Thousands of Gold Fields workers may be without jobs on Thursday if they do not return to work from an unprotected strike. But even as the threat of another Marikana threatens to break loose at the KDC mines in Carletonville, the intensifying strikes point to the failures of the South African democracy.
Thursday is D-Day for Gold Fields workers. As many as 22,000 workers face the axe if they fail to turn up for work.
For 6,200 workers in Welkom, the threat of unemployment was enough to force them back to work on Wednesday. According to Gold Fields, up to 70% of striking workers actually arrived en masse on Tuesday night, eager to resume work, regardless of the shift schedule. In Welkom, Gold Fields’ ultimatum has done what it was supposed to do – instil the fear of joblessness in workers.
Elsewhere, however, workers have been more resistant.
Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi left a meeting with President Jacob Zuma at the Union Buildings early on Wednesday, telling journalists he had a strike to put out in Carletonville.
And though Vavi was afforded an audience at the KDC West mine owned by Gold Fields, workers had still not been persuaded to return to work.
Vavi told workers that unions would return to the Chamber of Mines on Thursday to renegotiate a wage increase for workers at the KDC West. A previous offer by the Chamber was soundly rejected by workers last week.
And while the urgency of the situation seems finally to have dawned on government, with President Zuma promising an infrastructure roll-out like candy to a hungry child, the official structures in place to deal with labour relations, the partnership of government and trade unions have lost touch with workers and the ire of the multitudes.
National Union of Mineworkers spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said the union was encouraged by workers returning to work at Beatrix one, two and three shafts in Welkom. “This is a sign that people will return to work,” he said.
Mametlwe Sebi, a member of the national strike committee, believes that the focus on Gold Fields workers returning to work in the Free State detracts from the boost to this week’s striking numbers from the Gold Fields KDC East operation. “What is not being noted is that 9,000 workers joined the strike in Carletonville this week,” he said.
On Monday, Gold Fields announced that approximately 8,500 of the 12,400 employees at its KDC East operation started an “unlawful strike” that commenced with the night shift on Sunday.
Significantly, this is not the first time in the last two months that workers at KDC East have been on strike. In early September, workers downed tools in a dispute over a funeral policy benefit with NUM. Their demands, then, were clear. The branch union leadership must resign.
Former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, touring restive mines after Marikana, stopped at KDC East.
After fumbling about ineffectually for a few days, NUM eventually got to the bottom of the problem and, accompanied by Vavi, succeeded in getting workers back to work. But it was Malema who got the attention of KDC East workers and management too. As mine management watched from a respectful distance and workers cheered him on, Malema encouraged workers to remain firm and challenge authority.
This time, however, KDC East is striking for higher wages, harmonising its demands with mineworkers on strike elsewhere.
But the grievances that emerged at KDC East last month continue to emerge at both KDC East and West. Workers want to see original copies of their pay slips. They suspect NUM and, as further allegations of corruption are levelled against NUM branch representatives, workers want NUM to give up the keys to their offices at KDC.
Just as workers are fed up with mining bosses, they are frustrated with NUM and its inability to represent their demands adequately.
Seshoka said NUM had sent “some people” to Gold Fields’ KDC operations on Wednesday, but was cagey on whether the NUM leadership had met with any success, or at least a friendly face.
Early on Wednesday, various strike committees met at Anglo Gold Ashanti’s operation in Carletonville. Sebi said the meeting held a “historical significance”, marking the first time various strike committees met to plot the way forward. And Gold Fields ultimatum or not, he said they were motivated to further escalate the strikes in the mining sector. “There is a hardened resolve among us now,” he said.
Sebi, however, rubbished allegations – largely emanating from the offices of NUM – that Malema was behind the unrest in the mines. “Such claims are baseless,” he said. “Our calls for nationalisation have nothing to do with Mr Malema. His calls for nationalisation come from an affluent, black capitalist perspective. We want nationalisation in the interests of workers.”
Now it remains to be seen if more than 10,000 workers will actually lose their jobs on Thursday. A meeting of the “national strikes committee” on Thursday morning may just see a decision taken to send Gold Fields workers back to work. But it does not look like workers will be returning to work. Among other demands of workers at KDC are equalisation and that no worker should be victimised when returning to work. There may be hope for a crisis to be averted, but reducing the strikes to a game of chess between workers and bosses is to miss the point.
It is no coincidence that the strikes that began at Impala Platinum, spread dramatically to Lonmin in Marikana, and from there went throughout the country. As much as unions and some sectors of government pin the industrial action on Malema, this ultimately is much bigger than him.
It is bigger than the petty squabbling of ANC politics. It is bigger than the NUM’s self-assurance that it knows better than workers what is best for them.
At the bottom of it all, the failures of South African democracy are concentrated in the mines and, until now, there has been little active engagement with these failures.