Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The massacre at a South African mine: government in bed with industry, union battles, and substandard wages

South African police opened fire on a group of miners protesting insufficient wages, killing 34 and wounding 78. It was the single most lethal use of force since the end of the apartheid era. The workers were employed at the Lonmin-operated mine (a London-based Platinum corporation) near Marikana, some 50 miles from Johannesburg. It's been all over the news and the photos and videos have caused many South Africans to liken the incident to similar massacres and instances of police brutality that occurred during the apartheid era.

Al Jazeera English has a report:

From the outside, looking in, it probably appears that a group of poor, low-wage workers were disgruntled, feeling their bosses, union leaders, and government, were failing to listen to their demands, and violence ensued when the miners took up arms (mostly machetes) against the security forces. However, the issues are layered, and significantly more complicated.

Some of the issues at play:
  • Dueling unions: NUM vs. AMCU.  NUM is the most powerful union in South Africa, boasting 300,000 members, and is a part of COSATU, the national trade union federation which is allied with the dominant ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).  NUMSA, the second-largest metalworkers union, is left-leaning and advocates for that nationalization of resources, something that President Zuma and mainstream ANC leaders (along with, obviously, the IMF and the World Bank) have opposed. The third-most-powerful metalworkers union in the country is the Association of Mining and Construction Union (AMCU) and there are reports that 25% of the workers at Marikana recently switched their membership to AMCU. Thus there's been a bit of a turf battle between unions that resulted in something quite sinister.   
  • Wages: The underground mine workers are earning 4,000 Rand per month ($480). The work is extremely difficult and dangerous, and the wages are low. The workers also live near the mine in informal housing that does not have water, sanitation, or electricity.  The workers were demanding a 300% increase in wages to account for their substandard living conditions and the taxing nature of the work.  
  • Platinum: The cost of platinum has spiked since the killings -- partially because of the mine's closure, a result of striking workers, that has continued into Tuesday -- now nearly $1500/ounce.  However, this short spike has balanced the price of platinum that had been falling over the last couple of years. As a result of the closure, and some bad press, Lonmin's stock has dropped 13%. Platinum is highly valuable metal that is used for catalytic converters, electrodes, dentistry equipment, and jewelry, among other things.  South Africa is the largest victim-of-extraction producer of platinum in the world.
  • Precipitous violence: The striking workers had killed two policeman and two private security officers in the days preceding the massacre. The heavy presence of police at the mine wasn't completely inappropriate from a public order point of view.  The fact that more than 100 people were shot, while the vast majority of protesters (maybe all of them) did not have guns, is an entirely different matter.          
While these issues are central to the tragic, and large-scale, loss of life, there is an overarching theme that I have yet to mention.  18 years after the fall of the apartheid government, South Africa remains a profoundly unequal society.  Income inequality has only increased since the end of apartheid and a majority of South Africans live below the poverty line, out of the line of sight of World Cup visitors and international businesspeople.

South Africa does have a strong and growing economy, but most South Africans remain poor. South Africa's Constitution, established during the transition to democratic government, is quite progressive, and has economic provisions and guarantees similar to those found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: rights to housing, property, and access to basic amenities. Yesterday as we brainstormed as an office about the implications of the tragedy in Marikana and how we thought we should respond, I was jotting down thoughts.
[To help you make sense of my sketch: I drew a rough outline of South Africa. Money flows out of the country to multinationals and also flows to economic and political elites. Violence and other negative results of the mining operations cascade to poor laborers.] 
Extractive mining operations don't contribute to development in any meaningful way.  Profits largely leave the countries borders and into the offshore accounts of multinational corporations. Also, the level of corruption and cronyism in the South African government suggests that money also flows into the pockets of economic and political elites who allow contracts to be established outside democratic and transparent processes.  While the benefits of mining operations (profits) leave the country and flow to the haves, the have-nots (the miners and their families) are faced with the consequences of the mining operations.  Health complications from years of underground labor, ecological and environmental problems (which tend to disproportionately affect poor communities), and police brutality are forcibly borne by mineworkers and their families as well as the communities living in the proximity of the mine's toxic output.  Expressed differently, the mining operations create a series of outputs; the majority of positive outputs are delivered to economic and political elites while the negative outputs are left in the hands of southern Africa's poorest.  

Update: Their is a good column along these lines -- pointing out the role of inequality and the connections between government and industry -- in the National.