DIAMOND MINE workers in Botswana, southern Africa, have been fighting a bitter battle over wages which has seen mass dismissals, forced evictions—and great solidarity.
The strike has also highlighted the way multinationals and governments conspire to keep the poor in their poverty.
Over 2,000 workers at four different plants of Debswana mines began a strike recently. Debswana is jointly owned by the government of Botswana and the giant De Beers diamond mining company.
The strikers, members of the Botswana Mining Workers’ Union (BMWU), went on strike to protest against the way bosses and supervisors were offered big pay rises and bonuses but workers were offered a pittance.
Botswana is celebrated as an “economic miracle” by the International Monetary Fund and apologists for capitalism.
But nearly half the population lives below the poverty line, unemployment is at least 35 percent, and the country has one of the highest rates of AIDS in the world.
Diamond mining is crucial. Debswana produces 75 percent of export earnings, 45 percent of government revenue and is valued at a third of gross domestic product.
That is why this strike has seen bitter class war. By the end of last week 444 workers had been dismissed, and dozens had been thrown out of their company-owned homes.
Management has also demanded that the government imprisons the union leaders.
When pay talks began earlier this year, the union went to the industrial court, where the judge pronounced that Debswana management were doing the workers a favour in offering any sort of pay rise.
This insult spurred on the union to call for a strike. But Botswana’s president, Festus Mogae, intervened and told the union leadership to call off the strike. They obliged.
However, the union rank and file refused to accept the decision of the leadership and called for a strike arguing that the industrial court was biased in favour of the employer.
In spite of the bullying and harassment, workers have remained defiant.
Every day they gather in front of company gates and meet at freedom squares, toyi-toying (dancing) and singing songs that chastise Debswana management for corruption.
The strike is not confined to miners. It includes support staff such as nurses and teachers.
This strike comes after another brief one just two weeks back, also by the BMWU miners in the copper town of Selibi-Phikwe, where the mine officials sacked the union leadership for having access to financial reports.
Both these strikes show the contradictions of bourgeois democracy. While on the one hand Botswana is renowed as a beacon of democracy in Africa, on the other hand it has, since independence, maintained oppressive labour laws that deny basic freedoms to workers.
In this respect there has hardly been any strike that has been legal in Botswana.
These oppressive labour laws are part of the “success” of free market capitalism in Botswana. But the fightback demonstrates that, even in the most desperate circumstances, people can resist and shake their oppressors.
Whatever the outcome of the Debswana strike,BMWU members have made gains and politicised workers’ resistance.
This is likely to give other workers the confidence to fight—in particular against a new round of privatisation that the government is driving through.
Students have also begun to struggle for better allowances.
The people of Africa are not just suffering—we are also fighting.
Fax messages of protest to the president of Botswana on 00267 395 0858.
De Beers’ tiaras and rings are soaked in blood
DE BEERS, and its associate company Anglo-American, have always profited massively from repressive regimes.
They grew fat under South Africa’s apartheid regime and were bitter enemies of the workers’ unions.
Today immense fortunes are made from the diamond trade. The international industry produces rough diamonds with a market value of £4.5 billion. These became 67 million pieces of jewellery worth over £40 billion.
De Beers mines about 40 percent of the world’s diamonds. Through buying up diamonds from elsewhere it controls around two thirds of global diamond sales. Its glinting rings and tiaras are soaked in blood.
The company depends on grabbing diamonds from whoever controls them, even if they are tyrants or dictators.
It claims that it never knows where the diamonds it is offered come from.
A spokesperson for the company said, “If you are sitting in Tel Aviv or Moscow or New York you have not a clue where the diamonds came from. If a seller says they are Scottish diamonds you take his word for it.
“They could be diamonds from the moon.”
But experts cannot only tell which country diamonds come from, they can frequently identify the region or even the mine. There is a conspiracy to hide the truth that diamond firms deal with killers.
De Beers claims it has cracked down on the trade in “blood diamonds”, but campaigners deny this.