by Stef Terblanche

Mine unrest

Echoes of history

Lonmin Mine Protests
Lonmin mine.JPG
As falling commodity prices compelled mining companies to cut operating costs, tensions flared between workers and mine owners over wages and jobs. Heavily armed workers went on strike and confronted police and mine bosses. Political agitators exploited the situation and the unrest quickly spread. As workers barricaded townships, the government finally sent in the army. Many died, were injured or arrested. This happened 90 years ago.
The recent events at Marikana strongly echo events at the gold mines of the Witwatersrand in 1922; events that represented a defining moment in the political history of the country.

Mark Twain once famously said: “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Seldom has this wisdom been better illustrated than by the tragic events around the illegal strike at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine. 

Not since the 1922 strike has South Africa seen such violent and destructive labour unrest additionally fuelled  by political opportunism.

A defining outcome of the 1922 events was the entrenchment of racially determined socio-economic conditions on the mines and so-called “job reservation” along racial lines. It left a legacy felt to this day and which has probably contributed to the events at Marikana.

The parallels between the events of 1922 and those of 2012 are striking.

By December 1921 the gold price had dropped by more than a quarter to 95 shillings a fine troy ounce, putting considerable pressure on the profitability of the mines around Johannesburg.

First the mining companies in 1921 sought to cut costs by lowering the wages of their white labour force, who thought their jobs were secure because of race biased job reservation. The next cost-cutting move was an attempt to weaken or scrap the colour bar and replace white labour with much cheaper black labour.

In 2012 platinum market conditions and prices have been under considerable pressure from weakened demand, translating to pressure on the profitability of the mines.
As producer of 80% of the world’s platinum, the impact on South Africa has been felt acutely. For some time many local platinum mines have been looking at measures to cut costs.

In 2008 the price of platinum – historically more volatile than that of gold – shed almost two-thirds of its value. In February this year the platinum price was at a high of $1,729/oz before plunging to $1,384 in June. By August it was trading at around $1,390.

In its reported interim results in June, the world’s largest platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), stated: “Global demand for platinum during the first half of 2012 was marginally weaker than expected.” Firmer jewellery demand, stimulated by current depressed price levels, did not offset weak auto-catalyst and investment demand. Industrial demand for platinum remained flat.

The European economic uncertainty contributed to the pressures. European motor industry demand for platinum for auto catalysts accounts for 47% of global demand.

Platinum mines were looking at cost-cutting initiatives, down-scaling operations, changing key executives and, above all, resisting sudden demands for hefty pay increases outside of existing pay agreements, accompanied by illegal wildcat strikes.

The attempts in 1922 to alter employment patterns on a racial basis contributed directly and immediately to friction and led to serious tensions between black and white workers.

In 2012 the trigger was union representation and contract labour. The new breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), started recruiting both disgruntled members of the long-established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and hitherto non-unionised workers. A large labour component on some mines consists of non-unionised contract workers.

In 1922 and in 2012 the respective market and labour dynamics – with political undercurrents – were fuelling tensions between workers and employers, resulting in strikes.

Between 28 December 1921 and 1 January 1922 the coal miners of the former Transvaal went on strike when employers cut their wages by five shillings per shift. By 10 January the strike spread to the gold mines. They rejected a proposal that the ratio of whites to black workers should be adjusted in favour of blacks, accompanied by a wage cut.

Some 22,000 white mineworkers were now on strike, resulting in their black colleagues  not being able to work.

On Friday 10 August 2012 3 000 AMCU workers launched a wildcat strike at Lonmin’s Marikana mine. They demanded an approximate 25%  pay hike so that they'd earn R12,500 a month. Mine management resisted and set ultimatums for the workers to return to work or be fired.

On Sunday 12 August, striking AMCU workers clashed with non-striking NUM workers and tensions rose. By Tuesday 14 August police started gathering at Lonmin after 10 people were killed. Among the dead were non-striking workers, two policemen, a NUM shop steward and security guards.

On Thursday 16 August police at Marikana were confronted by a restless crowd of heavily armed and aggressive strikers. They opened fire – allegedly after being attacked – and 34 workers died, 78 were injured and 270 arrested.

Political opportunists – most notably the expelled former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema – sought to exploit the tense conditions and further incite workers. Whether as a result of this or not, illegal strikes soon spread to other platinum and gold mines.

Workers and their unemployed supporters barricaded themselves in townships surrounding the mines and fought running battles with the police. As the labour unrest spread, President Jacob Zuma ordered 1000 soldiers to be deployed in the Marikana area to help quell the labour uprising.

At Lonmin’s mine the management and strikers settled on a 22% wage increase, but elsewhere the labour unrest continues.

Back to 1922 when armed striking white mineworkers also clashed with police, barricaded streets in several suburbs and towns around Johannesburg. Seeing an opportunity to increase their support and promote their political agendas, leaders of the Communist and Labour Parties went around inciting the strikers.

By March 1922 the spreading labour unrest had turned into a rebellion. Prime Minister Jan Smuts declared martial law and sent in 20 000 soldiers, supported by tanks, artillery and bomber planes to quell the unrest. More than 200 people died, scores more were injured, many were arrested, and several strike leaders were hanged.

The strikers, like their Marikana counterparts, won something of a victory. As a result of these events Smuts lost the next general election in 1924, laws were put in place by the new government reinforcing the colour bar on the mines and white trade unions were recognised.

It was the colour bar and the resultant job reservation, racially differentiated pay scales and accompanying socio-economic conditions, especially poor living conditions, that would play a major role in the mining industry for decades to come. The aftermath of this is still evident in post-1994 South Africa.

As the 1922 strike affected Smuts’s political future, so too could Marikana and related events impact on President Zuma's re-election bid later this year. They might also be reflected in the results of the next general election in 2014.

Stef Terblanche

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