They demanded 60 per cent increase of 800 Rand or $770. The rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has demanded 150 per cent increase. It is a bolder demand likely to result in violence if one union is determined to keep the strike going. In 2012, about 50 workers were killed in such protests.
Mining by immigrants from Europe into South Africa assumed significance in 1867, with the start of diamond mining at Kimberly. Currently the country is the world’s leading producer of chrome, platinum, manganese, vanadium. It is the 5th largest producer of gold, down from producing 80 per cent in the 1970s. It is now the number one exporter of iron one to China, the world’s biggest consumer of iron ore. While the sector has yielded earnings which have supported the manufacturing sector and economic empowerment of Afrikaners, it has always been a frontier of bitter struggle for Afrikaners to get their share of the wealth being hauled out of the country by the Euro-American capitalists that seized control. Boers fought wars in 1880-1881 and 1889, and built their ethnic nationalism around demanding more shares of the wealth being generated from mineral exports. The NUM is, in turn, challenging a ‘’history of cheap black labour which built the continent’s most sophisticated economy’’.
It is probably this record that influenced President Zuma’s appeal for mine owners and workers ‘’to give and take as well’’. AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Evander Gold, Sibanye Gold, Village Main Reef and Pan-African Resources have maintained a long tradition of paying low wages and are indifferent to calls for adjusting emoluments to reflect mines that have become dangerous tunnels three kilometres deep into the earth. This is reflected in their claim that they are faced with rising costs and ‘’falling bullion prices’’. With ownership of gold mines in other countries, including troubled regions like Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, as well as ownership of other businesses, these companies feel insulated from demands by workers in South Africa.
Mamphela Ramphele’s warning that ‘’people were looking for an alternative’’ to the grip of poverty over them is apt. She is the multimillionaire leader of Agang SA political party and is challenging the ANC’s support base. This past Wednesday, a fire-bomb hit Luthuli House, the headquarters of the ruling ANC party. The ANC’s outcast, Julius Malema announced a plan by his newly formed party, which ‘’includes non-negotiable principles of land expropriation and nationalisation of mines, both without compensation’’. He sees Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe’s policy of economic empowerment as a role model. His appeal is significant. Those who believe in Nelson Mandela’s ‘’rainbow’’ formula for building the South African nation must push mine owners to move to higher income platforms if the demand for social peace is to be achieved without bloodbaths.
Putting the blame for workers’ strikes on a growing wealth gap between the country’s elite and workers’’ does not address the problem; and ignores the fact of South Africa’s three hundred years of widening wage disparities.
It is in the interest of the mining executives to ensure that restiveness in that sector does not escalate farther. A regime of negotiated wage structure that takes account of inflationary trends could be agreed upon between the mine managements and the workers.