Infinite Implications

2013-01-18 00:00

FOURTEEN thousand jobs to be shed by Amplats in restructuring and cutting back its platinum mining operation: it’s a staggering number, the size of a small town. And the multiplier factor means that up to 10 times as many people will be directly affected, the population of a small city. On top of that, the livelihoods of multitudes will be adversely impacted in all sectors of the economy. The human implications of this decision by Anglo-American are truly sobering.

The conventional interpretation has been easy to predict. Miners only have themselves to blame for going out on protracted, unprotected strikes linked to unrealistic wage demands. In an increasingly globalised economy yet to find a positive direction after the financial crisis of 2007/8, the mining industry cannot entertain worker ambitions of this sort. Gloomy prognoses will be advanced about economic growth forecasts and South Africa’s rigid labour laws, regarded as inimical to business. There will be earnest discussion about foreign investment, rand exchange rates and, inevitably, the markets.

All of this is true up to a point, but it misses a crucial point: both the cause of the strikes and their consequences have historic and social dimensions just as important as the economic. Mining is dangerous and uncongenial work still characterised in some ways by its 19th century origins in the migrant labour system, deliberately engineered by primitive capitalism through land dispossession, destruction of the black peasantry and coercive taxation. It remains in a sense the least transformed sector of the SA economy.

There was always a very strong argument that the Marikana rock drill operators deserved the R12 500 per month they were claiming. The disparity between the wages of miners toiling below ground in dire conditions, the packages of suited executives working in air-conditioned offices, and the rewards enjoyed by shareholders raised fundamental ethical issues. But these apart, the circumstances of miners and their socioeconomic context have not been fully appreciated. The migrant labour system and the precariousness of their existence on the mines meant that many were sustaining two households and numerous dependents on one limited income. Little progress has been made in creating the sort of permanent, well-housed, properly remunerated mining community found in Australia. The South African mining industry carries on committing the same mistake, assuming that a cheap labour force is economically beneficial and makes it competitive. Investment in the workforce has never been its priority and it continues to evade social, along with environmental responsibilities.

Last year’s strikes showed that some workers received virtually nothing from their meagre pay packets: they were the victims of micro-lenders. Moneyweb and Daily Maverick journalists found 13 micro-lenders within a 500-metre strip at Marikana. They operated with usurious intent, charging outrageous fees amounting to up to 20 times the original loan and illegal garnishee orders that had not been endorsed by the courts. Why were these orders accepted by the mining company? This financial shambles was reprehensible if not downright criminal. Miners, neglected by the retail banking industry, were left to the predatory practices of the unscrupulous working on the margins of the economy. Some commentators went so far as to argue that this was the primary cause of strike action: had the National Credit Regulator swooped earlier, industrial action might have been averted.

If social factors can be identified in the origins of industrial action, their impact will be even greater among the consequences. That small city is about to add its numbers to the 15 million welfare-grant claimants who already vastly outnumber those who fund them, the five million taxpayers. There is no way out of this relationship: reduced grants, however engineered, would have disastrous results. And in spite of this welfare state provision, retrenchments and shaft closures will inevitably heighten poverty and the social dislocation it breeds.

Workers do not usually go on strike lightly. They do so because of perceived injustice or because they have been pushed to tipping point. Purposeful labour, however menial or mundane, brings dignity and self-esteem. The psychology of work means that un- and underemployment create a sense of alienation or estrangement from broader society. How else is it possible, for instance, to explain the burning of libraries and schools in so-called service-delivery protests? Ominously, the ranks of the estranged are about to swell considerably.

Mining Minister Susan Shabangu is reportedly livid at the arbitrary action of Amplats and has accused it of arrogance. She appears to have good reason for this, in particular over the lack of consultation and apparent contravention of the mining licence. The history of South African mining means that business decisions must take into account the political and social consequences. Hidden beneath the pronouncements of business people, thousands of ordinary lives are made, altered and frequently broken.

The moral of the mining strike is that there can be no sustained and sustainable economic development without social justice. The two are inseparable. But it is a truth generally ignored by the corporate world and paid lip-service by politicians. This is not a simple confrontation between labour and capital in the context of the economics of the platinum industry. The causes and consequences are deeply rooted in the pathology of South African society. And, yes, that is a legacy of both colonial exploitation and apartheid.

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