Wages, politics & the ANC's false boogeymen
As the platinum mining strike edges towards its sixth month, hope has now dwindled that a resolution will be found anytime soon. The brief intervention by the Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi ended without his being able to bridge the impasse between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and mining companies Lonmin, Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum. While the country grapples with the question of "Now what?" there should be consideration given to what this strike represents and why the ANC believes there is something sinister behind it.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe set out to make a point and made it in no uncertain terms. Announcing the outcome of a two-day lekgotla of the ANC and its alliance partners, Mantashe said on Sunday that the strike on the platinum belt was a major contributing factor to the 0.6% negative growth for the first quarter of 2014.
"Of concern was whether this was a collective bargaining strike or a political strike," Mantashe said. He then went on to list "disturbing developments" which led the ANC to question the legitimacy of the strike. These included "the articulation of Amcu position by white foreign nationals, signalling interest of the foreign forces in the destabilisation of our economy", and "the direct participation of EFF (the Economic Freedom Fighters) in the negotiations, and thus collaboration with the foreign forces".
Amcu accused the ANC of being racist and xenophobic, while the EFF said this was a "silly attempt" by the ANC to antagonise and shift the blame for the strike to them.
Mantashe, himself a former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, has his own complicated history with Amcu and its president Joseph Mathunjwa. There is also hostility between the workers on the platinum belt and the ANC, stemming from the August 2012 Marikana massacre. So it is no surprise that the ANC is less than sympathetic towards the strike.
However, for the ruling party to construct a grand conspiracy to explain and delegitimise the strike is inexplicable. This is not the first time Mantashe has raised the involvement of "foreign forces" in relation to the worker protests in the North West. Last June he claimed that events like Marikana resulted from "anarchy, anarchy, anarchy, driven by people who are from far away…Sweden, Irish". He later told the Sunday Independent, "The reality is that it is a Swedish citizen who is at the centre of anarchy in the platinum belt."
Liv Shange, the Swedish citizen in question, is a leader of the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), who arrived in the country 11 years ago and is married to a South African. Wasp received 8,331 of the 18,654,771 votes cast in last month's elections. In the North West province, Wasp received 939 votes. Incredibly, though, the ANC and its secretary general believes that the diminutive woman, who is currently heavily pregnant, has the power to force over 70,000 mineworkers to hold out from working and receiving their wages since January.
Surely, if Shange had that amount of influence, it would have reflected at the polls?
The EFF conspiracy is related to the involvement of a member of its Central Command team, Advocate Dali Mpofu in the wage negotiations. This Mantashe sees as evidence of the EFF pulling the mineworkers' strings to destabilise the economy. Mpofu has been representing the surviving Lonmin workers at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry investigating the Marikana massacre. The workers are therefore already his clients. It would be logical for them to have established a relationship of trust with Mpofu and would not be extraordinary for him to continue to represent them in the wage dispute.
The most bizarre aspect of these allegations is that in this epic showdown between giant mining companies and impoverished mineworkers, the ANC, which claims to be pro-worker and pro-poor, is casting aspersions and delegitimising the struggle of the workers. The reason why the ANC is in alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP), originally the vanguard of the working class, and Cosatu is because of the inextricable links between the political and workers' struggles. The reason why all three organisations say the alliance is still relevant is because they believe their partnership assists the continued process of political and economic democratisation.
All three organisations who were in the ANC lekgotla that raised concerns about the platinum strike need to answer whether they think workers' struggles and grievances are only legitimate if they are represented by unions affiliated to Cosatu. And if this were a Cosatu union involved, would the ANC and government have been more sympathetic?
In ANC speak, we are in the second phase of our transition from Apartheid to a national democratic society. According to the ANC's Strategy and Tactics document adopted at its 53rd national conference in Mangaung, "this second phase of the transition should be characterised by decisive action to effect thorough-going economic transformation and democratic consolidation".
The document, which is the ANC's overarching policy guide, states in the chapter on the "Character of the National Democratic Revolution":
"Social cohesion in a national democratic society will also depend on the extent to which the rights of those in the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder are protected. Such a society should proceed from the obvious premise that workers' rights are human rights; and these rights should find expression in law-governed measures to ensure decent jobs, job security and a living wage. Through legislation and other means, the state should manage the environment for fair and balanced relations between employers and employees."
Mantashe, however, said on Sunday that decent wages and salaries were "not ideological". Not only is this strange coming from a former union leader and ex-chairman of the SACP, it means that the ANC secretary general is undermining the raison d'être of the tripartite alliance.
The platinum strike, however, is not just about wages.
This is the first real revolt against the structure of the South African economy and it is from a force the ruling party has no control over. It also hits where it hurts most: in the sector on which the South African economy was built. The strike is a bold message from workers that they are willing to starve in order to ensure that the current arrangement, where mining companies and their shareholders reap enormous dividends while the diggers of dirt earn a pittance, needs to be broken.
The reason why the situation is dangerous for employers and the ruling party is that if the workers succeed, this strike will set a precedent. Other unions and sectors will follow suit and the ANC grip on Cosatu will be pointless.
Although the ANC has announced the commencement of a period of "radical economic transformation", it would seem this is only valid if it is driving the process. And yet, economic transformation does not get more radical than workers rebelling against the status quo. The problem now for the ANC is that it surrendered the best chance yet of reining in the strike by "cautioning" Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi about other supposedly sinister forces at play. With him withdrawing from the intervention, neither the ANC nor the state can do anything about the strike now.
This might be something they live to regret.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.