Monday, 10 February 2014

The big political fight in South Africa's mines

On 13 February, President Jacob Zuma will take a formal break from election campaigning – to give the annual State of the Nation address. The accent will be on the word 'formal' as with national elections now set for 7 May, the State of the Nation address is likely to be a continuation of electioneering by other means. South Africans are expecting to be told that the nation's state is extremely healthy despite appearances to the contrary.

The rand currency is in freefall, driving up prices and industrial relations have reached a new low. The strike organised by the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has brought out 100, 000 workers and stopped production at the world's three biggest platinum producers who source most of the metal from South Africa.

AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa says it will be a battle to the end. The platinum miners' strike clearly illustrates the country's political divide: AMCU and the equally radical National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) are determined opponents of the African National Congress government under President Jacob Zuma, which they accuse of selling out the workers; they are equally opposed to the ANC-supporting Congress of South African Trades Union (COSATU).

NUMSA is strongly backing AMCU and calling on its members to come out in sympathy. A month ago, NUMSA drew another line in the sand when it announced it would end its electoral support for the ANC.

So the battle lines are drawn: if AMCU, which has displaced the more moderate ANC-backing National Union of Mineworkers in the platinum industry, scores another strike victory this year, it will cause tremors both within COSATU and the ANC. Are the mineowners – Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin – willing to tough it out against the strikers? The ANC government will surely tell the mineowners to stand firm against the strikers – given the political implications of an AMCU victory. But the dispute could quite easily turn violent as the strike drags on and tempers fray.

Leading a police and army charge against striking workers and taking the side of the multinational mineowners will put President Zuma and the ANC government in an invidious position, just weeks ahead of national elections. But that is the posture they are adopting. The only possible way out, short of a humiliating defeat by one side or the other would be a messy compromise in which the faces of both sides could be saved. For now that looks extremely improbable.

For all three sides – radical trades unionists, the ANC and the mine owners – the platinum workers' strike will be a critical test of strength.

South Africa's focus on the mining industry was reinforced by the arrival of 8,000 delegates at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town (3-7 February). Deliberations took a solemn turn first because of the platinum workers strike and associated political strife, and then with the death of at least eight miners after a fire and rock fall at a Harmony Gold mine near Johannesburg on 5 February.

The deaths at Harmony Gold, the worst for five years, reinforced the divisions over wages, profits and operating conditions in the industry. Frans Baleni, Secretary General of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), called for a detailed investigation and sanctions against any company officials found negligent.

Mining houses also worry about South Africa's insistence that more ore should be processed before export, to boost employment and add more local value. And the South African demands for local beneficiation of mineral ore are spreading to other mining economies such as Congo-Kinshasa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ghana.

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