Continuous waves of strikes from South African miners have made headlines for years now, most notably the 2012 strikes that left 34 dead, as well as the current platinum miners’ strikes which continue to escalate and saw their first fatality on February 7 of this year. Both in their increasing incidence and the escalating militancy of the miners, it is clear that the miners’ strikes in South Africa are not merely an issue of raising wages by a few percentage points. As strikes turn to massacres and calls for wages turn to calls for open agitation, these demonstrations cannot be considered only in terms of collective bargaining. To understand the significance of the latest spate of strikes in the gold mines, it is first necessary to look at the origins and development of similar strikes as they were intertwined in South African politics under apartheid.
The origins of such politically motivated strikes are rooted in South African’s apartheid past wherein the black population was not only socially, economically, and politically oppressed, but wholly externalized from the country in which they lived. In a system of differentiated citizenship based on race and the accompanying differentiated rights derived thereof, labor conditions embodied one of the most striking examples of such externalization. Mine workers were by law migrants, concretizing their position outside the stability and security granted by full citizenship, as well as summarily delimiting bargaining rights with multinational mining corporations. A massive system of exploitation was developed around managing mine workers as transposable and disposable factors in production, a cycle only exacerbated by the depressed economic conditions of the neighboring states.
However, in the decades nearing the end of apartheid, structural reform allowed the black population to move from semi and non-skilled labor into skilled labor positions. Key among these reforms was the removal of the “Colour Bar,” which had actively limited all non-Europeans from positions higher than unskilled labor since its imposition by legislation in the early 20th century. Although the dismantling of this system was meant to be a small concession to salvage an economy crumbling under the external condemnation of an escalating international boycott, it in effect became a foothold from which the black community gained political agency—even while still under an apartheid regime. Labor itself, especially within the unique context of the mining industry, became a key arena in which race dynamics in South Africa were contested.
With entry into the skilled labor industry came integration into the national economy and the bargaining power that accompanies it. In 1978, black unions were legalized and formal strikes began under the auspices of demanding percentage increases in wages. However, given entrenched economic division between the industry elite and the miners, mining strikes became known for accepting marginal increases in wages often at the cost of life and limb. While the small difference in wages were often critical for miners (as they continue to be today), the strikes themselves demonstrated a far more significant shift in South African politics—the demonstration of political agency and solidarity among a community previously compelled to compliance under the migrant labor system.
Miners remain a socially and economically marginalized population. The migrant labor system has only been partially reformed following the fall of apartheid. Over the years, the growth and entrenchment of the miners’ unions and their respective bureaucracies in the South African political sphere have ironically resulted in a growing gulf between the miners and those that represent them. In April of this past year, it was discovered that prominent unionists were on the payroll of these multinational mining operations. With the African National Congress increasingly resistant to shift its platform in support of a working population already marginalized, the miners have once again turned to strikes to voice their demands.
In separating themselves from the unions, the miners now operate largely through “wildcat strikes,” a term used to emphasize that these demonstrations once again represent the miners as an autonomous political voice, circumventing a political system that continues to suppress or distort their voice through third parties. Miners’ calls for a living wage are part and parcel of other calls to give more control of the mining industry to the workers through the nationalization of the mines or the creation of a new labor party disentangled from South Africa’s current political system. These strikes have become the new means to voice the political agency of a group still deliberately held apart from the national political sphere. When one such wildcat strike in Marikana turned into a massacre of 34 miners in August 2012, the tone of such gatherings overtly shifted from strikes to rallies. The reciprocation of increased militancy by the miners indicates that these strikes have become sites of open contention between the miners and the state.
Just as union strikes became a locus for political agency in the years nearing the fall of the apartheid system, miners today are using strikes to demonstrate growing frustration with the lack of reforms directed at facilitating an equitable national economy. Now as much of a demonstration of political resistance as a call for higher wages, the use of labor strikes continues to represent a form of politics both historically specific to South Africa and constantly straining against the realities of its system.