Searching for Marikana Massacre answers, blaming industry

By: Jeremy Cronin

The SACP’s reaction to the Marikana tragedy has been deliberately careful – not because we haven’t felt absolute outrage and exasperation. Our responses have been considered, not because we think that a radical response is inappropriate – on the contrary. However, we have never confused the demagogic enflaming of popular anger for personal short-term objectives with genuine transformative radicalism. Just as we have never confused parliamentary electoral opportunism (“fire the ministers”, “fire the police commissioner”, “bash the unions”) with a thoughtful contribution to understanding the collective responsibilities and challenges we have as a country.

At least one of the silver linings in this dark cloud has been the widespread public revulsion at the vulture-like behavior of some of the more demagogic interventions since the tragedy. We trust that those, whether in the media or even in parts of the progressive trade union movement, who had continued to flirt with illusions about “economic freedom fighters” now understand exactly what the SACP said back in 2009 when we characterized this tendency as anti-union, anti-worker and even as “proto-fascist”.

As the SACP we have welcomed the Presidential Judicial Commission of Inquiry and the other related investigations and judicial processes (including into the murders of 10 people in the days prior to the events of 16th August, as well as into allegations of police assaults after arrests were made). We should await the outcomes of these processes, while ensuring that they are thorough-going and objective.

Another silver lining in this dark cloud is a growing appreciation that, if we are to learn constructive lessons to be taken forward into practical transformative interventions, then we need to understand the tragedy in a much wider systemic context. So what are some of these wider systemic factors?

The folly of union-bashing – even for private capital

In the first place, there are welcome signs that the mining houses are coming to realize the tragic folly of their attempts to undermine established unions. Whether this will be an enduring realization will, of course, not depend on the good-will of the mine bosses, but upon the organizational capacity of NUM on the mines (and, as we shall see in a moment, in the surrounding communities), as well as determination by the state. The origins of AMCU can be traced back to BHP Billiton Coal at Witbank deliberately financing a union split to undermine the strength of NUM.

But AMCU is just the latest example of this strategy employed over and over by the bosses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, for instance, the Rustenburg platinum belt was rocked with violence and instability associated with the so-called Workers Mouth Piece Union led by the “Five Madoda”. The hand of corporate management in fostering the rise of this pseudo-union, and of shadowy white Afrikaner con-men (“The Peoples Assurance Brokers” based in Klerksdorp) has been documented by, amongst others, David Bruce (“The operation of the criminal justice system in dealing with the violence at Amplats”, April 2001, www.csvr.org.za).

“Free market” competition – or collective bargaining?

The tragedy at Marikana also had some of its immediate origins in the fact that the platinum mining corporations have not entered into collective bargaining arrangements with the unions as in other key mining sectors, preferring instead to compete amongst themselves, and even reneging on negotiated wage agreements at the individual company level. This was exactly what happened in the violence and instability earlier this year at Implats near Rustenburg.

In the face of the global capitalist economic crisis and falling platinum prices, there has been a fierce competition between the platinum mining corporations, including a competition to attract categories of mine-workers with relatively scarce skills. Earlier this year Implats unilaterally scuppered a negotiated wage settlement with NUM by offering higher salaries to mine-workers with blasting certificates. This angered other categories of workers who had been told that the original settlement was “the best that could be achieved” and that there was “no more money”. AMCU exploited their anger and turned it against NUM. Violence was directed against NUM shop-stewards, there was a wild-cat strike, and the dismissal of 9000 workers.

The resulting instability has definitely fed into the general context of the Marikana tragedy. At the multi-stakeholder engagements in the course of this week the prospect of moving towards collective bargaining across the platinum sector has been raised. The SACP supports a move in this direction and it will be an important worker victory if achieved. Of course, ultimately shop-floor organization and strong trade union capacity should be used not to moderate working class demands, but to unite the working class in a common struggle. While management has tried to play off different unions and different categories of workers against each other – the real scandal is the enormous difference in remuneration between the top executives and the hundreds of thousands of workers involved in difficult and dangerous work.

The global capitalist crisis and the South African platinum sector

The violence and instability on the South African platinum belt cannot be seen in isolation from the impact of the global capitalist crisis. Platinum prices have been severely hit by the crisis in Europe, the main market for our platinum. The retrenchments, inter-corporate rivalries, and union-bashing noted above have intensified as a result. There is also talk of a global over-supply of platinum, a “platinum bubble”.

This raises a wider question. South Africa possesses some 86% of known platinum reserves, and some 56% of all current global platinum sales are from our mines. Yet we have allowed the supply of platinum onto the global market to be a function of short-term profit maximization, corporate greed, and rivalry. This was tacitly admitted last week by Terence Goodlace, the new CEO of Implats, in an interview with Geoff Candy of Mineweb. The relevant Q’s and A’s are worth quoting:

“GEOFF CANDY: I was going to ask you because a lot of talk has been made of how many mines are marginal at the current price level, from Impala’s point of view where would prices need to go before you would consider cutting production?

TERENCE GOODLACE: Well…if you’re going to get sustained numbers of around about $1400 per ounce …then we would seriously need to start thinking about how do we rationalise the industry.

GEOFF CANDY: Would that have to be at an industry-wide level because one gets the sense that in order to speak with one voice may be a much better thing going forward, perhaps, than each mine doing its own thing.

TERENCE GOODLACE: Ja, I think we’ve got to be very careful from that perspective, I think we would make our own decisions, vis-à-vis what we would need to do to make sure our profitability is right. I’m not professing for one stage here that we get together and decide on production levels.

GEOFF CANDY: [Laughing] I didn’t mean it quite in that sense {in what sense DID he mean it??} but in one of your notes you do say that the platinum sector, as it stands, is a price taker. Is there any way to become a price maker to some greater extent in South Africa or is that completely impossible?

TERENCE GOODLACE: Ja, from my perspective I probably don’t know enough about that…”

Both Moneyweb and Terence Goodlace can see that it is bizarre that SA, with 86% of the world’s platinum reserves, is a “price taker” and not a “price maker”, but the logic of their narrow private corporate outlook means that they are unable (or unwilling) to consider what obviously requires serious consideration. All they can think of is more “rationalization”, that is retrenchments to protect profits. It is here that the proposals around platinum marketing in the ANC-commissioned “State Intervention in the Minerals Sector (SIMS)” policy document require serious consideration. Again, it is worth quoting the relevant section:

“South Africa has the bulk of global resources of platinum (80%). Given the relative inelasticity of platinum supply and demand (no viable substitutes) our producer power could be used to negotiate supply and local beneficiation with the international PGM [platinum group minerals] customers (beneficiators). Platinum, like gold, has become an international investment instrument…and accordingly should be treated like gold in our Exchange Control Regulations. The Minister of Finance should be tasked to amend the Exchange Control Regulations to prohibit the sale of ‘Precious Metals’ without Treasury exemption (currently this clause only applies to gold sales), which will also give the state the right to market platinum, in addition to gold.”

In other words, we should be using our dominant position in platinum to advance our national developmental objectives – including price-making, averting volatile global booms and busts, including through local beneficiation and industrial job creation. At the moment this massive resource is simply left to the profit-maximising agenda of largely foreign-owned multinationals.

A lost opportunity for a new, post-apartheid urbanization

Our vulnerability to global market forces on the platinum market is a symptom of a basic fact – 18 years after a democratic breakthrough, SA remains locked into the same apartheid-colonial growth path dominated by the mineral-energy and financial oligopolies. But perhaps an even more tragic symptom of the same problem relates to the squalid social conditions in which our platinum belt mine-workers are living. The 167-page, church-sponsored Bench Marks Foundation report, “Communities in the Platinum Minefields” makes for sobering reading.

The global platinum boom that has now come to a dramatic halt has seen massive industrial investments across our platinum belt, but these investments and the multi-billion rand profits they have secured, have been accompanied by an appalling degradation in the social conditions in which mine-communities are living. The Bench Marks report details how all of the mining houses have window-dressed on their “social responsibility” commitments. Squalid shanty-towns surround most of the mines, and there is the continued use of a significant proportion of sub-contracted labourers from Pondoland in the Eastern Cape and from neighbouring countries. Under-resourced district municipalities and overwhelmed local traditional leadership structures have also not be able to provide basic social infrastructure.

And it is within this milieu that warlord, vigilante structures have asserted their authority. David Bruce’s earlier study, noted above, is particularly useful in documenting the connections between anti-stock theft vigilante networks in Pondoland infiltrating, via sub-contracted labour, into the North West platinum belt shanty-towns. Bruce documents how these vigilante structures control the liquor, dagga, sex-work and herbalist trade in these settlements, and how they exact tributary payments through shack-lordism. To assert their control they use violence to challenge alternative organizational and authority structures. In the Amplats violence in the early 2000s, NUM shop-stewards and local traditional leaders were assassinated. And, certainly in the Workers Mouth Piece case, these vigilante networks were then the base upon which a challenge was made to capture union levies. There is growing evidence that what we have seen at Lonmin’s Marikana mine has very similar, vigilante network features. The Judicial Commission of Enquiry will certainly need to investigate these kinds of factors.

What all of these points to is that we have to place our economy on to a new growth path. And this new growth path cannot just focus on economic infrastructure, for instance. We need to ensure that our mineral resources are used to drive upstream and down-stream industrialization, but also sustainable, non-racial urbanization. This will require an effective and determined developmental state, nationally, provincially and locally; a united and effective trade union movement linked to local progressive civic structures; and the political will to ensure effective state intervention into mining (not least the platinum) sector.

Asikhulume!!

Jeremy Cronin is SACP 1st Deputy General Secretary. This article was first published in Umsebenzi Online available at http://www.sacp.org.za/main.php?ID=3733

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