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Behind the South Africa Mineworkers Strike


The recent South African mineworkers massacre in which scores were shot and killed had its origins in long disgraced trade union organizing tactics but that in no way absolves the police and mine owners from being held in accountable.

There is blood and blame enough to cover both sides of the barricades, enough in fact that the regional leadership of the immensely influential South African Communist Party has called for the arrest of the leaders of the breakaway mine workers union which they assert foment violence wherever they appear.

Before addressing the issues confronting the unions it should be made clear that the police are going to have a very difficult time convincing anyone they shot in self-defense. There are numerous videos showing police forces standing in front of their vehicles, not behind them for protection, as they fired into crowds of protesting miners. That simple fact alone belies police protests of innocence.

Furthermore a leading South African political personality informs us that that a dangerous trend within South Africa has been the militarizing of private security firms, many of them hired by the mining establishments.  These security guards, he says, are brought within the framework of the national police, given armor and automatic weapons but very little training. This creates a situation in which there is great distance between the local police and the authorities to whom they should be responsible. If this is the case one can safely assume despite claims by regional and national police authorities their troops were acting in self-defense, likely authorities don’t really know what happened and won’t know until an investigation is completed.

Further, SACP provincial secretary Mododa Sambatha, was quick to point an accusatory finger toward the breakaway mine workers union, the Association of Mine Workers and Construction Unions (AMCU).

Sambatha called for the establishment of a presidential commission to investigate the “violent nature and anarchy associated with AMCU wherever it establishes itself.”

These charges relate to several other incidents in earlier organizing campaigns where workers and police had been killed. In fact just days before the Aug. 16 massacre two policemen were hacked to death my machete wielding AMCU members.

“Workers must desist any temptation to mobilize them against NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) or to mobilize them to attack each other,” Sambatha said.

What are the origins of such horrible organizing conditions where workers are attacking each and in turn attacking police?

Currently there are two unions organizing and representing mineworkers in South Africa-the long established NUM that played a leading role in the movement for national liberation and the more recently formed   AMCU, that many uninformed consider to be the more radical, but in fact are anything but radical.

Significantly (and this is significant) when leaders of AMCU made application for official government recognition and were asked “What is the main difference between yourselves and NUM?”  AMCU leaders declared themselves to be “apolitical and anti-communist.”

This is an amazing admission because it is a physical impossibility to be apolitical and anti-communist. It’s like saying you love to walk but don’t believe in motion. It’s a nonsensical physical and emotional contradiction, but is a first step on the short road to disaster.

With the creation of AMCU the long, long discredited tactic of “dual unionism” appeared.

Essentially dual unionism is parallel organizing tactics of one union against another within the same industry and workplace.

With the possible exception of the breakup of the AFL-CIO in recent years dual unionism was last seen in the US more than 70 years ago and today is outlawed in many countries. It creates division within the ranks of labor, is the scourge of workers everywhere but is the sweet music of milk and honey to the bosses.

At the Marikana mines in Rustenburg, approximately 60 miles north of Johannesburg, NUM had recently concluded contract negotiations but AMCU members  were dissatisfied, they wanted more; in fact AMCU leaders encouraged them to demand a nearly 110% increase in their wages.

Did the workers deserve such an outrageous increase? Of course they did, but that’s never the issue, especially under capitalism. Within a trade union situation the question always is, what can we reasonably expect to gain without actually going to war? A strike is the closest thing that exists to warfare without actually being warfare and even then loss of life is not unusual.

In the case of the mine workers massacre the great crime on the part of AMCU leaders was calling a wildcat strike, an unauthorized strike, in which they represented less than a quarter of the 28,000 Marikana workers.

Furthermore many AMCU members were armed with spears and machetes, not to attack the police necessarily but rather NUM members according to president Frans Baleni. “Our members have been attacked, and that can- not be said to be rivalry or clashes, it is pure criminality,” he said.

In his now infamous declaration AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa demagogically declared to the assembled masses, ”We will die here if necessary.”

Really? People should die over a disputed pay increase? He didn’t die.  American workers who haven’t had a real pay increase In nearly 40 years would find that a curious concept.

Exasperatingly and dangerously, following the shootings, expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema travelled to scene of the bloodbath and called on mine workers to continue to volunteer to be killed-all in the name of the justifiable pay increase.

Here it is necessary to focus some light on the AMCU leaders and the political baggage of NUM.

Mathunjwa and AMCU leader Steve Kholekilethe are former NUM members who were expelled from NUM for “anarchism” and who then moved on the form AMCU.

AMCU leaders can rightly be considered the ideological brothers of the anarchists within the US Occupy movement who wear masks over their faces, throw trash cans through store windows and set buildings on fire. The only difference between those who set buildings on fire and those who encourage workers to arm themselves and make unreasonable wage demands is the scale of collateral damage.

But here is the real danger for the workers movement. If the mine owners were to actually grant the wage increases it would further encourage violent tactics on the part of AMCU members and set conditions for an even greater crackdown in the future.

There is no way out for a labor movement that resorts to violence unless revolutionary conditions are at hand.

But this is not say rank and file members do not have grievances with NUM. Many are frustrated and disillusioned when rank and file union members are not allowed to run for office, for example, or when NUM officials are seen to abandon workers struggles and join South Africa’s emerging black bourgeoisie.

Former NUM leader Cyril Ramaphosa is the key case in point.  Ramaphosa built NUM into a major fighting force against apartheid, but once apartheid ended Ramaphosa left politics and became one of South Africa’s leading investment movers. He heads the Shanduka investments group, sits on the board of Coca-Cola and gives a whole new dimension to the disparaging term “entrepreneurial trade unionism,” or the practice of creating trade unions in order to make money, commonly observed in Nigeria years ago. Today Ramaphosa is one of South Africa’s wealthiest citizens but still claims to be a socialist.

More recently NUM president Baleni has been under fire for increasing his monthly pay package northward of R100,000 per month. That’s more than $8,000 per month, a seemingly outrageous amount of money for the leader of a union whose members were killed demanding  an increase of pay from $649/ month to $1250.

But none of the NUM’s political baggage can justify the creation of a dual union.

Consider a case closer to home.

In the 1980’s the hotel workers union in the US was one of the nation’s most corrupt labor organizations and Secretary-Treasurer John F. Gibson was sent to prison.. At the very next international convention delegates voted to pay “poor old Gibby” $100,000 for the rest of his life.

Radicals and progressives within the union never dreamed of organizing a new union. They went about the strenuous work of organizing from within. Today the new hotel workers union is among the most militant defenders of workers’ rights and wages within private sector industry.

That is the correct road for union organizing and reform.

We will have to wait to see what all the commission findings report and who will held accountable for the massacre.  But one thing is for sure. As long as dual unionism is allowed to exist within the mining industry, or anywhere else in South Africa for that matter, more violence is sure to follow.

Jean Damu organized the Bay Area Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with South African Trade Unions. It was the only instance in the US when trade unions met to discuss South Africa. The conference was keynoted by John Gaetsewe, secretary general of SACTU (South African Conference of Trade Unions) the forerunner to the current umbrella labor group COSATU (Conference of South African Trade Unions.)


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