working class.

On 16 August the premeditated slaughter of 34 striking Lonmin miners in Marikana by the South African police shocked the world. It revealed that, despite the ending of apartheid and the historic election of the African National Congress (ANC) government in 1994, a ruthless and brutal regime of capitalism still exists in South Africa.

The Marikana massacre has shaken the foundations of the whole of South African society. It has had an irreversible impact on the ANC ruling government party. A big question mark has also been placed over the role played by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and its largest affiliate the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Alec Thraves (left), Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales), next to Mametlwe Sebei, Democratic Socialist Movement, DSM (CWI South Africa)

Among the working class in South Africa social discontent is growing. So are a rejection of the corrupt political and trade union leaders and demands for fundamental change. These are highlighted – not just by the unofficial miners’ strike – but by strikes of hundreds of thousands of other workers across all sectors of industry.

The demand of the striking miners for a R12,500 (£900) a month, minimum wage is now the rallying call for low-paid workers across the country.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, affiliated, as is the Socialist Party to the Committee for a Workers’ International, the world socialist organisation) is playing a decisive role in the mineworkers’ dispute, assisting and leading the unofficial Coordinating Strike Committees and posing a socialist alternative to the corruption, greed and betrayal of the present ANC and NUM leaderships.

Like many activists, most of the Lonmin workers have little confidence in South African President Zuma’s ‘official inquiry’ into the massacre. Many of those workers have already answered the lies poured out by the lying capitalist media in South Africa and across the globe.

The massacre

At a DSM meeting in Flagstaff, in the Eastern Cape, a DSM activist and one of the leaders of the Strike Coordinating Committee along with Weizmann Hamilton, a DSM organiser from Johannesburg, explained what really happened on 16 August, from out of the mouths of the mineworkers who were present:

“The precipitating event in the Lonmin strike was management’s unilateral decision to grant unilateral increases to selected workers. In spite of the fact that this broke an existing two-year agreement signed by the NUM, set to expire in June 2013.

“The NUM’s failure to react meant it was once again colluding with management so workers took matters into their own hands forming an independent rank-and-file committee. On 9 August the Lonmin strike committee presented their demand for a R12,500 a month minimum wage. The NUM refused to support them, management refused to negotiate, so the miners shut the pit down.

“On Saturday morning NUM officials tried to force the miners back to work so the strike committee sent delegates to the NUM office (which is unbelievably next to the police station in the Lonmin mine ‘informal settlement’ (squatter camp). As they approached the office they were shot at, killing two members of the strike committee. With management reacting in the normal manner by sending in private security and the police to stop the strike by force resulting in the death of four more workers, two private security guards and two policemen.

“The striking mineworkers concluded that for their own safety it was best to move off the mine to a small mountain to continue their protest. The workers’ demand was simple: management should meet with them and respond to their demands. What happened next was premeditated murder and could have only happened with clearance at the highest level of government, police and the employers. It was a decision to crush the strike and drown it in the blood of the strikers.

“The police fenced off the mountain leaving just a five-metre gap in the barbed wire. 3,000 armed police, with helicopter back-up went on the attack from the air and on all sides. Starting from the back of the crowd, they shot and forced the strikers to run towards the five-metre gap. As they tried to get out they were shot down by the waiting police so they turned around and ran back hiding under trees and rocks.

“That’s where the majority of strikers were killed, with nowhere to run. Some were killed after raising their hands in the air while others were lying injured and then finished off. There were only survivors among the injured because police thought they were dead and threw their bodies on a heap. 34 strikers were killed, 79 injured and 234 arrested.”

To add insult to injury, the National Prosecuting Authority, revealing the cold callousness of the state, initially attempted to press murder charges against the arrested miners for the death of their own comrades, under the notorious Doctrine of Common Purpose used by the apartheid regime. Marikana is the brutal reality of capitalism in South Africa!

The ANC government presided over this massacre. A corrupt, degenerate government of big business is now finished in the eyes of big numbers of the working class. As well as returning the country back to the dark days of apartheid repression the disgusting flaunting of wealth and privileges by ANC leaders is exposed in the media every day.

Political ‘fat cats’

The state-financed, R200-million upgrade of President Zuma’s massive private residential complex in his home village is dominating the national press. It reportedly has underground bunkers, a helipad, luxury furnishings and two soccer pitches for his security guards to have a kick about!

With the five- yearly ANC national conference due to take place in December, Zuma is attempting to stand for a second five-year term as president of the ANC which automatically means remaining as state president as well.

His main rival Kgalema Motlanthe, the deputy president of the ANC has no real ideological differences with Zuma – but like all the warring factions their main objectives are power and all the wealth and perks that go with it. Whatever faction gains power and whoever becomes president in December it will just mean a new corrupt management running a rotten ANC house of privilege and the South African working class will be picking up the tab!

It’s likely that expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s political career is coming to a close following charges of money laundering. Malema opportunistically tried to gain favour among striking miners by supporting their strike and calling for the nationalisation of the mining industry.

Malema addressing workers at Lonmin

The demand for nationalisation understandably got an echo from a layer of the working class in South Africa but the feeling among striking activists is that Malema is intervening for his own narrow political interests. With houses and mansions worth millions, sports cars and designer clothes, Malema has moved a long way from his younger days as an ANC militant.

Any serious attempt to portray Malema as a champion of working class interests would be treated with laughter by those activists in South Africa attempting to build a genuine socialist alternative. The term ‘fat cats’ could have been invented for the aspiring black bourgeois class of the ANC who arrogantly flaunt their wealth and size, much to the hatred of the struggling working class.

Corruption is endemic at the top of South African society, from the ‘fat cat’ politicians and big corporation bosses to the media companies and trade union officials at all levels.

NUM betrayal

Is it any surprise then that the strike-breaking NUM is losing thousands of members when they collaborate with management and attack their own members? And thanks to his latest increase, NUM general secretary, Baleni, now earns R105,000 a month salary but yelled for the Lonmin bosses, the police and army to put an end to the strike where workers were demanding just R12,500 per month!

The NUM is now blaming the spread of the unofficial strikes on the Lonmin bosses because they gave in to the strikers’ demands! You really do have to pinch yourself sometimes when you consider the treacherous role of these trade union leaders.

Compare the capitulation of these cowardly leaders to the determination of the unofficial strike leaders who when told by the management of one shaft that their national agreement with the NUM didn’t run out till June 2013 so they wouldn’t negotiate were told – ‘ok then, we will stay out and see you next June’!

Even Cosatu has had to recognise the damage their biggest affiliate is doing to their reputation, so after weeks of saying and doing nothing to support the miners they have now slapped the wrists of the NUM leaders and are attempting to claw back some credibility as a trade union federation.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of the most militant and conscious workers, Cosatu has been exposed as ineffective at best and a collaborator of the bosses at worse. Recognising the weak and vacillating role of Cosatu, the unofficial coordinating strike committees look set to continue and expand their influence across all unions after this present dispute ends.

Horrendous conditions

The miners’ strike is not just about wages. It is also a protest about the horrendous conditions that the working class in South Africa are facing under capitalism. The ‘informal settlement’ or squatter camps, or ‘shack lands’ or whatever term you want to give them are a disgrace to a civilised society in the 21st century.

These ‘informal settlements’ exist in their thousands across South Africa, not just alongside mine shafts but in the urban areas of Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and other cities. Tin sheds, where in Britain we wouldn’t put animals or gardening tools, let alone human beings! In many of the settlements there is no electricity, no running water, no sanitation, no roads just dirt tracks – nothing, no life, no existence – just misery.

Social conditions such as these provide the breeding ground for alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, prostitution, but also for revolution, especially among the young! That’s why DSM has branches in the mining squatter camps of Rustenburg, including Marikana, where several more young miners and sacked miners have now joined DSM.

The DSM has also recruited incredibly courageous female community activists in the township of Freedom Park, in Johannesburg. There the ‘Golf Club’ gang has just been arrested after a violent campaign of attacks in the community which left young women, not robbed, not beaten up, just brutally raped. The youngest gang member was 14.

DSM’s female members will also be to the forefront in fighting the horrific homophobic phenomenon sweeping South Africa, disgustingly known as ‘corrective rape’. This term, actually coined in South Africa where it has been prevalent, refers to the raping of lesbians to ‘cure’ them of their ‘disease’.

South Africa remains one of the most violent countries in the world. For the working class and poor ‘life is cheap’. In stark contrast, for example, in the predominantly white Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, tourists take photos of the large Nelson Mandela statue in the plush, European-style shopping complex. This is a social bubble, far removed from the real South Africa. Such a divide between rich and poor is a recipe for a massive social explosion – which is being glimpsed at the moment with strikes and protests across the country.

Socialist alternative

The DSM puts forward the socialist alternative to this. Its effective intervention in the mineworkers’ strike has raised its profile enormously over the past few months. Mametlwe Sebei, a DSM member and main spokesperson for the strike coordinating committee, has received massive coverage in the national media for his leadership of the strike movement in Rustenburg and his growing authority among the mineworkers.

Sebei proudly and openly appeals to mineworkers, trade unionists and the working class in general to join the DSM and assist the building of a socialist society. Dozens of trade unionists, youth and community campaigners have responded to Sebei’s appeal and joined the DSM, including several young workers at the national coordinating strike committee meeting in Marikana. The demand for a new mass workers’ party is also enthusiastically greeted whenever it is raised and the DSM will be to the fore in establishing such an initiative.

The class struggle in South Africa is far sharper than in many countries across the world. Socialist consciousness and the receptiveness for a socialist alternative are far higher among this powerful, industrial working class.

The DSM is poised to take a huge step in building a socialist movement that can eradicate this brutal capitalist state and introduce a socialist society that can finally offer a future worth living for to the poor and oppressed of South Africa.

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October 2012