The Politics of Protest: The Lonmin Tragedy
Many observers, activists and commentators were appalled at the brutal killing of 30 miners by the police last week as they were protesting for higher wages at the Lonmin Mine in Rustenburg, South Africa. This horrific incident has brought back memories of the violent incidents that used to take place during the apartheid era. The international media have been quick to define the story within the lens of a South African society that is still very much defined by apartheid and the eventual collapse of the society due to the leadership of the ANC. The incident has brought forward a chorus of commentators that have long hailed the demise of South Africa post-apartheid. The protest should be analysed based on the facts and the reality that South Africa is a society that is battling with developing a democratic culture and erasing long seated inequalities.
South Africa unlike many other African countries and I would even go further to include the Caribbean has an effective and politically relevant union movement. As a result of the tripartite alliance and the labour intensive mining industry, organisations such as Cosatu have a big influence on government policy and the attainment of political power. Many commentators such as Moeletsi Mbeki have argued that the big grassroots political struggle taking place in South Africa at the moment is aimed at defining who represents the black working class and poor. Is it the ANC, SACP or the union movement? It is not a surprise then that as we draw closer to the ANC’s elective conference in December a new trade union is seeking to flex its muscles. The protest was the public introduction of the new miners trade union AMCU a direct competitor to the ANC aligned NUM.
This snippet by South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper sheds some light into the issue:
The Lonmin story starts with the 360 000-member National Union of Mineworkers, formed in the 1980s to fight apartheid labour laws. Under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa—ironically now on the board of Lonmin, which owns the mine where the shootings occurred—the union became the biggest affiliate to the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), a powerful ally of the ANC.
For more than a decade Cosatu has concentrated on socioeconomic and political issues. Instead of organising on the shop floor it has harried the ANC government to adopt increasingly left-leaning policies. The NUM, one of the two biggest unions within Cosatu, has been at the forefront of these struggles.
Over the past few years the NUM has been split by succession battles inside the ANC, with the current leadership campaigning for ANC president Jacob Zuma to win a second term. The union has paid a heavy price for this. At the Lonmin mines its membership has declined from 66% of workers to 49% and it has lost its organisational rights. Disgruntled and expelled union leaders had in the meantime started a new union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and were organising on the NUM’s turf….
Amcu dangled a fat piece of fruit in front of the workers’ eyes: rock drillers (who are the core of this strike and do the hardest work underground) earning R4 000 a month were promised R12 500 a month. The union’s support in the Lonmin mines shot up to 19% by last month, and it embarked on an illegal strike to force its pay demand. (19/08/12)
The problem with a new union is that it not only has to offer the promise of increased wage demands but in the South African context has to appear more militant than other unions. It is no surprise then that the AMCU leadership decided to arm more than a thousand protesters with machetes and knives. The AMCU leadership built into the minds of the protesters that this was war. The result was that 30 miners were killed and 2 police have died as a result of a protest! In the end the miners will receive an increase in wages, the British Corporate Lonmin has no negotiating room in the wake of this tragedy.
President Zuma has announced a judicial inquiry into the incident and this should be welcomed by all sides. It is important that both union leaders and police chiefs be held responsible for this tragedy. Sadly the protest brings into light the changing dynamics of grassroots political activism in South Africa.