4 June 2014,
The ongoing strike at mines in the platinum belt in North West is an issue of great concern to all those concerned with social justice and the protection of human rights. Coming in the wake of the massacre by police of 34 platinum miners at Marikana in August 2012, the strike is reflective of the many issues facing the labour force in the mining sector and of the need for long-term solutions. These must include the development of a productive economy while at the same time taking account of the real needs of workers for decent wages, proper housing, an effective health care service, and the provision of other services such as good education facilities for their children. The immediate challenge – finding a way to end the strike and get production going again – is bedevilled by the reluctance of management to consider seriously the demand for a minimum wage of R12 500 in the face of a workforce determined to hold out until this demand is met.
More than 70 000 workers have been on strike since 23 January 2014, with devastating consequences for them and their families – hunger, disrupted medical treatment (especially for those living with HIV), interrupted schooling, escalation of personal debt, reported suicides, stress and conflict. Despite this, they have every intention of continuing with their action, as SECTION27, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Sonke Gender Justice Network and Awethu! found out on Friday 30 May when we went to Marikana to deliver food parcels and clothing to the strikers.
By delivering food and clothing and messages of support, our delegation added our voices to those of the many other organisations and individuals who have come out in solidarity with the workers by raising funds, collecting clothing and blankets, and buying food to assist them and their families. But what has been done so far is not enough. It is critical that support is intensified, not just because of the humanitarian crisis the workers face after five months without income, but also because they need to know that they are not alone. They need to know that there are other unions and organs of civil society that understand their struggle and are fully behind them in their quest for social and economic justice.
When our delegation arrived at the designated meeting point, we found hundreds of workers gathered in an open area, some protected from the sun by a tin-roofed shelter, others with umbrellas. Across the road, keeping a watchful eye on the assembly, was a military armoured car. As we left our vehicles, we could hear the morale-boosting sound of union songs collectively sung by the workers. The songs were interspersed with reports and motivational input from union leaders and the miners themselves. This was but one of many similar gatherings in the area, with workers coming together to hear the latest news on the wage negotiations and to give solidarity support to each other. A small group from our delegation was taken to a different area where a much larger crowd of around 5 000 workers was gathered.
One worker spoke at length about why they were on strike, emphasising that they were not at war with the platinum companies, but they needed them to understand why their demands were important. He went so far as to say that they were proud to be working for such a wealthy company, but that that wealth had to be shared. “We are asked how we can expect to earn such a lot of money [R12 500] when we are illiterate”, he said. “Yes, we are illiterate”, he went on, “but the point is that we do not want our children to be illiterate as well”.
After solidarity speeches by the TAC and SECTION27, the distribution of the food parcels began. Our contribution was a mere 44 food parcels, not nearly enough for all of the gathered workers. We were concerned about the reaction when it was realised that not everyone would benefit. However, in a remarkable show of discipline and restraint, one of the organisers read – from a list of strikers – the names of those who had not recently benefitted from solidarity donations. The workers formed an orderly queue, waiting patiently until the final names had been read out, and then moved forward to receive their parcels. There wasn’t a hint of resentment or unhappiness from those who did not receive a parcel, a humbling experience for us as we realised how little we had brought.
Ongoing support for the miners – through solidarity action and further donations – is essential if they are to have a chance of winning their demands. This strike is politically and economically critical, not just to South Africa, but to workers around the world. It is symbolic of the international struggle against ongoing attempts by employers and governments to hold back or remove the rights of workers to decent incomes, housing, medical health facilities and other necessities. It is particularly important for workers in developing countries whose workers often find themselves treated worse than those employed by the same company in developed countries.
SECTION27, TAC, Sonke Gender Justice and Awethu! call on all concerned organisations and individuals to do what they can, however small, to support the mineworkers of Marikana. We also commend, and extend a further call to all the media that have shown interest on these issues. We would like them to continue their efforts and continue reporting on the dire conditions faced by the workers and their families. The workers should not be forced to accept a lesser deal just because they have been starved into submission.
As part of the movement for social justice, we will be joining others in undertaking programmes to further highlight the strike and the plight of the workers, to encourage individuals and organisations to familiarise themselves with the true facts around the strike, and to look at options for supporting the striking miners, including through the collection of funds to provide more food, clothing and blankets, especially as winter is now setting in.
For further information, please contact:
Mark Heywood 083 634 8806
Mandla Majola 073 301 1428
Sonke Gender Justice Network
Desmond Lesejane 084 581 6306
Maurice Smithers 082 373 7705