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Vishwas Satgar Pt2: The murder of striking miners reveals that the deep apartheid pattern of the labor market, particularly in the mining industry, has not changed

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

This is a continuation of our report on the killings of African miners. Thirty-four African miners were killed by police, and then, following that, 270 miners were charged with the murder of the other miners. Now we’re going to discuss a little more about the broader implications of what this means for the nature of South African society.

So joining us again from Johannesburg is Vishwash Satgar. He’s an activist in South Africa for the past 28 years. He currently is organizing a solidarity with the Marikana miners organization or movement. He’s a senior lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand. Thanks again for joining us, Vishwas.


JAY: Let’s pull back a bit, and look at the context here. So there’s a new union that’s been formed, which is confronting the older, more traditional miners union. The accusation is that the older union is very allied with the government, ANC government, and the ANC government, the accusations are, are more concerned about pleasing foreign mining investors than dealing with the demands of these miners. So give us—so the strike of these miners really hits at the core of how the ANC is governing. And explain further, please.

SATGAR: Let’s just talk a little bit about what’s at the core of the South African economy today and then kind of get to the unions. Basically, post-apartheid South Africa, its entire economy is still anchored in what is called the minerals-energy complex. And that’s essentially the sort of mining base of the South African economy. Post-apartheid South Africa has—deindustrializing as it’s liberalized and has embraced sort of neoliberal policies. So a lot of the kind of homegrown wealth, if you like, is generated still from the mining complex in South Africa.

Now, that means that the stakes are very, very high when there is so-called instability in the sort of minerals-energy complex in South Africa. The National Union of Mineworkers is one of the most powerful unions in the country. It’s an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. It really comes into its own in the early ’80s and really makes its mark in the context of the national liberation struggle. In 1987 there’s a very big mineworkers strike in South Africa, and that really helped propel some of the shift towards a negotiated transition.

But beyond that, I mean, the National Union of Mineworkers has also provided top leadership for the African National Congress post-1994. Many of their general secretaries have become general secretaries of the ANC. The current sitting deputy president of the country was a former secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers. The current general secretary of the African National Congress was the former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers.

The National Union of Mineworkers, it would seem, has attempted to play a role in the post-apartheid context to address some of the racialized dimensions of the labor market. For instance, it has actively championed the need for employment equity in the workplace. It has attempted to push for greater health and safety issues.

However, when it comes down to really looking at what happened to the labor process and what’s going on in mining today, it would seem increasingly that the National Union of Mineworkers has in a sense disconnected from its worker base.

JAY: So this disillusionment of the miners with the traditional miners union leadership, and by implication with the ANC, and their willingness to have such a direct confrontation with the union leadership and with the state, this must be a great challenge to the ANC. So what does this tell us about what’s next for South Africa and for these miners?

SATGAR: This whole moment throws off, for me, three very important issues. The first is a recognition that the deep apartheid pattern of the labor market, particularly in the mining industry, has really not changed or transformed. Ironically, under an ANC government, the sort of deeply inscribed inequalities in the labor market have continued. And that brings to the fore a big and sharp challenge to all of us.

I think the second big issue is around the trend of violence. The violence in Marikana has deep roots in South African society. Violence between the state and its citizens are taking place in various locales. Our media is not capturing this, various movements that are finding voice of the poor in informal settlements and so on. And as they rise up to demand service delivery and so on, there seems to be an increasing pattern of a state violent response to this. So, again, this throws up a very serious challenge to us as a society on how to really deal with the state violent response to civil protest and democratic struggles by its citizens.

The third crucial issue here is really the future of our democracy, ’cause that’s really what’s at stake here. As I’ve mentioned previously, the state response to the Marikana issue seems still to be one laced with impunity. It seems to be still one laced with coercion. And it’s really raising a whole host of questions about where our democratic institutions are going.

JAY: Now, I would guess if—the argument from the ANC will be that South Africa needs to be competitive in this globalized economy, that South Africa needs foreign investors, it needs them to have confidence in the mines, the mines need to produce, a certain amount of royalties go to the South African society, that’s where things are, and these miners are being unrealistic, and this new union is just causing trouble. Are these the kind of arguments we’re hearing from the ANC? And if so, how do you deal with them?

SATGAR: Clearly, yeah, the minister of mining, when she went onto television, both national and international, clearly it was very much about placating investors. But there are a few issues here. The one is that if you really look closely at the inequalities underpinning this particular issue, there is really wide apartheid inequalities at play here. From the numbers that are coming out, it would seem that the central executive office of Lonmin mine takes home almost ZAR 1.2 million rands a month. Okay? Now, this is leaving aside bonuses and a whole host of other non-wage benefits.

And so, basically, you know, you’re dealing with a situation here of the 1 percent, to use a language familiar in the U.S. context, versus the rest. I mean, the mine workers, most of these rock drillers are at the core phase of the most difficult job in the mining industry. Most of them earn around ZAR 4,000 or less—and that’s—again, this is information that’s coming out in payslips, etc., that workers are being able to put into the public arena. There are incentives, etc., but most of them really don’t earn more than 4,000-odd rands. So their demand to close this gap is a very, very important demand.

Now, the ANC, in this context in which it has basically managed a neo-liberalized economy over the past 18 years, has deepened these inequalities. So, you know, the whole illusion that, you know, foreign investors are really going to come into the country and bring about dramatic change is actually a false idea and assumption.

The second point to make here is that the ANC has been instrumental in bringing about a modern industrial relations system. And we have very modern labor relations machinery and institutions in the South African context. It’s quite tragic that with such a barrage of important labor standards and laws, that the ANC labor minister did not intervene much earlier in this situation.

Right now there is no centralized bargaining around platinum in South Africa. The discontent of the workers have been expressing themselves around a whole host of struggles around platinum. In February this year [unintel.] another large platinum mine, there has been a major battle by workers, which basically, again, dislocated the National Union of Mineworkers. I mean, the signs were there. There could have been a ministerial intervention much earlier to deal with this and to ensure that South Africa continues implementing its progressive labor standards.

In this context, again, you know, the ANC has to come clear with the society. I mean, is it investors at all costs, at the expense of labor standards, which its ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the labor movement more generally, has fought for and has won?

JAY: Now, COSATU, the central trade union congress in South Africa, where are they on all this? They’ve been, you know, more independent than perhaps some of the individual unions have been at the ANC. Where are they on what’s happened in the miners massacre?

SATGAR: COSATU is a very divided union federation right now. The political battles inside the ANC, the factional battles inside the ANC, are also factional battles inside COSATU. And these battles are really coming to a head. The kind of muted responses that we’ve got from COSATU or, rather, very cautious responses or industrial relations centered responses have really begun to show an unwillingness of COSATU to really pose the hard questions to the state. It’s clear from all the evidence that’s come out in the public arena that the state has a case to answer for the murder of these workers. But yet COSATU has not unequivocally called on the state to really explain its conduct.

Secondly, I mean, COSATU currently has embraced this idea of some kind of peace accord process. It’s continued with its rhetoric of vilifying sort of the independent unions that are emerging. It’s not really clear whether this is a useful approach as well, because for many observers, including workers who talk about the peace process (tonight I was at a meeting), they basically feel this peace processes is merely an attempt to block or prevent the miners from spreading the strike across the platinum belt.

So right now COSATU’s really in a difficult place. They are having a big congress in September. It’s around the corner, actually. And there’s going to be serious battles for leadership. And clearly, you know, one faction vying for the leadership wants COSATU to lock itself more into the alliance, and particularly have direct representation onto the national executive committee of the ruling party. That will spell the end of the independence of COSATU.

JAY: Now, this struggle and this massacre brings into light something which isn’t new, but I guess it becomes even more apparent in these moments, which is: the underlying philosophy or theory of the economy at ANC really isn’t working very well, which is, if you have the development of a black elite, it would be a sort of a trickle-down effect, and it doesn’t seem to be trickling down, as trickle-down hasn’t trickled down anywhere else either. Is that right? And then what?

SATGAR: I mean, the ANC, yes, correct, has embraced a neoliberal economic model, has opened up this economy, liberalized, and so on. And the most they can show for it in terms of delivery is a social grant system (and currently we have over 15 million people on the social grant system) mainly targeting the old-age and children. It also can show for itself some delivery around housing. But, you know, a lot of the apartheid pattern of urban and spatial development has continued with ANC housing delivery.

I mean, beyond this, you know, the ANC is really in a cul-de-sac in terms of where it takes the South African economy. It’s just had a recent policy conference, and it is trying to rethink some of the kind of policy choices it’s putting forward. But in the main currently there’s a new growth path document, there’s a new national development plan that it’s put on the table, there’s a new industrial policy framework. And when you really look at all of these policy frameworks, none of them question the macro parameters that South Africa has been kind of locked into for the past 18 years.

Secondly, all of these kind of thrusts failed to recognize that the biggest stumbling block to transformation in South Africa is the state itself. The South African state has very uneven capacity in it, and actually it’s actually failing and coming short in many, many respects. And I would argue that’s because we really haven’t built the capacity in a state that can take on board all its promises and requirements for this economy.

I think the third challenge facing the ANC and all its policy propositions to South Africa is the fact that Walmart is coming. Actually, Walmart has already bought out the biggest retailer in South Africa, and it’s clear in that context that South Africa’s going to witness increasing deindustrialization, as Walmart sucks in cheaper imports, as it squeezes out through price competition competitors in the South African market.

So I think a lot of these things are working against the ANC, and I really don’t think they have an answer for the way forward.

JAY: Okay. Well, this is obviously just the beginning of a very complicated conversation. So we’ll come back to you sometime next week or in the next week or two, especially after we know what’s happening more with the miners. We’ll continue this deconstruction or examination of current South African society. Thanks very much for joining us, Vishwas.

SATGAR: Thank you, Paul. Goodnight.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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