Vishwas Satgar: New miners union growing as workers split with ANC supported union; increasing consciousness amongst workers that the issue now is class
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
The struggle of the platinum miners in South Africa has rocked the entire South African society. And it continues.
Now joining us to bring us up to date on that struggle is Vishwas Satgar. He’s a senior lecturer at the University of Witwatersrandâ€”and my apologies for having just butchered the name of that university.
Thanks for joining us.
VISHWAS SATGAR, SENIOR LECTURER, UNIV. OF THE WITWATERSRAND: Good evening.
JAY: So bring us up to date. What’s been happening with the miners?
SATGAR: Okay. I mean, I think last year it was the tail end. After the Marikana massacre on AugustÂ 16 we witnessed a wave of strike action that brought mining in South Africa to a halt. But it never stopped there. The Marikana moment, which is spurred on by deep discontent, knocked on into our transport sector. And then, of course, in late November into December, and actually just two weeks ago, it was at the heart of a rebellion of wine workers in the Western Cape of South Africa.
So, basically, Marikana has become a rallying point and emblematic point for fighting the deep inequalities in South Africa. It’s really shifting consciousness on the ground.
Of course, in the immediate struggles on the grounds, there are various challenges coming to the fore. Currently, in mining, with most of the strike having ended, a residue of worker committees still in place, the employers are now going on the offensive. There’s a lot of talk of retrenchments. In Anglo Platinum, one of the biggest platinum mines in the world, there’s currently a big dispute around retrenching 14,000 miners who were on strike.
JAY: Yeah, retrenching, here we would say laying off. Is that what you mean?
SATGAR: Yeah, retrenching or laying off, using operational restructuring arguments to justify this. Essentially they’re saying that, you know, it is not profitable to keep some of these shafts open and so on. So that’s a big contention in mining right now.
And that is at the same time fueled by a massive battle going on for union membership in the mining industry. The Marikana moment has displaced the dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa and has actually thrown up a very serious opposition, the amalgamated mineworkers, AMCU. And they are basically growing dramatically, exponentially. They have a membership now of over 100,000 mineworkers.
But there are serious battles going on, physical. And the past week in South Africa has really been about trying to defuse the open conflict between these two unions.
In addition, on the Winelands, the wine workers there have been able to really disrupt and unsettle deep colonial labor relations that have been in place in South Africa for centuries, actually. This is way beyond apartheid. And these wine workers have in the course of their struggle been able to bring to the fore the racialized nature of their work in the Cape Winelands.
Now, the cape wine is known all over the world. It’s one of our leading exports. And it’s a big money spinner, both for farmers, as well as for foreign exchange with the South African state. And hence the response to these workers has been extremely repressive. There have been vigilante attempts by farmers to coerce them back in to work. The ANC police have been consistently beating back the workers’ rebellion. One worker died in one of the towns. And generally there’s been overall coercion and harassment of these workers.
Two and a half months, about, into the strike, the government basically proclaims that it is increasing the minimum wage determination in the Winelands from ZARÂ 65 to ZARÂ 105. This in a sense defuses the whole situation in the Winelands, but it really has shifted consciousness amongst the workers. Currently, there are various small unions organizing in the Winelands, and the long struggle that they’ve been through has now thrown up the imperative of unifying, building strong, cohesive, and dedicated union organization amongst these workers.
Moreover, the racial dynamics of these towns, of these farming communities, the deep racism that comes to the fore in these social orders, in these spaces, has also been exposed. And workers and their families have taken open declarations and decisions to stop shopping at certain racist shops, to keep away from certain cultural spaces, etc. And in a sense, the struggle has been about an awakening of people’s identities and a direct challenge to racism in addition to challenging inequality.
JAY: If you go back to what you were talking about earlier in the platinum mineworkers, the battle between the unions, the National Union of Mineworkers is very linked to the ANC, the ANC government, and, if I understand correctly, were even in on and calling for and in some way involved in the suppression of the mineworkers’ battle that led to the murder of so many miners. To what extent is that now changing the way workers think about the ANC, in the sense of is it now increasingly more about class than it is about race, given that, you know, the ANC government is essentially a black government?
SATGAR: Well, we can look at this question from below and from above.
From below, clearly there is a lot of fluidity and there’s a moment of realignment unfolding in South Africa, and hence you are seeing the battle around the legitimacy of trade unions right now in mining, a very conflict-ridden battle. And that in itself is expressing a shift in worker consciousness. I mean, the rapid growth of AMCU does signal a rupture vis-Ã -vis the national liberation bloc and political base in South Africa, and that is very dramatic, and that is very serious.
How far that’s going to go politically is an open question. Some of the left groups that have been involved in supporting the mineworkers have formed what is called the Workers and Socialist Party, and by all accounts it’s not growing dramatically. And some would argue that it was a big leap, too quickly, too opportunistically, etc. So, anyway, there’s a whole lot of questions about where the realignment is going to go from below.
Having said that, if you think about the ANC and the ANC state response to all of this, well, there’s a few things. One, the ANC went to its national conference in DecemberÂ 2012, where it reelected a national leadership but also took some very important policy decisions. At the heart of its economic thinking is an affirmation of resource nationalism coming out of its conference. And that means there’s an increasing salience and importance given to the mining sector for the development, for the growth prospects of South Africa. This has been followed on, about two weeks ago, by a government-convened mining summit in South Africa, where all leading mining houses in the world were invited to this mining conference. And there again the ANC state was emphatic, was unambiguous that South Africa is open for business, that the mining sector is very crucial for the growth of the South African economy, and that investors are very welcome into this sector.
JAY: So a promise, essentially, that the South African state will keep the miners under control and foreign investors shouldn’t worry.
SATGAR: Yeah, I mean, to the extent that I think there was a recognition in this conference that the social compact that has glued together South Africa’s transition, some kind of consensus around deracializing South African capitalism, has actually come unhinged, and that as part of going forward with the mining sector, the ANC state is going to seek a renewed social compact, if you like.
Now, what’s also very important in this context is the election of Cyril Ramaphosa, one of South Africa’s leading plutocrats, the super rich, who was a board member of the Lonmin mine at which you had the Marikana massacre.
JAY: And owned a not insignificant amount of stock in that company.
SATGAR: No, absolutely. I mean, he ranks as possibly one of the top five richest African men in South Africa today. He’s been elected as the deputy president of the African National Congress coming out of its December conference. And he is very vocal in the media and in the broader public sphere about clinching a new social compact with capital, repairing the rift, repairing the damage in that relationship.
So the ANC is increasingly from above going to attempt to bring back stability into the South African mining industry. Again, if Marikana is an indicator of how it’s going to ruleâ€”in other words, the use of coercionâ€”then we are definitely going to see further labor conflicts and violence unfolding in the South African mining industry going forward.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Vishwas.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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