South Africa: African and world contexts of mineworkers’ tribulations

South Africa: African and world contexts of mineworkers’ tribulations

by / Comments Off / 40 View / 15th July 2011

Various analysts and commentators have so far treated the Marikana massacre of protesting mineworkers in South Africa as homegrown tragedy– the sole and unique product of the country’s catastrophic history, turbulent industrial relations, and broken politics. It is my contention that a proper understanding of what happened on August 16 requires a comparative insight on the vicissitudes of labor-party relations across sub-Saharan Africa. It also requires doses of appreciation of the forceful, penetrative, and often disastrous impact of globalization on domestic economic and political processes, particularly in the pathetically weak states that dot the African landscape.

In the beginnings of nationalist agitation for independence from colonial rule, the bulk of the studies on trade unionism in Africa focused on the possibilities of the development and maturation of an African working class capable of holding its own against any emerging counterforce ofself-serving and anti-developmental Africanpolitical elite. In time, bearing in mind the exemplary symbiotic relationship between, for instance, the British Trade Unions and the British Labor Party, and in the face of the multiplying and deepening battles between the colonial regimes and the nationalist movements in several territories, some scholars in the field turned their attention positively toward a strategic assumption of an alliance between radical political parties and militant labor that could propel the “locomotive” of history in African liberation and development.

The British Labor Party was founded in the late nineteenth century by the unions at a timeof a glaring need for a socialist political party to represent the interests of the urban working class. From the first, this linkage with the unions became the party’s defining characteristic. The party’s platform enunciated the socialist principles of public ownership of key industries, government intervention in the economy, redistribution of wealth, increased rights for workers, as well as publicly- funded healthcare and education. Upon winning a landslide victory in the 1945 general election, the party set out faithfully to implement its social democratic program by establishing a National Health Service, nationalizing key industries, and creating a welfare state.

In Africa, in a good number of cases, it was the unions as pioneers in struggle that created the critical impulse toward the consolidation of the political parties and the crystallization of the nationalist movements. Indeed, it has been said that the period in which the struggle for African independence reached its fiercest intensity coincided with the period of energetic activism by the trade unions.In due course, from one territory to another, labor and party conjoined as the industrial and political wings of the nationalist movement against the colonial order.

In Ghana, the first country to attain independence from colonial rule in 1957, the linchpin of the attack on the colonial order was themutualism between asocialist-oriented Convention People’s Party (CPP) and the Ghana Trades Union Congress. Despite the strains in the alliance between the party and the most militant wing of the labor movement, the Railway and Harbor Workers Union, it was the sustained, collaborative campaign of labor and party that brought the country to independence. Thereafter, the CPP moved to formulate policies that brought widespread benefits to the working masses and the poor of the new nation: universal, state-funded education from primary school to the university; universal, state-funded healthcare for all; and the establishment of myriad public enterprises that opened up job opportunities.

In South Africa, too, the successful prosecution of the campaign for liberation from Apartheid rule was driven by close and fruitful collaboration between the African National Congress (ANC) and the largest and most powerful labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Given South Africa’s vast mineral base, it is not surprising that, from the start, the largest component of COSATU was the National Union of Mineworkers. Infused with socialistic idealism, the ANC, from the beginning, called for redistribution of wealth “from those who had benefitted from Apartheid to those oppressed by it”, the nationalization of South Africa’s abundant natural resources, and “the role of the state as guarantor of full employment.” COSATU’s Second Conference in 1987 emphatically declared: “While we are involved in a struggle for national liberation, true liberation can only be achieved through an economic and social transformation of our society to serve the interests of the working class.” Upon his release from prison in February 1990, Nelson Mandela, who viewed South Africa as a case of “monopoly-capitalist-fascism gone mad,” joined the chorus: “The nationalization of the banks, and the mines, and the major industries is the first policy of the ANC. Any change to this is unthinkable.”

Right after the termination of Apartheid, the ANC government seemed determined to keep faith with its working class constituents. The government’s Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) of 1994 mapped out a strategy for broad redistribution of resources that was hailed as a victory for workers and the poor. And yet by the time Thabo Mbeki took power in 1999, the tide had turned decisively in favor of neoliberal economic policies that fundamentally broke the party-labor bond and relegated the welfare of the workers. The most plausible explanation of this quick and abrupt about-turn is grounded in the crucial shift in the global distribution of powercaused by the USSR’s abrogation of its role as socialist counterpoise to global capitalism.

Ominously for South Africa, the 1990-1993 negotiations to end Apartheid coincided with the process of dismemberment of the USSR beginning in December 1991.With the end of the Cold War, the dominant institutions of global capitalism—the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO—went on a rampage, pushing their operations into every corner of the planet. In the process, as John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander have noted, they have engineered “a power shift of stunning proportions,” moving real economic and political power away from national governments “toward unprecedented concentration of power for global corporations, bankers, and the global bureaucracies they helped create….” Even across Europe, traditional socialist parties were to be so deeply transformed from the early 1990s that it became no longer appropriate to describe them ideologically as social democratic. The resulting ideological shift put severe strains on labor-party relationships. A case in point is the United Kingdom where the architects of “New Labor” virtually abandoned the party’s commitment to the ideals of socialism in favor of “free market policy decisions,” to the consternation of the unions.

In Africa, even before the end of the Cold War unleashed the new wave of sweeping globalization, a debt crisis of the 1980s, caused mainly by the disastrous rise in interest rates and oil prices and the devastating decline in commodity prices, opened the way for the IMF and the World Bank to impose austerity measures, known as “Structural Adjustment Programs,” on African countries, requiring them to radically change their economic and social policies in accordance with global “free market” priorities.The end result of this was the obliteration of the social welfare state of the kind that the CPP in Ghana had inaugurated. Now, in the wake of the Cold War, in a continent in which quintessential weak states abound, a new governmental model, “the corporate security state,” whose prime organizing principle is “investor security,” was to emerge in Africa. As Claude Barlow and Tony Clarke elucidated in a remarkablyprescient work in 2002, “The priority of governance is to provide security for corporations, not citizens. And if the property and investments of corporations should be seriously threatened by workers or communities, the state would be obliged to invoke police action to defend or protect the rights of investors with armed force.”

South Africa is not alone in manifesting the brutalities of the corporate security state. Before Marikana, there was, for instance, the Niger-Delta Region of southern Nigeria where, as communities organized to protest against the destruction of their land, homes and livelihood as a result of the operations of multinational oil companies, and also when they campaigned for their right to control their own resources, they almost automatically became “victims of outright repression and violent acts” wreaked by the state. A US Non-Governmental Delegation Trip Report of September 1999 concluded that “Organized protest and activism by affected communities regularly meet with repression, sometimes ending in the loss of life. In some cases military forces have been summoned and assisted by oil companies.”

In Ghana, according to a BBC report of July 18, 2008, hundreds of thousands of people were evicted from their farms in the period from 1986 to 2006 to make way for multinational interests empowered with a policy to shoot “trespassers” on sight. With violent confrontation “being a common theme of mining in Ghana,” those who refused to evacuate their farms “were shot by the combined team of Ghana police and company security.”

And there is Uganda, where tobacco production is dominated by British American Tobacco, and where, according to a 2010 US Department of State’s Human Rights Report, disgruntled contract farmers protesting the multinational’s delay in paying them were promptly confronted by armed police who unhesitatingly opened fire, killing and injuring several of them.

The writer, Dr. OpokuAgyeman is a political scientist and Director of The Pan-African Society and Foundation. He is the author of The Failure of Grassroots Pan-Africanism: The Case of the All-African Trade Union Federation, and of a forthcoming book, Power, Powerlessness, and Globalization.