Some 5,000 workers for Harmony Gold mines returned to the Kusasalethu shaft after the Christmas break to find it closed “for review”.
Then on 15 January Amplats, the platinum division of Anglo American, announced plans to close three shafts in Rustenburg.
This threatens 14,000 jobs—close to a third of its workforce.
Angry miners refused to go to work that day. They are now back at work, but say they are organising for an official strike.
The coming battle will be crucial. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods are at stake, and a key component of the fledgling independent workers’ movement. These miners were crucial to the strike wave that shook the country last year.
The shafts under threat are the strongholds of the new militant union, AMCU, which has signed up many of the strikers.
Many analysts want to blame the strikes for the closures, but Amplats shareholders had been complaining about the falling platinum price since early last year.
They were unhappy because their returns no longer lived up to the £2 billion bonanza they got in 2007 and 2008.
But obviously it suits the mine bosses if they can kill the workers’ movement with the same stone.
That number of job losses would complete the devastation of communities in the path of the mines’ relentless expansion during the days of rising metal prices.
Miners’ wages support extended families back home in the Eastern Cape, Lesotho and Mozambique as well as the people they rent rooms from, the informal shops, sheebeens, barbers, money lenders and so on in the settlements around the mines.
The ripples would touch every corner of South Africa.
The announcement caused a spat between the mine bosses and Susan Shabangu, the minister responsible for mines. She went so far as to say that the company was “threatening its own licence” through its arrogance. Even the governing ANC called the decision “cynical and dangerous”. It is shocked by the lack of consultation after the party bent over backwards to show its openness to business.
The recent ANC congress rejected proposals to nationalise the mines, and elected to its top structure Cyril Ramaphosa, the former militant miners’ union leader turned big businessman. Ramaphosa took a hard line against the workers in the run up to the Marikana massacre.
His arrival was a slap in the face for the miners and indeed for the ANC’s union ally, Cosatu. It is a clear signal of which direction the government will be looking.
But the social consequences of the job losses would create severe problems for the ruling party, so their tension with the mines is real.
We can’t rule out the possibility that the government will be pushed to radical responses. But after the congress it would not be easy for Shabangu to offer solutions.
The fact that even the government questioned Amplats’s decision could make it easier to organise against the redundancies.
But activists will have to emphasise that the threats show the complete folly of the ruling party’s accommodation with capital.
That in turn underlines just how much our future relies on independent workers’ movements such as those on the mines and the farms.