“Some say they are fighting for economic freedom – who is oppressing them economically? Who do they want economic freedom from?”
South African President Jacob Zuma uttered these words in October last year. He was addressing a crowd of 500 people at the Mdantsane’s Nonzwakazi Primary School in the Eastern Cape. Naturally, his disingenuous diss was aimed at Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the context of a heated election campaign.
But as the platinum strike enters its 17th week and the platinum mining houses’ attempts to drive a wedge between striking mineworkers keep resulting in isolated incidents of violence and intimidation, this comment takes on a whole new relevance.
Last week things came to a head on the platinum belt after mine bosses attempted to bypass the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) by using SMS campaigns to take their wage offer directly to the striking miners. As the mining houses called for workers to return to the mines, a handful of them were attacked and ended up in hospital. Four men died, and the mining houses, police and government jumped all over the incidents, attempting to win public sympathy by painting Amcu as a bunch of violent thugs.
Today Amcu went to the labour court to try to get an interdict against these questionable labour practices. Even their rival union, the National Union of Mineworkers (Num) feel the labour practice is questionable and have come out in support of Amcu on this issue.
Against this backdrop, Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa addressed about 5 000 striking mineworkers at the Wonderkop Stadium last Wednesday, where he stated: “What our government is doing is a clear indication of where they stand – they are on the side of capital and not that of the workers.” It’s difficult to argue with him when two days before the national election, in early May, Zuma chastised Amcu, calling them “irresponsible”.
“The very fact that you can introduce a kind of threshold that you are not prepared to move on, it says there’s something wrong with Amcu,” said Zuma at a press gathering.
The president has clearly picked a side, despite his claims to being a man of the people, a former trade unionist and the leader of the ANC, which still paints itself as fighting for the poor and working class in South Africa. “The strike has gone on too long. The strike is not helping workers,” he added, sounding a lot like the platinum mine bosses, who, in a bid to win public sentiment, have suddenly become empathetic towards the plight of mineworkers and their dependents.
Occasionally their true colours break through the spin, like Anglo American Platinum CEO Chris Griffiths last week. Responding to the fact that he was paid R17.6-million last year, Griffiths said: “Must I run this company and deal with all this nonsense for nothing? I’m at work. I’m not on strike. I’m not demanding to be paid what I am not worth.”
The striking mineworkers are demanding a salary of R12 500. As Mathunjwa pointed out this week, equivalent positions in Brazil earn R25 000 a month and in Australia R80 000. Griffiths has since apologised for his outburst after the public outcry over his comments made it clear that he scored a massive own goal.
In recent weeks, South Africa’s mainstream media have depicted Amcu as a group of thugs, imposing a protracted strike on mineworkers through intimidation and violence. According to the platinum mining companies, most of the mineworkers want to return to work because their families and dependents are starving, but they are being prevented from doing so.
It’s a position that the capitalists, the police and government have churned out, but with very little substance; yet the mainstream media has lapped it up unquestioningly – which has substantially changed the narrative of the strike over the course of two weeks. Some (that would be you, The Star) have gone as far as painting Mathunjwa as a hypocrite, living a life of luxury while the striking mineworkers starve. Where is the lifestyle audit of the mining company executives like Griffiths, who are taking home multimillion-rand salaries? Or do they only warrant fluffy profile pieces?’
But, returning to Zuma. Five days before he made those comments about Amcu, he had signed a proclamation that it was not compulsory for his Cabinet ministers to testify at the Farlam Commission, although at this stage it is likely that Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa can still be called under another point in commission’s terms of references – but Shabangu can only be called with regard to police matters related to the days leading up to, and including, the massacre of 34 miners on August 16 2012.
Critics have argued that Zuma is looking to ensure the full extent of government’s, particularly the executive’s, complicity in that what happened during that tragic strike at Lonmin’s Marikana mine will never be tested.
Victims of the Marikana massacre have threatened to pull out of the Farlam Commission if Cyril Ramaphosa, who sat on Lonmin’s board at the time as a nonexecutive director, is exempted from testifying about his alleged role in the massacre. They are also furious about the arbitrary deadline of July 31, by which time the commission has to conclude its investigation. This deadline means there is very little time for cross-examination of key witnesses and reduces the commission to a form of “legal speed-dating”, as the Sunday Times’ Niren Tolsi so aptly described it recently.
As news of this move by Zuma was reported, another narrative from the Farlam Commission was emerging. It was the story of Lieutenant Colonel Salmon Johannes Vermaak, who has been hung out to dry by the SAPS because he refused to take part in the cover-up of what really happened at Marikana on the fateful day in August 2012. As Advocate George Bizos summed it up, any cop who does not “toe the line … will be dropped”.
Post election, the ANC-led government is clearly undermining the Farlam Commission, hampering its ability to call witnesses and cross-examine them properly, and it is playing into the hands of the SAPS and its cover-up.
So should we have been surprised when Mathunjwa, speaking at a New Age business breakfast this week, said, “If miners can’t feed families, democracy means nothing”?
“Only a handful of black people are benefiting,” he added. “Those workers that are on strike right now, it’s not because they like to, it’s the reality they face. We’ve had a number of black presidents, but how is that of benefit to us if we’re still poor?” he asked rather poignantly.
Post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon’s warning that the “native elite” can become complicit in the exploitation of their fellow citizens during the post-colonial project, the transition to so-called independence and freedom, echoes. As Indian Marxist theorist Aijaz Ahmad points out in his article, ‘Frantz Fanon: The Philosophical Revolutionary’, on Naked Punch: “Fanon’s hatred of the coloniser is fully matched by his contempt for the exploitative indigenous elite.”
In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes about this transition between elites.
“The country finds itself in the hands of new managers; but the fact is that everything needs to be reformed and everything thought out anew. In reality the colonial system was concerned with certain forms of wealth and certain resources only – precisely those which provisioned her own industries. Thus the young, independent nation sees itself obliged to use the economic channels created by the colonial regime.”
So when Mathunjwa said this week that “from 1652 to date the pay structure in mining has still not changed. It was designed by the colonialists,” he was clearly saying that the exploitation in the mining sector has not changed since 1994.
New managers, same system. Just because a new black elite is now benefiting alongside the white, mostly foreign, elite, it doesn’t mean anything has really changed.
“For centuries, the capitalists have behaved in the underdeveloped world like nothing more than war criminals,” wrote Fanon. “Deportations, massacres, forced labour and slavery have been the main methods used by capitalism to increase its wealth, its gold or diamond reserves, and to establish its power.”
Any of this starting to sound familiar?
In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon describes the “detached complicity between capitalism and the violent forces which blaze up in colonial territory” and how the police are used to maintain the oppression of the colonisers.
“In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression,” he writes. “The policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action, maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge,” writes Fanon. “It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. “The intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with the clear conscience of an upholder of the peace, yet he is the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native,” he continues.
Yet who is being painted as violent thugs in the mainstream media?
The state? No.
The mining houses? No.
The police? No.
So the economic violence of the mining companies and the physical violence of the police are acceptable, but all striking miners must be blamed for the uninvestigated crimes of a few? This is the equivalent of forcing someone into a corner in a fight for their life and then criticising them for responding by coming out fighting.
Who is responsible for attempting to divide workers? Is it Amcu or the mine bosses who have been using SMS campaigns to take their wage offer directly to the mineworkers (in a possible contravention of the legislation governing labour relations)? When these attempts by the mine bosses fail to divide and conquer, as they did last week, is Amcu is to blame for the violence of a few?
No wonder Mathunjwa threatened to walk out of the New Age business breakfast this week after SABC anchor Peter Ndoro suggested he should recognise his role in the violence. Would Ndoro have asked Zuma, Mthethwa, Ramaphosa or Lonmin – as forcefully as he did Mathunjwa – to shoulder some of the blame for the Marikana massacre?
A glance through last Sunday’s newspapers would leave you believing that Amcu and the striking mineworkers are a bunch of murderous thugs, intent on using intimidation and violence to prolong the strike at all costs. There appears to be scant regard that the strike has bitten down hard on mineworkers, their families and their dependents, except when this fact is used to paint the strikers as victims at the hands of Amcu.
These striking mineworkers and their families are paying a high price for their solidarity; surely this is something they do not enter into lightly? Does the political and business elite and the chattering class in South Africa really believe that these miners would fight so hard for their R12 500 because they are just being greedy?
As Fanon rightly points out, the liberal Left often draws a line in their sand for the support of the oppressed when its struggle manifests itself in violence.
Ahmad argues that in “most Left and liberal discourses nonviolence has come to be regarded as a moral absolute − not a strategic requirement under specific circumstances but the very horizon of permissible moral action”. “It is important not to get intimidated by this kind of self-righteous, upper-crust bullying and set the record straight,” he continues.
So when Zuma asks, “Who is oppressing them economically? Who do they want economic freedom from?”, it is important to respond, “You, your government, your brutal police force, your hypocritical political party, your co-opted alliance partners and your selfish crony elite”.
It is important not fall into the trap of abandoning the working class when these brutal and violent forces are unleashed upon them because they dared to stand up and speak truth to power.