Last August, 34 platinum miners at Lonmin Corp's Marikana Mine in Rustenberg, South Africa were massacred by South African police. In December, I had the opportunity to interview a prominent leader of the South African left, Mazibuko Jara of the Democratic Left Front, in an hour-long interview discussing Marikana, the new wave of miners' and farmers' struggles in South Africa, the role of the ANC government, among other questions. What follows is an excerpt from the full interview, which is now up on the web at:
A print version will be published in the next issue of New Politics magazine.
JG: I’m here with Mazibuko Jara. Mazibuko is from the Democratic Left Front of South Africa. He was spokesperson for the South African Communist Party and the deputy secretary for the Young Communist League, back a decade and more ago. He is one of the co-founders of Amandla magazine and the Democratic Left Front, and they’ve been extremely active in the support for the Marikana miners and for South African farmworkers, and elsewhere. We’ll talk about this and more in this interview. Today is Sunday, Dec 2, 2012.
JG: Mazibuko, can you give us a bit of background on the current events in South Africa and how you personally got involved and became so prominent in the South African movement?
MJ: I became a socialist in 1989, in the last years of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Since then I’ve been a committed Marxist socialist, so that explains my long-term involvement in the political struggles and movements in South Africa. Right now, I’m part of the Democratic Left Front, which has actively supported the recent wave of mineworker and farmworker strikes in South Africa, starting with platinum workers at the Lonmin Corporation’s Marikana mine and spreading to other mines. That Marikana movement of workers’ struggles has thrown the DLF into the spotlight in terms of what it can do to support the workers’ struggle and also to bring a socialist perspective into those workers’ struggles that goes beyond the immediate workplace issues. That is important because there have been some 18 years in South Africa of a post-apartheid political dispensation founded on a democratic constitution and including a democratically elected government which has been dominated and led by the party of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC works together with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in the form of a tripartite alliance. Those 18 years have left a number of systemic features from the past quite intact. Firstly, the economic structure of South Africa remains a capitalist economy owned by a small number of capitalists, particularly in the mines and in finance and in agriculture, and a smaller layer in industry, especially manufacturing. Of course now, there’s been a rise in the services sector alongside a wave of increased financialisation of the economy.
So the post-apartheid administration has not really challenged the ownership/control of the economy by this capitalist class as well as the power of this capitalist class in general. There has not been significant redistribution of wealth through taxation or through land redistribution or other measures. But we’ve seen high levels of profits – super-profits in some instances – by South African companies. And these high levels of profits have been at the expense of South African workers. Workers have been more productive, which means they produce more profits. But we’ve seen a decline in the share of national income going to workers. This explains then why there has been a lot of unhappiness among workers, because there are billions of rands in profits which are being held onto by the bosses instead of being invested in more productive investments or being paid as wages to workers. Of course, beyond workers there are millions more of unemployed people who are structurally out of the economic system. These unemployed people basically depend on the minimal social security program that the state provides with some elements of a social wage (basic amounts of water and electricity, free housing for the poor, etc.) But the social security grants and the elements of a social wage system are immediately undermined by the economic policies of the state, immediately undermined by the huge unemployment crisis. For example, the logic of a social wage is undermined by cost recovery, wherein the unemployed are expected to pay for the costs of these services. So the restlessness that we see among the unemployed and the workers in South Africa is basically an attempt by ordinary people to say what’s the benefit of this constitutional promise if it’s not changing our lives?
JG: The massacre of the Marikana miners this past August 16 has received international attention. Can you describe the events that led up to it, because there has been a lot of controversy and confusing surrounding these events? We’ve heard charges of “anarchism”, and “nihilism” leveled at the Marikana miners and / or their leaders. There have been allegations that the Marikana miners have been deceived and led to murder their opponents. There have been accusations of “dual unionism”. Can you explain the background to the miners strike and the August 16 events?
MJ: The strike at the Lonmin mine in Marikana has deep systemic roots in the conditions of workers in that mine. For several years now that mine has increasingly used labor from labor brokers. So they would hire a company to bring workers on a part-time basis to work the mines, particularly underground. So that group of workers which were brought in through labor brokers did not have full benefits and were paid very low wages. So that’s quite significant, because many of these mineworkers need to support two families: one in the mining area, and one in their rural homes in far-flung provinces or in nearby countries. But also, another factor is that the mining system has taken away the subsidy for accommodations that it used to provide to workers. It is true that these accommodations in the mining compounds were horrible. But now, the mining companies charge the workers for these accommodations in the mining compounds. So many of the mineworkers have opted to stay in the informal settlements that emerged around the mining areas. So that was a further squeeze. Apart from that, there have been very problematic attempts by management to increase salaries for certain parts of the workforce, but not for the entire workforce. And by the union’s own calculation, that was meant to reward those more critical in the production process. But you can imagine the kind of unhappiness that this would generate, given that very few workers were getting any kind of fair wage.
But also: the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which is the largest union representing mineworkers in South Africa, had increasingly become removed from the conditions, the grievances, and the demands of the lowest rank of the workers , the most exploited – particularly those who drill the rocks. Because those who drill the rocks must be physically strong, since they work the hardest and work the longest, and they were not getting increased wage rates at all. The NUM had increasingly been led by a layer of quite streetwise, English speaking, white collar workers. Most of them had been working above the ground, as mining clerks or other officers in the system. So this combination of factors meant that there was no outlet, there was no forum, to hear and address the grievances of underground workers. So in this combination of circumstances what then emerged was very significant anger, very significant agitation, which led to what is called an unprotected strike from the end of July or the beginning of August at Marikana when workers demanded a way out of their squeeze, they demanded a living wage, a wage that would make it possible for them to meet their expenses and live decently. This strike was basically an initiative of the workers themselves. Of course, the NUM was facing some competition from a smaller breakaway union called AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union). However, to view the strike as NUM vs. AMCU is not helpful, because it ignores the real, concrete conditions that workers were unhappy about. NUM vs. AMCU is a dynamic that is part of the strike, but it is not the main dynamic of the strike. And anyway, as it turned out, that strike saw workers wanting to negotiate with the management on their own. That logic of workers wanting to feel their own power was also present in other strikes triggered by Marikana.