Heroic Sibanye strike highlights tactical issues facing South African workers’ movement

The temperature of the class struggle is rising. 2022 has already seen a whole number of strikes in mining, metal, manufacturing, on farms, and in the public sector. Some have been brief skirmishes as workers test their strength against the bosses. Others have been bitterly fought and protracted battles lasting weeks and months. Everywhere the issue is wages. Behind this strike wave looms the crisis of capitalism and the sledgehammer it has taken to working class living standards (see here). Workers are resisting the erosion of their already inadequate pay packets and refusing to be pushed into abject poverty without a fight. The brooding anger of the entire working class is finding an outlet where the class is strongest – amongst organised workers in the trade unions.

The strike wave is posing afresh many of the tactical and strategic issues facing the workers’ movement. None more so than the strike in Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold mines, which ended in an important victory. The workers were demanding a R1,000 per month increase. After a determined strike lasting twelve weeks, which included a three-week occupation outside Union Buildings, this demand was won for certain categories of workers and the strike was called off.

Sibanye

The face of the Sibanye management throughout the strike was Neal Froneman, the kragdadegheid-throwback CEO. At the same time as threatening workers with retrenchments, he shamelessly defended his R300 million remuneration package on the grounds that “only” R28 million is “cash”, i.e. his annual salary. This is still more than R2 million per month however. The remainder is held in shares.[1] But the splitting of their remuneration packages into wages and shares is just a cynical ploy to justify low wage increases for workers – it is still remuneration.

In 2021, Sibanye shareholders received an R5.3 billion dividend pay-out. Yet Sibanye itself claims that its original wage-offer would only have cost R1.67 billion a year.[2] When challenged on this point, Froneman explained that Sibanye does not “cross-subsidise its assets”, explaining that the lion’s share of profits is generated by Sibanye’s platinum division.[3] But Sibanye’s different ‘divisions’ are not listed separately on the JSE. Dividends are paid out for the company as a whole. Why not wages? How Sibanye chooses to organise its spreadsheets should not be made the workers’ problem.

But Froneman’s brinkmanship, especially following the brutality of management in the recent Clover strike (see here), and the threat of secondary action this was risking, made the government and the other mine bosses nervous. They still remember the near-insurrectionary uprising across the industry in 2012 and the five-month platinum strike of 2014. The humiliation of President Ramaphosa by Sibanye workers at Cosatu’s May Day rally, forcing him to abandon his speech and be whisked away by his security detail, forced the ANC government to face the possible political repercussions of the strike. However, beholden to capital as he is, Ramaphosa managed no more than a vague appeal to the mine bosses that “Hostility between employers and employees should belong in the dustbin of history”,[4] and Minerals & Energy minister Gwede Mantashe made a toothless threat to revoke Sibanye’s mining license.[5]

Showing more backbone in defence of their collective class interests the Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) broke ranks with Froneman, signing an astonishing five-year deal conceding the workers’ R20,000 minimum wage demand on the eve of Sibanye opening its own platinum division wage negotiations.[6] The Amplats bosses were warning Froneman that if he was determined to provoke a fight he would be on his own.

However, the Amplats workers must not let their guard down. Amplats has room for manoeuvre because of record platinum prices and profits. If in the chaos of the world market these are not sustained, the Constitutional Court has armed the bosses with legal precedents allowing them to renege on any deal. It may still become necessary for the Amplats workers to struggle for their R20,000. Everywhere the bosses are looking for opportunities to use their new weapons.

In Tshwane, the DA-led administration, taking its cue from the national ANC government’s tearing-up of the 2018 public sector wage deal, is refusing to implement the 2021 Salga-negotiated pay deal using the same argument of “unaffordability”. This has provoked recurring protests and unprotected strike action from municipal workers. The metro is currently appealing against Salga’s refusal to grant an exemption. If this is defeated the next stop could be the courts. At Denel workers have not been paid properly since December 2019 with bosses using the same argument – “there is no money”. This is now heard in municipality after municipality.

The Tshwane municipal workers’ struggle is a harbinger that workers will be pushed to defy the attacks on collective bargaining and what is, in reality, the piece by piece construction of a new anti-worker and anti-trade union legal architecture. We have argued before that the trade unions will ultimately need to lead a campaign of mass defiance, demanding the repeal of anti-trade union legislation and the setting aside of anti-worker court judgements. The time when such a campaign will be unavoidable is coming closer.

The ANC government has breathed a sigh of relief that the Sibanye strike has ended. But it has clearly focused their minds. The determination of the mineworkers and the intransigence of Froneman was a concentrated expression of the escalating class tensions across society. The crisis in Sri Lanka (see here) has been a warning to the ruling classes across the neo-colonial world.

Consequently, the ANC government seems to be moving more carefully in the public sector pay negotiations. It has moved from its own intransigent ‘offer’ of 0% and is now offering 4.5%.[7] This is still less than inflation, so a real-terms pay cut, and much less than the 10% demand. But it signals the growing wariness of the ruling class to not blunder into a major confrontation with the working class that could quickly escalate and spread.

Building unity

The Sibanye workers have given the workers’ movement an important lesson in how to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to the unity of workers. At the beginning of the strike, Num and Amcu members agreed to unite. Mandates for the conduct of the strike were taken at joint mass meetings rather than under the separate union structures. This was to prevent the fragmentation of the strike, protect workers against any sell-out, and call a halt to the debilitating rivalry of trade union bureaucrats. In this, the Sibanye workers re-discovered the traditions of the independent strike committees used to bypass the Num leadership in 2012. That the workers felt this was necessary again is an indictment of both the current Num leadership and now the Amcu leadership.

There is a burning need for workers to use this approach in other sectors. We have repeatedly raised the idea of ‘industrial locals’. These would bring together workers from different unions, federations and those who are not presently members of any union. They are not substitutes for the trade unions, but, in the current fragmented trade union landscape, can play a role in side-lining leaders unwilling to organise and lead the struggle, putting the union apparatuses in their rightful place as servants of the workers and ensuring democratic control over strikes. Militant leaders who are willing to organise and lead struggle have nothing to fear from such unity ‘from below’. In the public sector, we have raised the idea of ‘strike preparation committees’ that would be organised on the same basis. Whatever such structures are called the idea is to unite workers for struggle.

The strike at the SA Revenue Service (SARS), which began on 25 May, is an important signal of the preparedness of public sector workers to take strike action on pay, but it is also a warning to workers. A protected wage strike at SARS was possible because it is managed as a separate agency within the public sector. Unfortunately, the SARS strike has already fragmented with the PSA leadership calling its 6,000 members back to work, leaving Nehawu’s 5,400 members continuing to strike alone. This strike-breaking could have been prevented had the SARS workers put in place unifying structures along the lines of the Sibanye workers who went out on strike together and returned to work together. These tactics will be essential for public sector workers to both force their leaders to initiate a public sector general strike – the only way they will force the government to raise wages – and to democratically control its organisation and the terms on which it ends. This strike should take place now, whilst negotiations are ongoing, to maximise the pressure on the government.

Unfinished business

The Sibanye strike echoed the unfinished business of the 2012 strike wave. Refusing to allow Ramaphosa to speak at Cosatu’s May Day rally reflected the strikers’ understanding that the bosses and the political elite stand together as one ruling class in defence of the capitalist system. It is the logic of this system which was refusing the pay rise workers were demanding in the defence of profit. But less than two weeks later the Sibanye workers, seeming to contradict their earlier action, were outside Union Buildings refusing to leave until Ramaphosa addressed them! The lack of their own political alternative was sharply underscored.

This episode showcases the dilemma in which the entire working class remains trapped. The lack of a working class alternative to the parties of capital leaves workers fighting with one arm tied behind their backs. We have explained many times that the creation of a socialist mass workers’ party and the opening-up of a political front in the class struggle is an essential complement to the struggle in the workplace. For example, the campaign of mass defiance against anti-trade union legislation we have proposed will be massively strengthened by the presence of workers’ MPs in parliament. They would be able to move motions to repeal anti-trade union legislation and to table new legislation, for example, a trade union freedom bill extending the rights of unions and workers. Without this, workers have to beg favours from the capitalist parties.

During the 2012 strikes, support for the creation of a workers’ party was widespread amongst mineworkers. Unfortunately, the attempt to harness this in the 2014 elections through the Workers and Socialist Party electoral initiative (see here), which the MWP’s predecessor initiated with the support of the mineworkers’ independent strike committees, failed. It was cut across by the creation of the EFF, which intervened in the mining areas, the rise of Amcu, whose general secretary, Mathunjwa, is hostile to workers’ political initiatives, and the unwillingness of the Numsa leadership to follow through on the decisions taken at their historic 2013 Special National Congress which ended support for the ANC. This in turn gave space for the ANC-aligned Num to stabilise itself. Support for the creation of a workers’ party is now ground that needs to be re-conquered amongst the mineworkers.

Part and parcel of this political setback have been the disappearance of the demand for the nationalisation of the mines from trade union leaders’ mouths which was also widely supported by mineworkers in 2012. Private ownership and production for profit are incompatible with the interests of workers and the vast majority in society. Nationalisation would remove the need to make profit for shareholders, allowing the money currently paid out in dividends to be made available for wages, improved health and safety and other investment, and allow the entire industry to be organised according to a single plan.

The Sibanye strike showed that the daily experiences and struggles of the mineworkers will repeatedly lead them back to the need for both a workers’ party and to fight for nationalisation. We are confident that a breakthrough around the workers’ party will quickly see the mineworkers return as part of a new workers’ party’s vanguard.

Toward a general strike

The strike wave is showing the willingness of the working class to take action. The potential for a general strike is clearly present in the situation. A general strike uniting all workers in struggle would allow workers to feel their enormous power. It would raise the confidence of the entire working class and act as a pole of attraction for the unemployed, young people and communities. But the current wave of strikes are isolated from each other and fought with no reference to what other groups of workers are doing or planning. The different battalions of the working class are not being coordinated as units of a single army.

The workers’ movement needs to be re-armed with the tactics and strategy that could gather together all of the threads of struggle and make a general strike a reality. The experiences of all of the recent strikes need to be generalised in a programme of action capable of uniting the entire class. The Saftu-initiated Working Class Summit that will take place this winter can play a role in this re-arming. This must include providing a way forward for the class as a whole to defend and increase wages – the issue driving the current strike wave. The organisers need to make concerted efforts to ensure that all the groups of workers that have taken action this year send delegations to the Summit. This would then more concretely pose the need for building workers’ unity that lasts beyond the closing of the Summit, preparing the way for a public sector general strike and a general strike. Above all the Summit must arm the working class to decisively wage battle on the political front by setting the launch date for a socialist mass workers party.

Programme of action:

One Working Class – One Struggle! No sell-outs! End bureaucratic rivalries! Build workplace-sector-and industry-wide structures that can unite in the struggle the workers of all federations, unions, and those not members of unions. Build the principled unity of the trade union movement on the basis of class independence from the bosses, democracy and workers’ control.

Stop the attacks on workers’ pay in both public and private sectors! Organise a public sector general strike and a general strike to defend public sector pay and struggle for a R12,500 p/m minimum wage, increased annually in line with inflation. Fight for all collective wage agreements to raise wages automatically in line with price increases. Fight for a mining-industry minimum wage of R20,000 p/m.

Defend the right to strike and to organise! Defend collective bargaining! Build an organised campaign of mass defiance against unjust labour laws and court rulings that prevent workers from defending themselves. Repeal the LRA amendments. Set-aside anti-worker and anti-trade union court judgements. Fight for the passing of a trade union freedom bill increasing the powers of trade unions, drafted by workers’ representatives.

Set the launch date for a democratic and unifying socialist mass workers party. For a workers’ government armed with a programme to nationalise, under workers’ control, the banks, the mines, the big commercial farms, the big factories and big companies.

[1]Sibanye CEO Froneman explains R300m remuneration package”, Daily Maverick (15 May 2022)

[2]Mantashe meets with Sibanye, unions after members boo Ramaphosa off stage on Workers’ Day”, News24 (4 May 2022)

[3]Sibanye’s record earnings overshadowed by safety setback, looming gold mines strike”, Daily Maverick (3 March 2022)

[4]Ramaphosa takes swipe at Sibanye Stillwater after stadium fiasco”, News24 (6 May 2022)

[5]Mantashe hints at revoking Sibanye’s mining rights as strike drags on”, News24 (19 May 2022)

[6]Amcu’s Marikana PGM miners demand pay hikes of up to 40% from Sibanye”, Daily Maverick (3 May 2022) & “Amplats wage deal with unions piles pressure on Sibanye”, BusinessLive (29 May 2022)

[7]In a U-turn and defiance of a remuneration freeze, the government offers public servants a 4.5% pay hike”, Daily Maverick (2 June 2022)

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