Vishwas Satgar: Government forced to drop murder charges against miners
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
The struggle of miners in South Africa against mine ownersâ€”increasingly also against the ANC government and the police and the official miners trade unionâ€”that struggle is intensifying. And now joining us to discuss it: Vishwas Satgar. Vishwas is a senior lecturer at the University of Wits in Johannesburg, and he’s going to be a regular contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks very much for joining us.
VISHWAS SATGAR, SENIOR LECTURER, UNIV. OF THE WITWATERSRAND: Hi, and thanks for having me.
JAY: So what’s been happening in the last week, week or two since the shooting and then they charged a bunch of miners? I think it was like 270 miners got charged with murdering their colleagues who were shot. And if you haven’t seen that story, just watch below. You can catch up there. So since then, what’s happened?
SATGAR: Well, there’s been a major outcry across progressive civil society in South Africa challenging the collective-purpose murder charges, from the churches, the legal fraternity, the grassroots movements, democratic left forces, and so on, and that actually pushed the state onto a back foot and forced a turnaround, such that the collective-purpose murder charges were suspended, while the state kept on other charges like public violence, you know, carrying dangerous weapons, and so on. But this was an about-face, an about-turn by the government in the light of public outcry.
The second thing that has happened is: the top-down peace process, which was led by the minister of labor and involved various brokers, peace brokers, if you like, the church in particular, didn’t really work, and it was announced a failure a few days ago when the striking mine workers themselves refused to sign this peace accord. From their standpoint, a piece of paper wasn’t really going to bring about peace. They wanted their core demand met. And, you know, this peace accord was stacked in a way that was all about getting them back into work and then to talk about wages, and the workers saw through that.
The other side to this was AMCU, which is the so-called independent union. It’s not leading the strike, but it was a party to the peace accord process. They also did not sign. And their argument was that, you know, they’re not engaged in a war or in a conflict, so they don’t understand why they need to sign a peace accord. So that process has kind of come to an end.
And at the grassroots, the strike has continued. The strike is beginning to reverberate in the platinum belt and beyond. There are two or three mines in and around the platinum belt in which you’re seeing solidarity action. You’re also seeing in the gold segment of the mining sector some solidarity action.
I think the other important development since all of this is the sort of growing focus on the kind of humanitarian crisis. Yes, I think the kind of pathbreaking journalism done by Daily Maverick was important around highlighting blind spots in the media analysis around the massacre on August 16. But more than that, it has forced people to start thinking about the plight on the ground. And one or two journalists, particularly The Mail and Guardian this week, has tried to zoom in on the humanitarian crisis in Marikana.
There’ve also been humanitarian organizations going down to the community, and they’ve been doing assessments. One of these has basically set up a distribution system of food parcels. Essentially what’s happening: there’s major food stress in many of the informal settlements in which the miners live. This is six weeks into the strike now. Many of the mineworkers are not getting their HIV/AIDS drugs, they’re not getting their TB medication, which normally is dispensed through the mine clinics. That’s having a serious humanitarian consequence. You also have the stress and trauma coming out of the massacre of August 16. I actually interviewedâ€”.
JAY: Vishwas, if you’re saying this new union’s not leading this strike, the resilience of these strikers and the sort of conscious element here, where is it coming from? Who is leading it?
SATGAR: Well, basically there’s a strike committee that has been formed from amongst the workers themselves. This is the leadership of the strike. It has within it members of the NUM, members of AMCU. And basically this strike committee has been the voice of the workers throughout the strike.
The strike committee, I would argue, is increasingly galvanized, particularly after August 16, by the fact that their comrades were murdered on August 16. And that has kind of fueled the collective purpose not just of the strike committee but of all the workers in Lonmin.
In addition, I think it’s clear that the demand for a 12,500 wage or pay increase is a symbolic demand, but it’s a symbolic demand that has been embraced by all the workers in different grades, in different parts of the mining operation, which has glued them all together behind the leadership of the strike committee. This has led to really poor turnouts at Lonmin, such that, you know, increasingly over the past week Lonmin is only registering between 4 and 6 percent of their labor force turning out for work.
JAY: Now, in terms of spreading to other parts of the mining industry, how significant is this? I mean, if this really catches on, this is a real challenge to the ANC government.
SATGAR: Yes, exactly. And I think this has been the real fear within the state, given their kind of orientation around foreign direct investment and so on. Various ministers, from the trade and industry minister, the labor minister, the minister for minerals and energy, have kept on harping on the importance of foreign direct investment in the midst of all of this, and that, you know, foreign direct investment is still welcome in South Africa despite the strike action.
However, on the ground itself, the striking mine workers have started building links. They have just formed what they are calling a war committee. And they have started linking with other mineworkers in other mines around the platinum belt. They’ve asked their wives to leave, given the kind of increasing food stress in their homesâ€”you know, many of these mineworkers come from rural communities, and they feel that there’s some support system there for their families if they go back.
JAY: Is there any talk of a general strike throughout the platinum sector?
SATGAR: Not as yet. Not as yet. Not as yet. But there is a lot of potential for this to break through, and particularly after today. For the first time in the course of the six-week strike, Lonmin Mine is going to place a formal offer on the table. There have been negotiations going on since the collapse of the peace accord process with the striking committee, involving the churches as a mediator.
Now, everybody’s holding their breath to see what Lonmin puts on the table. Lonmin has not, in the context of the kind of collective bargaining system we have in South Africa, signaled, you know, the sort of minima that it’s willing to kind of work with or bottom lines. It has not signaled any kind of offer to any grade of worker, etc. So for the first time in this process, today we should be hearing about a Lonmin offer.
Now, in the context of the broader mining industry, this has been raised as a big concern, because if Lonmin gives in to the mineworkers, many commentators and analysts suggest that this is going to have major ramifications and knock-on effects within the mining industry. But let’s wait and see.
JAY: Okay. We’ll come back to you within a few days and we’llâ€”as we continue to follow this story. Thanks very much for joining us, Vishwas.
SATGAR: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.