The crisis of profitability in the platinum industry is a misleading phrase to describe the current situation. Platinum companies are still in fact making a profit. The issue is rather that they are no longer making the huge profits they did during the boom years of the mid-2000s when new markets opened for platinum, prices increased and Amplats, Impala and Lonmin enjoyed record profits. The narrative that the crisis in the platinum industry is due to last year’s strikes and the unreasonable nature of workers’ demands is simply the propaganda of capital.
In fact the crisis of profitability in the platinum industry is primarily a result of bad management, as these companies flooded the market with platinum during the good years in the expectation that the price would continue rising and demand would stay constant. Or perhaps it is because the mentality of extractive capital in Africa looks to get as much out of the ground as possible in the shortest time rather than investing in sustainable business practices. The rational thing to do would have been to slow production in order to maintain constant prices, but the mining houses can’t stand each other and always trying to outdo one another.
Due to both oversupply and the collapse in demand after the great recession began in 2008, the platinum price began to drop steadily. This initiated ‘the crisis’ in the industry, as the high profit ratios could no longer be maintained and shareholders never-ending lust for profits could not be sated.
Last year’s strikes and the emergence of independent working class power on the platinum belt in the form of workers’ committees marks a turning point in South African labour relations. NUM, then the largest union in South Africa with over 30,000 members and commanding vast resources, was virtually wiped out on the platinum belt in a matter of months. AMCU, with over 11,000 members, suddenly became a major force in South Africa’s politics as the majority union at the site of the world’s major platinum reserves.
It is in this context that Marikana marks what is perhaps the most important political development for the left in South Africa since 1994. A new space is opening up outside of an increasingly vulnerable ANC, as the working class begins to question both the legitimacy and the benefit of COSATU’s ties to the ANC and the established labour relations framework. A space has opened in the North West for exploring political projects with a vision beyond either mere electoralism or an understanding of politics as limited to simply workplace disputes.
As Camalita Naicker has shown, a further lesson for left political strategy, which has been completely left out of the narrative of Marikana, is the revival of pure class struggle. Marikana showed the potential for organic struggles to bridge the perceived divide between workers and the community and more particularly, the essential nature of women’s struggles to any left political project. Rather than being walled off from the important political struggles, as some would have it, the women’s movement at Marikana both made the wildcat strike possible and forces an analysis that connects the community in which workers reside with the struggles at the point of production.
It is in this that the kernels lie of a potential model for how a left political project capable of bringing about transformative change in South Africa can be envisioned. Furthermore it calls into question the value of much of the analysis of Marikana that has been produced.
As we have also shown in this feature, the workers’ committees that emerged as the vanguard of the strikes, particularly among rock drill operators, presenteda challenge both to the established trade unionism of NUM and to the model of trade unionism AMCU has adopted thus far. These committees further threaten the entire labour relations framework in South African and present a direct challenge to capital itself.
AMCU itself will have to question its own methodology as direct confrontations with management, as in the recent Amplats strike, appear to be far more effective than backroom negotiations with management. Despite the hollow nature of the 22% increase after the Marikana strike at Lonmin, the lesson to be learnt is that workers can and have won concrete victories through strike action beginning with the Implats wildcat strike in March of last year.
But with the collapse of the workers’ committees within AMCU, the question is whether AMCU can be transformed from within to move away from its apolitical stance through building a left caucus within the union, or whether it would be preferable to reinvest in building worker’s committees as a model outside AMCU capable of furthering an alternative political project. What also remains to be seen is whether any of the new left electoral forces in South Africa (namely WASP and EFF) will be able to mobilise the mining communities around Rustenburg and in the Eastern Cape to come out and vote against the ANC in next year’s elections. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall throughout the sector: business cannot continue as usual. The ANC itself will have to present something new in terms of governance relations and the centrality of workers not only in these businesses but in the stability and progress of the country itself – although, considering the ANC’s own leadership’s status as part-time mining capitalists, this is highly unlikely.