The Wage Struggle at Marikana

By Dhiraj Kumar Nite

The mineworker employed at the Lonmin platinum mine in Rustenburg (South Africa) has returned to work on September 20. Their strike committee and the Lonmin management have signed an agreement of wage increases by 22 percent. This remarkable outcome followed the strike of 36 days; and the tragic bloodbath which took tolls of 35 lives of mineworkers and other six police personnel.

The 36-day long strike and episode of bloodbath at Marikana has greatly drawn attention wold-wide. South Africa is the largest producer of platinum in the world. Platinum is the most expensive metal given its application in the manufacturing of car engine and the limited reserves of platinum. Therefore, development taking place at Marikana has been an event of specific concern to many of us. The initial happening at Marikana included the incidence where the police gunned down 35 mineworkers who were on strike for a week. The episode drew flaks of all stakeholders and analysts, including those of Lonmin management. Some analyst has raised the point that whether Pretoria is on the path to become a police state for which it was notorious not long back in the apartheid era. This apprehension has appeared vindicated in the face of statements issued by the Minister of Police. The latter emphasised that the police behaved only in a restraint manner despite losing its six personnel in the hand of strikers.

But, the Pretoria government is an alliance between the ANC, the SACP, and the Cosatu (the largest confederation of labour unions). It promised that South African polity still has had sufficient space to resolve the labour issue in a democratic way. It could not ignore the mounting pressure from the community, the churches and other civil society organisations that joined hands with the bereaved family and strikers at Marikana. The government stepped into and the three sides reached at an agreement.

The 3000 drillers, the core component of mining workforce, asked for R12500 payment a month and went on strike. They were receiving a monthly salary about R4400 after a number of deductions, including PF, insurance and taxes from the actual salary that stood about R8200. Their demand would have been, as journalists frequently reported, a 200 percent revision of their real monthly wage received in-hand. Mineworkers did not see any attachment with deductions related to PF and insurance. They are migrant contract workers and normally do not find themselves benefiting from those deductions made upon their salary. They have been living in shacks and their families in distant villages. The settlement of shack houses has lacked most of basic amenities required for descent living. Consequently, they see the deduction of taxes from salaries as another drain. They found the salary taken at home insufficient as well as humiliating. They put their life at risk to produce minerals at the womb of the earth and under all sorts of uncertainty. Notwithstanding this, mining job has been failing them from satisfying their different family responsibilities. Thus, a driller Xolani reports to a journalist:

“Maybe I send home two or two point three [thousand]. What am I left with? I have to eat with this money, buy clothes and everything. There’s nothing left after that. I can’t put money away. Even small improvements I want to make around the house are impossible. My mother, wife and child all know that I have a job [in] eGoli, but what do I have to show for it? It’s a shame for me. You can work here for years and have nothing at the end. Not even a little scrap car. … Compare that to the mlungu bosses in the company. He takes home one hundreds of thousand Rand every month. His housing allowance is R50,000. (The last figure may be inflated). … No, we want that R12,500. Then we will feel like we are earning something. The truth is that this company has platinum because of us. If we do not drill, they would not have it. Why must we work like slaves for nothing?” (http://dailymaverick.co.za/article/2012-08-18-lonmin-malema-fans-the-flames-but-the-victims-are-still-out-in-the-cold)

Xolani repeated one phrase: sikhathele (They are tired and have had enough).

The new agreement offers them a monthly salary of R11078, including a basic wage of R6295 and other remuneration. Mineworkers have returned to the pit. There will be deductions made upon the above salary, which they are not quibbling at this moment.

What will be the effect of this wage revision on the profit rate of the company and prices of platinum? The answer of this question reveals the essence of the contemporary method of labour appropriation. The company had subcontracted production work a decade before. Most mining companies adopted this policy in post-apartheid South Africa. The new dispensation of tripartite alliance had its commitment in making the fruit of labour efforts and industrialisation available to the working classes. It aimed to abolish the system of cheap migrant single men employed on the mines. The alternative arrangement made a significant restructuring of wage relationship in the industry under the new dispensation since 1994. Of course, the trend has already been set in since 1984 when the black mineworkers began organising and fighting for descent work and living wage.

In response to the new pressure, mining management devised two-pronged strategies. One has been the arrangement of continuous production and increases in labour productivity. The second relates to the subcontracting of production work. The Lonmin management paid R12500 for each worker to the subcontractor. Obviously, the latter usually paid half of it to the employee. The 2012-agreement in effective sense is not any dent in coffer of the parent company. It may strain the relationship between workers and subcontractor in the immediate future. The subcontractor may look out for all means to dispense with the militant organised men and recruit new plaint ones. A new round of struggle at an individual level seems to be on the offing in a country of huge unemployment.

Some analyst predicts a new bloodbath of joblessness because of this spectacular wage revision. They may prove correct only because of the recessionary trend in the car manufacturing industry. The wage revision won’t have anything to do with that. Moreover, the Marikana struggle has challenged the contract system of exploitation and shaken the national silence over the situation where a black contractor has been exploiting the black working class. It also exposed to its limit the principle of one union in one industry. A return from the outcome of Marikana agreement should be difficult. An inspirational lesson for Indians and Martuti workers is out there.

Dhiraj Kumar Nite, A Social Scientist, University of Johannesburg,  Ambedkar Univeristy Delhi. An author of a book: Mining Faces: An oral history of Southern African mineworkers on the gold and coalmines 1952-2012, Jacana Press, Johannesburg (forthcoming).                     

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