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
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
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.