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Voices from the platinum belt victory

Text by Gillian Schutte

Films by Sipho Singiswa

The stadium in Phokeng outside Rustenberg exploded in jubilation when the end of the longest strike in South African history was announced on June 23. Men and women waved their arms victoriously in the air and resounding ululations and cheering reverberated as a great burden of domestic hardship lifted. Workers had changed history. They had valiantly resisted the dogged state and corporate attempt to smash their strike despite the personal hardships that they had to endure to reach this point. It was they who dealt a blow to capital because it was they who held out determinedly and who accumulated five months of unpaid accounts, became blacklisted, kept their kids out of schools through necessity and went without food. They are indeed, the central heroes in this story.

“Five months is a long time to go without — but it is what you do when you want to change history,” says *Andile, a community leader. “We had told ourselves that we will not give up — that united we are going to break this economic hold over us, and we did.” He thrusts his fist into the air defiantly.

Outside of the stadium a group of women are dancing and singing under a tree. Their ecstasy is palpable as hips are flung around joyously. We approach them and they gather around us all talking at once. We single out Nomzi Jikane who we had interviewed a week earlier in the long queues waiting for food parcels from Gift of the Givers. She is breathless and excited, but when we ask her what this means for her she lets out a long and exhausted sigh.

“The stress levels have been so high here,” says Jikane. “It is us women who have suffered, watching our children starve … but we supported our husbands’ choice to stay in this strike. And we were not starving because of the strike — we were starving when they were employed also. How do we work for nothing with nothing to show that we are employed? We only ‘survive’ on the money he is paid — we do not live. And we know that the government owns these mines too. Ramaphosa is a mine boss. But today we are showing them who is the boss … and it is us.”

The women ululate at this suggestion.

Stru … ” says a woman standing by. “I am a mineworker and we have done it … nobody else. Us.”

A round of “Ehes” and the women begin to sing again.

“Their song is about what a liar Zuma is and the greed of foreign bosses … and also telling their husbands to use the money wisely,” Andile tells us.

We have gotten to know Andile over the weeks we have been here filming interviews with striking miners and have also been to his home — a tin shack in a settlement close to Lonmin. There are no taps, toilets or brick structures in his village — just shanties. Before the miners go off to work they have to get rid of their morning shit first by throwing it in a hole and burying it. Their small children have to fetch water late at night from a single tap across a road so that they can cook and wash the next day. It is a difficult and sparse existence. Wives spend a lot of time collecting firewood to cook with, as there is no power in the area. When someone gets really ill, ambulances cannot enter their village as the roads are bad and the sick person has to be carried to a point where the ambulances can reach — as happened one night in 2012 when we were there while it was raining.

Andile is radiating with happiness, so our next question to him feels like a killjoy. We ask how he is going to get back on his feet after not earning for so long.

Eish — I am behind on everything. My accounts, school fees, loans. It will take me a long time to come right you know. We will continue to eat small, small meals and just get through this.”

He is a rock drill operator so his salary goes up by R1 000, which is a 20% increase, the highest increase ever achieved. In the following two years his salary will go up by another 10% per annum, bringing his wages to almost R10 000.

Mineworkers are sharply aware of the discrepancies between their salaries and those earned by overseas miners. They are even more aware of the massive difference between what they earn and what the top executives earn — telling us it is in the millions.

“These people, our people do not want to work with us anymore,” says Andile.

“They have become capitalist mlungus (whites) … that is what they are. They are the ones who are exploiting us so that they can keep their profits. Yes, we know about the white CEOs, and we expect that from them because whites treated us like that always. It is hard for us to think of another black man as the enemy to us, but that is what they are. They shot and killed us to protect their profits. It is them we are fighting … them and their profits. They want to keep us like the white man kept us — as his dogs, cheap labour — and we are saying no. We will not be their dogs. We want to earn a salary for our children’s houses too. Look at me. No house here and a mud hut at home, while his (Zuma’s) children go to the best schools and have big houses. That is fine, but we want enough money to build houses too. But look now, today we have changed that and now change will happen. United we will never be defeated. But it is not exactly what we wanted, so the fight is not over … we still live like poor dogs.”

And with that Andile has hit the nail on the head, as things will never be the same on the platinum belt again. Neither in South Africa, as this historic moment has intrinsically shown that workers united can and will effect change and amend history.

With mineworkers pitted against mine bosses, media and the state they have struck the most victorious blow against capital and this has the vast potential to systemically alter both the mining industry and big business in this country.

What we must not forget is that many of the mineworkers are still earning way below the R12 500 mark. They still live in poverty without services and infrastructural support. Their salaries and benefits are nowhere near comparable to overseas miners, though it is foreign investors that own the companies here. They are still living on the edge of the breadline though employed by mega wealthy corporations with strong BEE investments.

It is though a resounding victory that has struck fear into the guts of the mine bosses, their BEE partners and the state, as it signifies the potential for widespread change which could have a domino effect in the wider working-class struggle and wage relations in the near future.

* Andile is not the real name of this interviewee who is under investigation by the police since 2012 and asked to conceal his identity.

Gillian Schutte and Sipho Singiswa are filmmakers and social justice activists who work at Media for Justice.

 

Author

  • An on-line documentary series produced by Media for Justice. This series highlights the voices of those who are marginalised on the basis of race, class and gender and is a platform to hear the voices of the people in their struggle for social justice and human rights. Presented by Sipho Singiswa and produced by Gillian Schutte For the full story go to www.mediaforjustice.net

16 Comments

  1. Ian Ian 11 July 2014

    I think that unfortunately this is going to be a hollow victory. Massive restructuring to follow which will see none of these miners getting the next level of increase as they will be out of work.

    Out of interest, what are the overseas miners paid? Do they perform the exact same jobs and have the exact same skill sets? No use quoting the overseas figures unless it’s the same

  2. Derek Derek 11 July 2014

    Firstly, kudos to Gift of the Givers – the work they are doing and the compassion they show is truly heart-warming. Unlike like our government, which is too busy feeding at the trough to care for our people’s suffering. Hats off to you Gift of the Givers – may you kindness come back to you a hundred-fold.

    It was really pleasing and enlightening that the strikers learnt the hard way that the government is not the saviour they promised to be. People now realise that they have been making hollow promises all along – just to get votes. Hopefully these people will spread the word and they will learn to use their vote wisely and vote for caring community uplifters and not hyenas.

    As for Lonmin, they have a lot to answer for. Their callous attitude and intransigence makes them wholly complicit in the Marikana massacre. What I found enlightening was how many workers feel that Lonmin reneged on an agreement in 2012 to raise their wages to R12 500. There were even allegations that this amount was paid for one month after the agreement and then stopped. Lonmin must have known that this was bound to cause serious trouble. Perhaps it’s time for a mine CEO to go to jail for them to learn a lesson?

  3. Martin Warburg Martin Warburg 11 July 2014

    Seldom have I read such sad and desperate drivel.

    Claims of a “victory” for the workers; the platinum strike being a challenge to capitalism; and the chauvinistic pride shown in an exercise in self immolation tell a profoundly sad story.

    For yes – those “central heroes” who starved themselves and their families for 5 months certainly will change the course of many lives for ever. But not as they had hoped.

    For machines will replace many of the people who today still have jobs and advancing technology will eliminate the need for all but the smartest, who will most certainly earn a lot more than R12500 per month,

    However, most will fall upon ever harder times and unemployed queues will grow, as will grant payments – until Voila! Our economy will enter a state of advanced decay where jobs are even more rare than now, foreign investors wont give us a sideways glance and there is no one left to pay tax.

    That is called national bankruptcy.

    So take a bow, AMCU. And take a bow all you “community leaders” who mislead the ignorant and the poor for the sake of some fleeting moment of recognition in front of a television camera or on you tube.

    I hope it made you feel important.

  4. grant grant 11 July 2014

    The real tragedy in this story is that both the miners and the author think the miners have won. Nobody seems able to do the simple maths which shows that going without pay for 6 months completely negates the increases and that had the miners accepted the very first offer from management and gone back to work, they would have been better off over the 3 years. Of course this does not factor in the satisfaction of pulling the tiger’s tail but you can’t eat that and if poverty is the problem, this mining strike has only made it much worse.

    So yes, hollow victory, and then there is the problem with wider perception that South African people can’t settle their issues without hacking and killing leading to shooting, the issue of investment into machinery to replace people who constantly ask for more money without offering more productivity and the damage to the entire economy and you just get lose, lose, lose.

    Yet here we are jumping up and down in a stadium chanting win, win , win. Fools, led by fools, promoted by fools. The truth is you need big capital. You need it really badly and and you have just pushed a whole bunch of it away. Foolish.

    There is no exploitation in a democracy. You can resign and get another job. If there are no jobs it is because it is not an environment in which capitalists can start businesses. So the solution is to attract capitalists. Unfortunately we just pissed them off and sent them away.

    Nice move.

  5. Mark Mark 11 July 2014

    Welcome to the world of the taxpayer mr mine worker. You may have R12500 on the employment slip, but the taxman, UIF and the host of other payments will leave you with less than R10500 in the bank. Will the strike start again when these workers have to pay for their own accomodation, food and schooling. Essentially they are now fully fledged members of the economy and feature on the middle class rung.

    Coincidently my mother is a white teacher who earns less than R12500 per month. She has also always been in this low end of the salary scale and is classified as middle class.

    So in an open response to Numsa I would like to know when the picket starts for low paid workers across the country to earn that exact wage.

    Surely it would be pretty hypocritical to only strike for people who work with a drill or pick.

    Just a thought…..

  6. Mark Mark 11 July 2014

    @derek you rely on inflammatory and uninformed remarks. In what court of law could you imprison a CEO who pays workers in line with a wage limit sanctioned by government. This is also the government that has been REALLY quiet during this whole process. Their silence has in fact been deafening.

  7. Rory Short Rory Short 11 July 2014

    Economic activities in our economy have a built in adversarial nature, bosses, as the agents of shareholders, are naturally primarily interested in profits not in the welfare of employees. Until the core of our economy is based on cooperatives worker/boss conflict will be endemic.

  8. sireal sireal 12 July 2014

    Victory? What victory? Dozens of people killed in a union war and the strike. In the end the union caved in and did not get all they ‘demanded’. The miners have lost wages that will take years to recover, if they ever do. Businesses and other peoples’ lives destroyed or compromised in Rustenburg, the SA economy badly affected. The mines have lost money they will never recover which means they will close sooner than otherwise would have been the case. Remember mining has a limited lifespan, when the ore nears exhaustion and costs too much to extract the mine closes, despite what the union demands or what the CCMA might rule. No sir a stupid pissing contest all round.

  9. nguni nguni 12 July 2014

    The usual pathetic SAfrican political naïvety. The ‘look what they earn, me too!’
    mentality with no effort to connect earnings to work done. Compared to overseas mine workers they are already overpaid, because their production levels are way behind. The mine will respond with increasing mechanisation, there will be fewer jobs. Those mine workers have lost contact with the SA reality, they earn much more than the average worker in the country already. They can’t live within their means because ? Too many kids, buying things on credit they can’t repay, etc.
    A word to the ‘gift of the giver’ crowd: they interfered in the bargaining process, thus allowing the strike to continue longer than necessary. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they should stick to helping their Muslim brothers overseas in the various wars they are involved in.

  10. Basil Basil 12 July 2014

    Educate the workers re the reality of the the law of cause and effect … strike = loss of income.
    That it is self-inflicted is the real tragedy. That they CHOSE to strike is their choice. Blaming management or “the system” or capitalism is a weak attempt at self-justification.

    Sighhhh…. Please desist from the diatribe re comparisons with whomever and whatever…If you can’t resist the urge to compare, then do so with our BRICS comrades….Begin with India…
    You may wish to sponsor some fellows from the exploited, previously disadvantaged working-class on a “workers” tour of India, where they can ululate and toy-toy to their heart’s content.

    They will not only experience real grinding poverty but they will observe the nobility and humility with which millions engage in work, of the most menial kind. Mobile phones and TV subscriptions are actually non-essentials unlike among their BRIC cousins, the SA economic freedom fighters as they wage their class struggle against capitalist,white, exploitation.

    A sense of entitlement, coupled with abysmal ignorance and a generous dose of naivete, is the recipe for the miners’ Pyrrhic victory. Playing the race-card and indulging in 5 months of self-flagellation is, to put it mildly, just plain stupid.

    That “they have struck the most victorious blow against capital” is a dream.

  11. Gillian Schutte Gillian Schutte 14 July 2014

    Why is it acceptable for these commentators to call miners/the working class stupid? The racist undertones here are palpable yet these comments are ratified. It seems racism is so normalised in our society that it is allowed on public platforms willy nilly – until the spotlight is turned on racists themselves in which case they get outraged. This is not acceptable.

  12. Ian Ian 15 July 2014

    They are calling their actions stupid, why not try respond to some of the questions and points instead of hauling out the race card?

  13. Herman Herman 15 July 2014

    Without going into the merits of either side and just doing the simple math: Take a worker that earns R10 000 (after tax, etc.). Everyone got a R1000 increase (vs. +- R600 that was initially on the table) per month. This means that everyone lost five months of wages for R400/month more. After tax (say 20%), this leaves them with R320 that they striked for.

    They lost R50 000 in wages, meaning that they will have to work (R50 000/R320) 156 months (13 years) to make up the money they lost.

    This is a very simplified sum and does not take the effect of inflation and other factors into account. If these are taken into account, the workers will never make up the money they lost, i.e. by striking they actually left themselves in a worse position tahn they were in.

  14. Graham Graham 17 July 2014

    The mining houses would have done the sums.
    Fixed cost machinery will ultimately replace an increasing labour cost.

    The reason that overseas miners are paid more is due to:
    – capital intensive mines have a low number of (skilled) employed miners.
    – they have a worthwhile minimum wage, that people can actually survive on.
    – low unemployment rates (demand exceeds supply).

    Government invent the rules, therefore cannot intervene when companies enforce them.

    It is a very sad situation.
    Good luck to the miners, they unfortunately seem unaware of the greater macroeconomic factors that will affect their situation.

  15. Yaj Yaj 17 July 2014

    A heroic struggle indeed and one of many more to come until a decent living wage is obtained for workers in this country. It is well overdue for the global apartheid divide in wages is ended and black workers are accorded the same respect as their counterparts in other parts of the first world like Australia where rock drillers are paid R60,000 per month. Higher wages are good for the economy because it raises aggregate demand for goods and services, good for retail and commerce, good for job creation and good for social cohesion, stability and harmony. It is a no brainer. Those who are opposed to higher wages are the ones who are either stupid or racist in my opinion.Ten years ago, I worked in New Zealand where the minimum wage was the equivalent of R60 per hour and the unemployment level was only 2% virtually full employment. What we need is actually a universal basic income instead of a legislated minimum wage and a living wage should evolve naturally from that.New thinking and a paradigm shift is required to address our the oft repeated trio of socioeconomic challenges :poverty, inequality and unemployment.

  16. Graham Graham 18 July 2014

    Yaj

    I’m not against higher wages. Those guys perform jobs I never could. However I don’t think the will ever rise to a “decent living wage”.

    Mining houses have to control expenditure. Increasing labour costs mean that alternatives will be examined (ie. industrial machinery to replace jobs).

    Australia pay the rock drillers a decent sum solely because of the unemployment rate. There is no one else available to perform the job.
    Here it is a very different situation. A 25% unemployment rate (in a labour intensive market) takes the bargaining power away from workers.

    Until society at large (public & private) put job creation and education at the top of their agendas, we will never trump this social disparity.

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