Workers Vanguard No. 997
2 March 2012
Strikers Defy State Repression, Betrayal by Union Tops
South Africa: Platinum Miners Fight Mass Firings
FEBRUARY 25—The following article is reprinted from a 21 February supplement to Spartacist South Africa, newspaper of the South African section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). Our comrades have distributed over 1,300 copies of the supplement to striking mineworkers who are locked in a fierce battle over wages and working conditions at an Implats platinum mine some 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg.
The strikers are fighting not only the bosses and the capitalist state but the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers and the COSATU trade-union federation. Four days ago, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi showed up outside Implats’ Number Six shaft to demand that strikers get “‘Back to Work or Else’,” as the headline in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian (24 February) put it. Vavi, who had recently tried to stop a strike by the SADTU teachers union in Eastern Cape province, menacingly reminded the mineworkers of his role in siding with the Volkswagen bosses in Uitenhage in 2000 when he told workers to end their “illegal” strike. Such treachery is part and parcel of the COSATU bureaucracy’s participation in the capitalist Tripartite Alliance government along with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
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In a vicious strikebreaking attack, Impala Platinum (Implats), the world’s second-largest platinum producer, sacked a total of 17,200 striking underground workers between late January and early February. The workers, employed at Implats’ mines in Rustenburg, North West province, have refused to buckle in the face of this massive intimidation by the bosses. They have overwhelmingly rejected the company’s attempt to break the strike by “rehiring” the dismissed workers at poorer conditions.
With the wildcat strike almost a month old and causing a loss in production estimated at R1.2 billion [$154 million], the forces of the capitalist state are being mobilised on an unprecedented scale to attack the workers and restore the flow of profits to the Implats bosses. Last week, police helicopters and tanks with water cannons were brought in to quell the upheaval, which had extended to include solidarity protests by the community of nearby Freedom Park. A satellite police station was torched, roads blockaded, and even the army had to be mobilised to prevent workers from shutting down one of the mine shafts. Hundreds of striking workers have been arrested in recent weeks. An article on the Platinum Weekly website (17 February) summed up the platinum bosses’ attitude with the headline, “Anarchy! This Is WAR...”
The entire labour movement has a vital interest in the victory of the striking Rustenburg mineworkers—their immediate reinstatement and granting of full wage demands including the R9,000 across the board minimum, with all other previously won working conditions and wage increases honoured, and the scrapping of all criminal charges and other reprisals for actions in defence of the strike. If the Implats bosses are allowed to get away with this assault—the scale of which is unprecedented in recent decades—it will only embolden the capitalist bosses and their government to launch a broader offensive against organised labour. What’s needed is hard class struggle against the strikebreaking of the Implats bosses and the capitalist state, mobilising the social power of union workers throughout the mining and manufacturing sectors in labour solidarity: An injury to one is an injury to all!
Mineworkers Revolt Against NUM Misleaders’ Collusion with Bosses
From the beginning of the struggle, the workers at Implats have had to go up against the bureaucracy of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)—the largest and most powerful affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the only recognised trade union at Implats. The strike in late January by 5,000 rock drill operators was triggered when those workers discovered that the company had secretly given an 18 percent wage increase to workers in the so-called “miners” pay category, who are already paid much higher wages than the rock drillers and others in lower categories. This divide-and-rule deal was hatched by the Implats bosses right at the end of a long, bitter round of wage negotiations lasting from May to October 2011, during which the company pleaded bankruptcy to extort concessions from the union on the increases in the workers’ miserably low wages (meanwhile, Implats has now reported a 67 percent increase in headline earnings for the 6-month period ending in December 2011!).
When the workers approached their union, NUM officials said they did not negotiate the secret deal but were merely informed by management about the 18 percent increase for “miners” only. The company claimed it negotiated the deal with NUM officials. In any case, the union members were angry that their leaders had kept the deal a secret, strengthening their suspicion that the NUM tops were colluding with management behind their backs. Workers who spoke to Spartacist South Africa reported a long history of frustration with NUM officials who consistently fail to represent their grievances, either “sweeping them under the carpet” or keeping them their business with the bosses and failing to report to members. When NUM leaders attempted to end a wildcat strike at Implats in 2009, they were stoned by workers and an NUM deputy president apparently lost an eye in the process.
When they went on strike in 2012, union members elected an interim committee to represent them in their further dealings with the company, vowing that they do not want anything to do with NUM officials. But the company has refused to meet with this committee, claiming that there is no one to negotiate with in order to justify strong-arm tactics like the mass firings to break the strike. Both the company and NUM officials have been peddling the line that the strike was incited by a competing union—the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which split from the NUM in 1998—which they claim is challenging the NUM’s jurisdiction and “intimidating” the Implats workers into striking. But the national organiser of AMCU has denied having anything to do with the strike, responding, “How can we want to be part of the strike?” (Business Report, 17 February). And who ever heard of over 17,000 workers being “intimidated by a small number of troublemakers,” as the NUM officials claim?!
The NUM leaders rant against “non-recognised unions” and “unscrupulous forces” in order to deflect from their own class-collaborationist betrayals. It is these betrayals which have led the union rank and file in Rustenburg to revolt against their misleaders. Rather than doing anything to mobilise the desperately needed solidarity with the Implats strikers, the NUM bureaucracy has openly sided with the company. Their accusations of “intimidation” and complaints that strikers are “preventing” people from going to work are clearly an invitation for the bourgeoisie and its government to violently attack the sacked workers. NUM leaders have treacherously called for increased “security” for those wanting to scab on the strike—a call which, not surprisingly, has now been taken up by the Implats CEO!
It is crucial for union militants who want to fight against the NUM leadership’s sellouts to clearly understand and break from the broader reformist politics which are at the root of these betrayals. The NUM and COSATU bureaucracies are a key component of the ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance, a bourgeois alliance through which the workers are chained to their own capitalist exploiters and the reformist leaders of the SACP and COSATU assume direct responsibility for administering racist neo-apartheid capitalism. The “new” South Africa is now the most unequal society in the world. The apartheid wage gap has not closed, but become a gaping chasm. At the same time as the attacks on union members’ livelihoods and general social misery are increasing, the COSATU union bureaucracy has itself become integrated into the new black elite and “gravy trainers” who have been showered with privileges by the (still mainly white) capitalist rulers in return for upholding their class rule against the (mainly black) working-class base. This is the basic cause of the increasingly harsh clashes between the union tops and their membership.
These clashes have not been limited to the NUM, as a long line of wretched betrayals by the union bureaucracies have fuelled the union members’ anger toward their leaders. In 2000 the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) bureaucracy openly sided with the Volkswagen bosses, who fired 1,300 workers in retaliation against a wildcat strike which 4,000 NUMSA members had waged in defence of their shop stewards. Prominent roles in this betrayal were played by current COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and NUMSA leader Irvin Jim. In 2003 a big chunk of Chemical, Energy, Paper, Print, Wood and Allied Workers Union broke with their leaders over the support of the ANC capitalist government to form the General Industrial Workers Union (GIWUSA). In 2010 public sector workers clashed with their leaders who, after refusing to follow through on threats of solidarity secondary strikes by the more strategic unions in mining, manufacturing and commerce, bureaucratically strangled the strike, going behind the membership’s back to seal a sellout deal.
Vavi and Co. make a lot of noise about “fighting corruption,” but this is just intended to divert attention from the biggest swindle of the “new” South Africa—the fact that the same Randlord capitalist rulers, along with their imperialist backers, continue to reap fabulous profits from the superexploitation of mainly black labour. The biggest political corruption is that perpetrated by Vavi and the other reformist misleaders, who sacrifice the working class’s needs in the interest of South African capitalism. In fact, corruption and graft are inseparable from neo-apartheid capitalism, with the black elite enriching themselves through controlling state institutions and acting as front men for the dominantly white capitalist ruling class. Even in the 1980s, the apartheid rulers saw the need to counter the liberation struggle by fostering the development of a black elite to act as a buffer between the privileged white minority and impoverished black majority. The trade-union bureaucracy is now an integral part of this black elite as well as the ruling Tripartite Alliance. From former union leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and others who have become capitalists or top ANC/government officials, to endless stories of union bureaucrats looting union pension funds—the sellout tops have enriched themselves by betraying their members.
It is necessary to build a class-struggle leadership to replace the current crop of sellout bureaucrats and unleash the potential power of the NUM and other unions of industrial workers in an all-out struggle against capitalist misery. The starting point for this is the need to break the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance along class lines, and for proletarian independence from the capitalists, their state, and all their political parties—including in particular the bourgeois-nationalist ANC. Dismissed workers at Implats told us that their interim committee was trying to meet with the minister of mineral resources, Susan Shabangu, to ask for her mediation, and now there are also reports of the committee appealing to the police for “mediation.” Such reliance on the capitalist government and its armed thugs—who at this very moment are mobilising to smash the workers’ pickets—means accepting the same dead-end reformism and class collaboration that has brought the NUM bureaucrats into such sharp conflict with the workers they are supposed to represent. The capitalist state is not a neutral arbiter between the capitalist exploiters and their working-class wage slaves, but an apparatus of organised violence—based centrally on the police, military and prisons—that is wielded on behalf of the filthy rich ruling class against the majority black masses they exploit and oppress. Break with the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance! Cops, prison guards and security guards out of the unions!
For a Class-Struggle Fight Against Implats Strikebreaking!
The Implats wage-slave owners have taken full advantage of the opportunity created by the NUM leaders’ abandonment of their members to open the floodgate of attacks. They dismissed workers without paying them a cent of their final settlement payouts like pension or unemployment funds. Coupled with other attacks like shutting the canteen, using cops to evict workers from the hostel and no wages because of dismissals, it is clear that the bosses’ strategy is to starve these workers into submission. Striking workers reported that police thugs in unmarked uniforms were deployed to evict the 5,000 workers who were sacked in the first wave of dismissals. Between 350 and 400 workers have been arrested and are facing court dates at different times, including over 100 who will appear in court on March 8. Drop all the charges!
Most of the workers who have been evicted or threatened with eviction are migrant labourers from other parts of South Africa and neighbouring countries like Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland, with no families in the area that can offer them alternative accommodation. Among the first victims of evictions were the widows of mineworkers who died on duty in these mines. These women end up being trapped in these labour compounds because they do not have money to return to their families as it often takes two years or more to receive payments owed to their late husbands.
The desperate plight facing the dismissed mineworkers and their families points to the urgent need to link up the wage demands and union struggles in defence of the workers’ immediate economic interests with a fight against the capitalist misery and oppression which hit broader layers of society. The potential for this is palpable in Rustenburg, which is one reason for the massive state mobilisation to smash the strike. Residents in the squalid squatter camps near the Rustenburg mines have demonstrated in support of the Implats workers. On February 17, thousands of unemployed residents of Brits, which is also in North West province, marched to the headquarters of Xstrata mines demanding sharing of wealth and jobs.
The NUM and COSATU bureaucracies’ class collaboration and reliance on the capitalist state has also meant abandoning the countless service delivery protests of mostly unemployed township residents to cop repression, in addition to selling out their own members on a regular basis. In contrast, a class-struggle leadership would link the social power of the unions to the anger in the townships and squatter camps, fighting for demands like jobs for all through dividing up the available work at no loss in pay; affordable, quality housing; free, quality education with a living stipend for all; free, quality health care; and public transport through a massive public works programme; full citizenship rights for all immigrants and organising the unorganised. This would be a powerful blow against the recent upsurge of anti-immigrant attacks in townships throughout the country, which have pitted the poor against the most vulnerable and desperate in a struggle over pitiful crumbs from the capitalists.
Immediately after carrying out the mass firings, Implats announced that it would begin rehiring striking workers on a case-by-case basis at downgraded conditions. This is a tactic to not only break the strike, but also slash wages and weed out suspected union militants. Some of the sacked workers we talked with had been working for the company almost 40 years and are only a few years away from retirement—for them this deal could be flat-out robbery. While the workers have vowed not to accept anything short of reinstatement under their previous conditions and terms of employment, the NUM leaders have assisted the Implats bosses’ blatant strikebreaking maneuver by trying to convince striking workers to apply for rehiring.
This is a tactic which the bosses are increasingly using to break strikes. As the bourgeoisie’s paper Business Day (8 February) put it in an article about the trend of mass firings and rehirings: “This enables the company to stop a strike swiftly and decrease its workforce, and cut costs.” In May 2011, the world’s third-largest platinum producer, Lonmin, fired 9,000 workers—who were also NUM members—and then offered to rehire them as “new” employees. This followed an industrial action started following a union branch leadership dispute. At Lonmin the NUM bureaucracy also treacherously sided with the bosses against the union’s own members, with NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka grotesquely declaring, “Unfortunately, the company cannot have such people and has to let them go.” Recently, some 300 bus drivers for the Gautrain service were sacked in Johannesburg following a wildcat strike, with the bureaucracy of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union siding with the company against striking workers.
Expropriate the Mines! For a Black-Centered Workers Government!
The mining sector has seen a substantial amount of labour unrest in the past period and the bureaucrats are fearful that such an environment can threaten “business as usual.” As the largest affiliate of the biggest union federation COSATU, the NUM is a key strategic union that—with its hands on the economy’s central resources of gold, diamonds, platinum, coal and electricity generation—has the social power to bring the economy to a standstill. With a bold, revolutionary leadership pursuing an independent working-class policy, this power could also be used to rip the mines and mining capital out of the hands of the bloodsucking mining bosses like Implats, and to begin running the economy on a socialist basis, with the aim of serving the needs of the working people. Expropriating the mines could have a huge impact in helping to lift the majority out of misery and poverty, but for this it must be linked to establishing workers control and economic planning throughout the country through a black-centred workers government. This has nothing in common with bourgeois nationalisation schemes like those advanced by Julius Malema and the bourgeois-nationalist ANC Youth League.
The fight for a black-centred workers government requires a revolutionary vanguard party basing itself on the complete political and organisational independence of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie. We fight to build such a party in intransigent struggle against the pro-capitalist politics of the SACP and COSATU misleaders, winning militants from the working-class ranks to a genuinely communist programme. The class-collaborationist policies of the SACP and COSATU leaders subordinate the independence of the workers to their capitalist class enemies through the alliance with the bourgeois-nationalist ANC. These labour reformists shamelessly exploit the weight of national oppression of the black majority in order to sell the workers this treacherous alliance with a party of the class enemy. This is what the programme of “swelling the ranks of the ANC” and “the ANC’s leading role in the National Democratic Revolution”—supported by the misleaders of both COSATU and SACP—is all about.
The continued degradation of the black majority is not just a trade-union question that can be resolved through fighting for better wages and other improvements in the conditions of employment. It is inherent in the very structure and development of the South African capitalist system, under which the national oppression of the overwhelming majority of the population—the black masses—came to be carried out not by a foreign colonial power, but by a native white bourgeoisie tied closely to the Anglo-American imperialists. The white supremacist system of apartheid, whose underlying class and social structure remains in place today, was in a sense a form of colonial oppression within one country. And the purpose of this “colonial” subjugation is for the local capitalists and imperialists to extract profits from the superexploitation of the black proletariat.
The peculiar development of South African capitalism, resulting in the almost complete overlap of race and class, provides a certain paradigm, or model, for the applicability of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The capitalist class is dominantly white while the working class is overwhelmingly black. The democratic task of liberating the black majority from its enslaved and degraded condition is inextricably linked to the need to overthrow the capitalist system. A black-centred workers government would not be racially exclusive—there would be an important role and full democratic rights for coloureds, Indians and other Asians, and those whites who accept a government centrally based on the black working people. In this sense, a black-centred workers government represents liberation for the oppressed coloured and Indian minorities as well.
A black-centred workers government here must be linked to the toilers throughout the region in a socialist federation of Southern Africa, and it would fight like hell to extend workers power to the advanced capitalist countries—especially to the imperialist centres in the U.S., Western Europe and Japan—where the workers are currently being ravaged by the capitalist economic crisis and vicious austerity attacks. On the basis of international socialist planning, we can build a truly humane society where the brutality and exploitation associated with the rule of the mining magnates and imperialist bloodsuckers are a relic of the past. For a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party as a section of a reforged Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution!