The Marikana miners have won a pay increase of up to 22 percent. Can you say something about the significance of the strike and its outcome?
Even though it fell far short of the miners’ original demand, the result of the strike was a victory for the power of self-organisation. The mine management was forced to negotiate directly with the miners and the rock drillers won a 2,000 rand increase (around £150), with other sections winning a bit less.
On a previous basic salary before deductions of around 9,000 to 10,000 rand, that’s a phenomenal gain for people who are working in one of the richest industries in the world but living in tin shacks.
Many of the workers were members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) or the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), but the unions themselves didn’t organise the strike. It was the culmination of a number of wildcat strikes that have taken place outside of the normal channels of collective bargaining controlled by the union leaderships. But this is the first to have won tangible victories.
The message it sends out – that workers can organise ourselves and win – is one that has been forgotten, at least on this scale, since the mid-1980s when under apartheid organising was a necessity. It’s a huge watershed.
The NUM was one of the foremost opponents of apartheid – but now workers are in revolt against the union as well as against the mine bosses. How did this happen?
The NUM has been caught up in productivity deals – agreements where in return for producing a certain amount you get a bonus or wage increase. It’s led to a situation where the NUM’s role in the mines has been to argue in strikes for people to go back to work, saying it’s not procedural and is harming the productivity agreement.
The NUM has become known as the people who come along to end the strike, rather than as people who will support your demands or organise solidarity for it.
This is tied up with the broader political approach of the whole of Cosatu, the main trade union federation, and the South African Communist Party. They thought that with the end of apartheid they had their own government, so no longer had to organise on the ground, to strike or organise for improvements. The unpopularity of the NUM is the result of that approach.
Most people in Britain would have thought, we’re familiar with the apartheid-era massacres, Sharpeville, Soweto and so on. But how could this happen under the ANC? How have we got to this point?
The settlement of 1994 that ended apartheid was an enormous change that marked the end of one of the most brutal forms of capitalism. It brought with it hopes that everything was going to change for black people.
But the ambiguity that developed from day one was that even though formal apartheid was defeated, capitalism was not only still with us but the exact same companies, with the same shareholders and directors, remained in control of the economy. The new ANC government immediately tried to fit all those hopes for change into the increasingly narrow box allowed by what capital needed to remain profitable.
So they said that undoing the material legacy of apartheid would have to happen gradually – you had to get growth first. So the hope was replaced by growing disappointment at the lack of change in ordinary life. For a long time people put up with it on the basis that the repressive laws were gone, you could now live anywhere you wanted (as long as you had the money, of course) and there was now a black government.
But of course this didn’t keep people quiet for ever. It’s not that nothing changed. There were moves to provide small state houses, for example, but at a much slower rate than was needed, and expanding schooling quickly fell behind. Most importantly South Africa was caught up in a number of economic crises that led to growing unemployment, especially among young people.
Then around 2005 the then president, Thabo Mbeki, and several major bosses declared that there was an economic turnaround at last, since they were reporting higher profits. People said if the economy is turning the corner, where’s our share? You got a rapid growth in people taking to the streets, both in the industrial sectors and among unemployed people in the townships.
The ANC government tries to keep people in the fold by appealing to their old loyalties, saying “We’re the government that defeated apartheid,” but at the same time being prepared to use the police force when those old loyalties don’t work any more.
The vast majority of the population remains caught in poverty and deprivation, putting pressure on the ANC’s influence over people. What are tensions like within the ANC and what has been the fallout from Marikana?
The strains inside the ANC have been growing for several years. They started to come to a head with the service delivery protests that broke out in 2005 in the Western Cape and then spread all over which demanded the ANC fulfil its promises to deliver free basic water, electricity and education for all.
The ANC response was to go through a serious shake-up, but they replaced one leader (Mbeki) with another who appeared on the surface to be offering something different (Jacob Zuma). But Zuma wasn’t really offering any fundamental change from the policy of sorting out the problems of business first.
But that process opened a can of worms. Most crucially it made public criticism of the ANC leadership legitimate in a way that it hadn’t been for ten years. One consequence was that Julius Malema, leader of the ANC Youth League, became more and more public in his criticisms of where the ANC was going. In particular he argued that the ANC must return to its original Freedom Charter of 1955 that promised the nationalisation of the economy.
Malema’s politics are a kind of militant populist nationalism, in the sense of national liberation. He envisages simply making the commanding heights of the economy black, where they are currently white. Malema talks about economic liberation and this has put into words what a lot of people are feeling – that the liberation we have is somewhat empty because we are still without jobs. You can’t eat a constitution, as a lot of people put it.
Malema was able to get away with this while Zuma wasn’t in government. But once Zuma’s government felt itself the target of these criticisms it expelled Malema on charges of bringing the ANC into disrepute. So now Malema presents a focus for something serious outside the ANC, even though he still sees himself as an ANC member. What makes his intervention potentially explosive is that he can appeal to that sense of ANC legitimacy. He still speaks from within the fold, but offers a more radical interpretation of the ANC’s traditions.
But while you have Malema reinventing radical nationalism, this is linked to the possibility of a self-organised alternative emerging. This is what the Marikana miners themselves represent. In the near future it’s likely that these two will be fused together but they obviously present quite different possibilities than if it was just Malema on his own.
The most likely regroupment we are likely to see in the near future is around a figure like Malema, or maybe some of the leaders of the AMCU, the alternative union to the NUM, who are speaking a similar language to Malema but focused much more on saying we need to do it ourselves. These are the forces most likely to articulate the polarisation over Marikana.
Cosatu hasn’t been very good on Marikana at all, but even there we can see important differences. NUMSA, the National Union of Metalworkers, has been putting forward a much more radical critique of capitalism for some time now and looking to a more fighting alternative than Cosatu itself.
So there is the possibility of something coalescing outside of the old monolith, offering a real choice, so it isn’t just alternative of voting for the ANC, the party of liberation which betrayed you, or voting for an old apartheid party, or not voting at all.
As leftists who look to workers’ power we have to begin by relating to the movement for economic liberation, and this will be a movement that includes a lot of nationalist ideas that are much more militant than anything the ANC is saying now, but which don’t go far beyond what it originally talked about doing. But within that there are enormous opportunities for people to start questioning how economic liberation should be achieved. That can open up a possibility that hasn’t really existed in South Africa until now for posing a large scale alternative based on struggle that can actually win things.
Claire Ceruti is a member of Keep Left in South Africa. This is an extended version of the print version of this interview