Since the 23rd of January, close to 70 000 members from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have been on strike. In that time, the platinum belt has lost R19 billion in revenue and, as a direct result, the country is teetering on the edge of a recession. Lives have been lost, money has been lost and the strike has earned the distinction of being the longest in our country’s history. Simply put, it’s been a complete nightmare. And with both parties digging their heels into the ground – AMCU accepting no less than the proposed R12 500 per month while the platinum belt suggests a 10% salary increase that will result in a R12 500 salary by 2017 – this might very well be a nightmare we will keep waking up into.
This, of course, is a nightmare South Africa knows all too well. It’s a nightmare nestled between talks of “good stories” and “rainbow nations”. A nightmare started by the Apartheid regime and continued by the ineptness and lack of resolve of our country government. It is the nightmare of black poverty.
The economic structure of our country (and many others across the world) is such that the poor will stay poor while the rich grow their wealth exponentially. It’s one of the reasons why miners can risk life and limb extracting platinum and earn as little as they do. But what would happen if the miners got their manna (in the form of the above mentioned R12 500)? Well, opinion varies but – quite naturally – AMCU’s president believes it would change the lives of the workers and stamp out exploitation in the miner sector
Recently, at a breakfast hosted by The New Age, Mathunjwa criticized South Africa’s labour market and viewed the strike as an inevitability of an exploitative labour market.
“The minerals have to benefit South Africans first before it [sic] benefits people in London or wherever they are,” Mathunjwa said. “Those workers that are on strike right now, it’s not because they like to, it’s the reality they face. We’ve had a number of black presidents, but how is that of benefit to us if we’re still poor?” he asked in conclusion.
He has a point. In Australia, platinum miners earn close to R80 000, while their Brazilian equivalents earn R25 000. Back here, despite us being the largest producer of platinum in the world, our miners earn a paltry R4500. When viewed in this context, the calls of a R12 500 “living wage” don’t sound as preposterous. But unfortunately, by its very nature, capitalism doesn’t cater for the well-being of the working class, so it comes as no surprise that the miners’ demands have been met with scorn by corporate South Africa.
Earlier this year – a few days after the strike started – CEO’s from our country’s top three platinum producers released a joint statement saying the platinum industry cannot afford the miners’ “unrealistic wage demands”. “It’s important to note that the platinum industry has extended wage increases substantially above the inflation rate in preceding years and currently pays among the highest entry level wages in the country,” the statement read. Fast forward to a couple of weeks back and all pretence of civility was thrown out of the window when one of the CEO’s (Anglo American’s Chris Griffiths) lashed out at the striking miners, suggesting that they were striking for more than they’re worth. This came after he was questioned about his R17.6 million per annum salary.
“Must I run this company and deal with all this nonsense for nothing? I’m at work. I’m not on strike. I’m not demanding to be paid what I am not worth,” Griffiths stated.
Not only were Griffiths’ comments a complete PR clusterfuck, they firmly indicated which side of the line he’s on. He’s on profit’s side. But he’s not the only one who’s on the side of profit. Just two days before the election; President Zuma accused AMCU of being irresponsible by drawing out the strike.
“The very fact that you can introduce a threshold that you are not prepared to move on, it says there’s something wrong with AMCU,” the President stated. President Zuma, and people like Chris Griffiths want the strike over but for altogether different reasons. Where the miners see an opportunity to hoist themselves out of poverty, the Presidents sees a problem. The country is bleeding billions and he wants the strike over and done with. But to suggest that AMCU is being irresponsible for demanding their workers earn just half of what that their international counterparts is disappointing for a man who leads a party that purports itself to be in tune with working classes sensitivities.
The newly appointed Minister of Mineral Resources, Ngoako Ramatlhadi now has the unenviable task of sorting this whole mess out. He’s started on a good note, highlighting that government needs to start treating AMCU with respect.
“AMCU is a legitimate union. According to the laws of this country, they’ve qualified to be a player in the mines where they are playing. So government must begin to treat them with respect and give them the dignity that is due to any trade union that qualifies,” the minister told Power FM in a recent interview. But this is a matter that’s gone past the point of rhetoric and while the minister’s recent comments are a step in the right direction it might be a matter of “too little, too late”.
“It appears the mediation has come to a stop yesterday,” Ramatlhodi, told Talk Radio 702 on Tuesday. But the Minister remains optimistic adding that “South Africans are very reasonable people. I’ve no doubt that they’ll find a solution.”
As the platinum strike rages on, it begs very urgent questions from us, no? Does the middle class have any moral right to appoint themselves as the barometer for the working class? What would happen if the miners’ wage demands were met? And just how much is too much? R12 500? R17 million? We are yet to answers these questions. But as the nightmare grows more vivid, one thing is certain: we can no longer avert our eyes. This is one nightmare we have to face head on.
Follow me, Rofhiwa Maneta. Photography by Kabelo Seshibe
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