A precious victory for South African miners

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The successful strike by platinum miners marks an important shift in the confidence of South African workers.

The miners, who are part of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), struck for five months in one of the country’s longest running industrial disputes.

They won significant concessions from the bosses, a 20 percent wage rise for new workers (around £55 a month) and between 7 and 8.5 percent increase for more skilled workers. Many will have their pay backdated from July of last year.

Miners were demanding a minimum monthly wage of £675, up from the current £270 to £324. The strike has emboldened organised workers across the country to put forward their claim for a living wage, a major demand since the 1980s. The dispute hit the South African economy hard, which shrank by 0.6 percent in the first quarter of this year.

The strike is the continuation of the wages dispute that began in August 2012 with the killing by police of 34 miners at the Lonmin Marikana mine.

It was a struggle that workers felt they were duty bound to continue. It sparked the imagination of workers not only in the platinum sector but across the whole mining sector.

Workers realised that neither the ANC government nor the bosses were going to gift them a living wage.

The negotiations took a long time, and it became clear that the mine bosses were prepared to dig in their heels.

They refused to concede any wage rise above the rate of inflation and had been anticipating the strike by stockpiling platinum, a key raw material for the car industry.

But the strike hit them hard. According to the Financial Times the stoppage cost mining giants Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin more than £1.6 billion in lost revenue.

At the beginning of the strike workers appeared to be passive. But as it gained momentum they realised that it would not be an easy victory. Miners began to organise and refused en masse to return to their rural homes where they had some means of a livelihood.

Instead they remained close to the pits to make sure that the wheels of the shaft remained static and the mines locked down. They understood that if the mines restarted work with scab labour their chances of victory would slip away.

After three months there was some scabbing, but their opposition meant that the bosses could not engineer a return to work on any significant scale.

Miners were able to shore up support for the strike with regular mass meetings that kept them in touch with developments, as well as the small but significant efforts to get food to the strikers.

There were fears that some 70,000 workers and their families could go hungry. By the end of the strike some 22,000 miners received food parcels from a network of supporters.

The attempt by the bosses to starve them back to work failed, but lessons have been learned. The union is going to have to build up a strike fund for the big battles to come.

Rank and file workers will have to maintain their high levels of organisation with regular mass meetings.

The miners’ organisations have traditionally been very top down. The long-standing National Union of Mineworkers (dubbed the National Union of Management) has close ties to the ruling ANC government.

The former NUM general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa is now the deputy president of South Africa and was on the board of Lomnin at the time of the Maricana massacre.

The ANC attempted to use the police and courts against the strike exposed the NUM’s cosy relationship with the bosses.

Union activists in the Amcu have set new wage standards for miners across the country, including those in the vital gold and coal mines.

A South African court ruled as illegal a move by the Amcu to hold a strike in the gold mines where the NUM agreed an inflation linked wage deal with bosses. The court ruled that as the Amcu was a “minority union” it could not call its members out.

Mine bosses will attempt to roll back this victory with threats of job losses, aggressive policing tactics (such as the deployment of surveillance drones) and new laws aimed at restricting strikes.

The strike has also fed into crucial political developments. The Marikana massacre crystalised the growing disenchantment with the ANC.

One result of that was Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters winning over a million votes and 25 MPs at the recent national elections.

Of greater significance is the emergence of a new workers’ party centred on Numsa, the metal workers’ union.

The victory of the miners came as some 220,000 Numsa workers launched a strike for a 15 percent rise in their pay.

If the platinum miners had lost, it would have marked a set back in this political and industrial developments. This victory will encourage them.