You know the recent mining dispute in which 34 protesting workers were shot dead after demonstrating for higher wages? You may have heard that they were working in a platinum mine (the world’s largest).
South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum. Where does it go? Your car! Just under half of the world’s platinum is used in vehicle emission control technologies. The next biggest use is jewelry. Bit closer to home now perhaps.
The story was already the most horrible labour abuse this year, but it’s even worse than you might think.
It turns out that, prior to the August 16 incident, the miners appealed to their local union, the NUM, who asserted that they had no case against the mine’s operators and -wait for it- there are reports that union officials even fired shots to disperse the workers. Problem is, NUM is the only union recognised by the Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and affiliated to the ruling African National Congress political party. The NUM and ANC share offices.
Furthermore the former NUM Secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa, has substantial business interests and is now a Lonmin boardmember (conflict of interest, much?)
Many workers grew tired of having their issues soft-peddled and had joined the non-COSATU-affiliated AMCU which greatly exacerbated the tensions at the mine.
It’s no fun to report bad news about our heroes. Ramaphosa was one of the people who brought about the end of Apartheid and was there to welcome Mandela when he was freed from prison. However, as is usually the case, the new kids on the block aren’t angels either and should not enjoy uncritical endorsement.
The international community has not made this adjustment. No specific demands were made of South Africa in the aftermath. Sharan Burrow of ITUC called for the perpetrators “to be brought to justice” but that was about it. IndustriALL unsurprisingly backed the NUM, its affiliate. Amnesty was silent (actually they have their own problems right now). Human Rights Watch merely quibbled over the Enquiry’s terms of reference.
I might add that the miners weren’t entirely innocent in this either. In the confrontation that lead to the shooting, the crowd was armed.
I’m going to suggest that the entry of AMCU greatly inflamed the problem and that the miners would have done better to work for better representation within the NUM than to try to work around it. It’s almost a pointless observation though, made from the comfort of my broadband-connected middle-class dwelling on the other side of the Indian Ocean. No one is pointing a gun in my face.
The most ironic thing of all is that the impetus for change may come neither from the workers or from overseas do-gooders, but from investors who’ve now been spooked and will hold back. Of course, you can’t even write to your pension fund and ask them to pressure Lonmin Inc to listen to the workers’ demands (rather than simply withdrawing their money), the funds are obliged to follow the market’s signals. It really depends on South Africa’s political leaders to appreciate what is at stake.