Resisting Racialized Exploitation: South African Mineworkers on Strike

110,000 gold miners, members of the National Union of Mineworkers and Solidarity, are striking in South Africa for better wages, in the first industry-wide strike in 18 years. The strike started on Sunday, after union-management negotiations collapsed. Miners' wages are 2500-3000 rand (around 400USD) per month, and work in dangerous and stressful conditions -- descending as far as 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) into the earth to extract gold ore. Unions are demanding a wage raise of 10-12% (so, around 40USD per worker per month), whereas the Chamber of Mines was offering 4.5-5% (around 20USD, at best) at the time the strike was called. Now, Solidarity reports that the Chamber of Mines

"will no longer take an active part in wage negotiations in the gold mining industry during the current critical phase of strikes in the industry. This comes after mining groups Anglo Gold Ashanti and Southdeep yesterday broke ranks by making individual offers to the various trade unions. The offer ranged from 5,25% for miners, tradesmen and officials; 6% for workers in categories 5 to 8 and 6,5% for category 3 to 4 workers."

The strike is reportedly hitting the gold industry where it hurts. According to CNN,

"The strike paralyzed the South African mines of the world's No. 2 gold producer AngloGold Ashanti, fourth-ranked Gold Fields, sixth-placed Harmony Gold and South Deep, Barker said Monday.

The chamber, which negotiates wages on behalf of gold producers, estimated a daily loss of around 40,000 ounces of gold production and 130 million rand ($20.17 million) in combined lost revenue per day due to the strike."

The history of labour organizing in South Africa is fraught with the same racism as pervades the wider society, even after the abolition of apartheid. According to an essay written by one M.P. Naicker about the historic 1946 African miners' strike and published in 1976,

"Solidarity between white and black workers was lost in those first thirty years, never to be regained to this day. The result has been that the white workers became the aristocrats of labour in South Africa, being among the highest paid workers in the world, while their black compatriots are, in the main, still living below the breadline. What is worse, the overwhelming majority of white workers in South Africa became the main and the most vociferous supporters of successive racist regimes."

It was not until 1941 that African workers formed the African Mine Workers' Union, under deadly conditions:

"Any attempt at organisation exposed them to the wiles of employers, the antagonism of white workers and the ferocious arm of the law...Many unsuccessful attempts were made to form a trade union prior to 1941. But in that year, on 3 August, a very representative miners' conference was called by the Transvaal Provincial Committee of the African National Congress. The conference was attended not only by workers from many mines, but also by delegates from a large number of African, Indian, Coloured and white organisations, as well as representatives from a number of black unions. Some white unions gave their moral support..."

But intimidation, arrests, and scare-tactics were widespread:

"From the first the [union organizing] committee encountered innumerable obstacles. The miners were ready to listen to its speakers, but the employers and the authorities were determined to prevent organisational meetings. Speakers were arrested and meetings broken up...With the formal establishment of the Union, organisational work began in earnest in the face of increased harassment, arrests, dismissals, and deportation of workers by the police and the mine management. Nevertheless, the Union grew in strength and influence. The Chamber of Mines, however, refused even to acknowledge the existence of the African Mine Workers` Union, much less to negotiate with its representatives. The Chamber`s secretary instructed the office staff not to reply to communications from the Union...Another serious obstacle was the wide-scale use of spies by the mine owners."

One expression of South African anti-black racism that the African Mine Workers' Union combatted in that first strike was, unsurprisingly, unequal pay for equal work:

"In 1946, the year of the great strike the wages were: Africans R87 and whites R1,106... the wage gap between the white worker and the black worker was 12:1"

When the Union first raised this issue with the Chamber of Mines, the latter apparently "made no serious attempt to rebut the Union's case, reiterating that its policy was to employ cheap African labour."

So, the workers decided to strike. On Sunday, August 4, 1946, over one thousand delegates assembled at an open air conference held in the Newtown Market Square: no hall where Africans could hold meetings was big enough to accommodate those present. Their demands were minimal, to say the least: a minimum wage of 10 shillings per day and better conditions of work for African miners. The general strike began on August 12, 1946.

Immediately, the striking miners were met with violence and repression:

"The police batoned, bayoneted and fired on the striking workers to force them down the mine shafts. The full extent of police repression is not known but reports from miners and some newspapers reveal intense persecution and terror during the week following Monday, 12 August.

A peaceful procession of workers began to march to Johannesburg on what became known as Bloody Tuesday, 13 August, from the East Rand. They wanted to get their passes and go back home. Police opened fire on the procession and a number of workers were killed. At one mine workers, forced to go down the mine, started a sit-down strike underground. The police drove the workers up - according to the Star - "stope by stope, level by level" to the surface. They then started beating them up, chasing them into the veld with baton charges. Then the workers were "re-assembled" in the compound yard and, said the Star, "volunteered to go back to work."

By Friday, 16 August, the striking workers (around the same number as are striking today) were "bludgeoned back to work." The strike was over. But, even though the state, the press and industry management called it a "failure," its political effects were lasting:

The African miners' strike was one of those historic events that, in a flash of illumination, educate a nation, reveal what has been hidden and destroy lies and illusions. The strike transformed African politics overnight. It spelt the end of the compromising, concession-begging tendencies that dominated African politics. The timid opportunism and servile begging for favours disappeared for all practical purposes. The Native Representative Council which, in a sense, embodied that spirit, in its session on Thursday, 15 August, in Pretoria, decided to adjourn as a protest against the Government's "breach of faith towards the African people". They never met again.

Nearly 60 years later, South African mine workers are, again, resisting racialized exploitation. The political conditions may have changed (some say only superficially, others say profoundly); but mine workers are still denied a living wage for performing dangerous work; mine workers are still getting the shaft while gold companies are reaping obscene profits. And once again, mine workers are courageously "challenging the very basis of the cheap labour system" and are struggling "for the right to live as human beings."


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1:07 a.m.  
Blogger a.c. said...

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3:06 p.m.  

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