A growing series of labor strikes by mine workers in South Africa is reminding the world that the work of restructuring that nation’s society–following the end of state-sponsored apartheid–still has a long way to go.
Reports are that miners have been forcing work stoppages at some of the nation’s largest mines, demanding higher pay as well as better safety procedures and simple improvements such as water breaks. Workers in the dangerous mining industry regularly face hazards such as falling rocks, dust inhalation and noise pollution.
Protesters have taken to marching with spears, panga machetes and vuvuzela horns, while demanding that no workers report for work at the nation’s mines.
The series of work stoppages began after a wildcat strike by workers in a platinum mine in Marikana, a city in South Africa’s northeast, resulted in the death of 34 mine workers. On Aug. 16, a specially trained group of South African Police Service officers confronted and shot at the strikers, who they said began to charge the police line. Many of the slain workers were found shot in the back, and some workers’ bodies were later run over by police armored vehicles.
After an international outcry, an initial government denunciation of the shootings, a national week of mourning and a memorial service for those slain, South Africa’s national prosecutor decided to charge 259 of the miners who had been arrested on Aug. 16 with the murder of their colleagues. The prosecutor cited an old apartheid-era “common purpose” law to justify the arrests.
Yet even after the charges against the 259 mineworkers were widely criticized and ultimately dropped, the original mineworkers’ complaint, that they continue to be overworked and underpaid in a very prosperous industry, has not been resolved. The upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is challenging the more established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which is associated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) as well as the government of President Jacob Zuma, to represent the workers.
On Aug. 28, the Ministry of Labor from Zuma’s government tried to broker a peace deal between the mine companies and NUM, but workers unwilling to abide by the deal have pushed for more wildcat strikes. These have spread across the nation at a rapid rate with reports that thousands of laborers are not reporting for work.
The protests are crippling mining-industry giants like Implats and Lonmin PLC, where workers extract platinum, and Gold Fields Intl., which operates gold mines across the country.
The South African miners’ work-stoppage protest–as well as the shootings at the Marikana-based Lonmin mines, which has now been dubbed the Marikana Massacre and/or Lonmin Massacre in the vein of the March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre–is reminiscent of the efforts made by South African Blacks in their struggle to end apartheid, the longstanding policy of racial segregation imposed on African residents by the descendants of European colonialists. Apartheid was the official policy in South Africa for some 46 years–from 1948 through 1994.