South Africa’s Platinum Labor Conflicts Bleed into Economy, Global Markets

South Africa’s Platinum Labor Conflicts Bleed into Economy, Global Markets

South Africa possesses the world’s largest reserves of platinum, a commodity with particularly favorable prospects.

It’s the most mineral rich country in the world, yet  the mining industry is encumbered by labor unrest in a nation wrought with staggeringly high unemployment, according to a report commissioned by Citigroup in 2010.

Within South Africa’s mining sector, violent conflicts among workers, management, government and rival labor unions have detracted from the country’s growth, devalued its currency, and, perhaps more importantly, called into question the integrity of its methods and systems for labor representation.

Union Violence at Marikana

Mawethu Khululekile Stevens, the North West regional leader of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), was allegedly shot dead by four unidentified assailants while watching a soccer match in a Photsaneng tavern. This incident was followed by the murder of a local National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leader at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine, and more recently by the killing of an AMCU shop steward.

Such are the reverberations that continue to emanate from last August’s Marikana miners’ strike, including the infamous Marikana massacre of Aug. 16, during which 34 workers were gunned down by police. The current situation appears to be that of a bloody turf war between two labor factions and would, therefore, suggest similar origins in last year’s strikes. However, a closer look reveals a different story – one of union members who lost faith in their leadership.

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In a Daily Maverick article, Jared Sacks notes that the Marikana massacre was a culmination of events between strikers and NUM management. Miners from various Lonmin mines, primarily rock drill operators, wanted a higher hourly wage. Yet, when denied support from NUM leaders, the workers took matters into their own hands and embarked on a wildcat strike; that is, one organized without union representation.

On Aug. 11, a group of NUM leaders allegedly fired on protesting strikers without provocation, resulting in the death of two workers. The strikers, during the following week, proceeded to arm themselves with machetes and clubs; police were called on to the scene, and, as the saying goes, the rest was history.

Miners naturally became disillusioned with leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, who appeared to have become too closely aligned with management and government. NUM is the largest affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and, thus, is vicariously allied to the African National Congress (ANC). BBC News points out the particular instance of Cyril Ramaphosa, a former NUM General-Secretary and Lonmin board member during the time of the Marikana strikes, who has since been promoted to an ANC deputy leader.

NUM members began to leave, finding refuge in the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. The AMCU, in consequence, has stripped the NUM of its majority at Lonmin and now represents over 70 percent of the company’s employees. The Labour Court has ordered that, if the NUM cannot regain a majority by July 16, then it must consolidate its operations into but one centralized office.