South Africa is going through a revolt. It started with the victorious strike at Marikana and a wave of wildcat strikes in the mines.
It has put the long-term future of the governing African National Congress (ANC) into doubt.
Platinum bosses earn 230 times the average for a miner. That is the wealth of a new black elite that owes its position to the ANC.
The ANC grew as a resistance movement against the racist horror of apartheid, but since it came into office in 1994 it has become a project to de-racialise capitalism in South Africa.
After 18 years of ANC rule there have been some improvements for poor people in the established industrial areas—the cities and big towns.
But new mines are being opened up in the rural areas that have historically acted as labour reserves.
Rustenberg is the fastest-growing city, the centre of the platinum industry. It has seen 38 informal settlements grow over the past ten years.
Platinum is the core of South Africa’s growth. It brings in 60 percent of foreign revenue.
The bosses borrowed heavily to expand in the boom years. But now they are worried about the recession. We’re told we mustn’t challenge their profits.
Under apartheid South Africa built up a low wage economy with a tightly policed workforce.
When apartheid broke down, mining houses won an assurance from the ANC that the NUM would keep wages “realistic”.
Now young workers in the mines have broken from the NUM in their tens of thousands.
Over 150,000 were involved in unofficial strikes last year.
A new generation of worker leaders has emerged, fresh with ideas often shaped by the ANC youth league and Julius Malema (see above). They are determined to see economic freedom in their lifetime.
The strikes moved beyond the mines to the other big battalions of the South African working class. They were unofficial because the union bureaucracies in Cosatu, South Africa’s TUC, did not support them.
This pressure from below made things very uncomfortable for the long term alliance of the ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP), which has held back workers’ demands for years.
The union bureaucracies are unable to represent their workers, so workers have had to break in order to move forward. Things are moving fast as new unions develop with new strategies, but also new bureaucracies.
This year many workers will put in for double their wage. That’s a direct challenge to the ruling class and the ANC.
Over the next few months we will see 200,000 or 300,000 miners in the platinum and gold sectors out at the same time.
This is why the SACP are after Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi. He has enough sense to know he can only keep Cosatu together if he puts out an olive branch to the radicalised workers.
He forced a deal to stop the bosses sacking 30,000 miners during an unofficial strike at Amplats.
But workers are fighting—and they’ll need international support more than ever.