Unreasonable Miners Show Zuma Weakness with Proposed Strike Action

South African gold miners will begin a mass strike on Tuesday after rejecting government offers of a 6% wage increase. Demanding an extortionate 60% pay rise, members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are set to cause huge disruption to one of South Africa’s most important industries.

Fears are already being raised that any attempts to coerce the miners back to work will result in a massacre similar to the one that occurred at the Marikana platinum mine last year, when 34 workers were shot dead by police.

The Marikana massacre starkly highlighted Zuma's mismanagement of the mining industry
The Marikana massacre starkly highlighted Zuma’s mismanagement of the mining industry

Wages for miners are low in South Africa, that is indisputable. A 6% wage increase would only be commensurate with current inflation rates, yet to demand 60% is madness. The living conditions of the miners compared to some of their fellow countrymen is surprisingly salubrious, removed as they are from the lowest levels of poverty by a regular wage and arranged living.

Furthermore, their work conditions are incomparable to those of their predecessors, who worked South Africa’s first massive gold mines from the end of the 19th century.

One of the first large miners’ strikes in South African history occurred in 1913, when white English-born miners were faced down by 70,000 Afrikaner troops sent by Jan Smuts. The Riotous Assemblies Act that passed following the strike was later used to severe affect against black protesters and strikers.

Clashes during the 1913 miners' strike
Clashes during the 1913 miners’ strike

For white miners in early 20th century South Africa, conditions were appalling. Working hours were inordinately long, hygiene at work hostels was abominable and wages were kept lower than the price of inflation.

Black workers, on the other hand, were subjected to virtual slavery. Forced to migrate to the big mining compounds from their homelands, they were kept segregated from society whilst barely being paid. By the time they returned to their ancestral farmsteads they would have spent what little wages they had earned, forcing them to return to the mines.

During the Second World War, when demand for minerals and energy resources grew, labour unions began to emerge amongst the black workforce. The Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) formed without government recognition, gaining 119 affiliated organisations and 150,000 members. Between 1940 and 1945, the number of hours lost in strikes increased from 6,000 to 90,000 annually.

Despite the government being forced to relax its restrictions on African workers set under the ‘separate development’ policy – due to their importance to the war effort – wages were deliberately stagnated against rising living costs. Rather than reason, Smuts again sent in the troops on any occasion when the strikes became too effective.

It is impossible to put a figure on the number of striking miners killed by the security forces in either the pre-WWII or Apartheid era South Africa, during which black miners were forcibly coerced into cramped work camps for little pay. Needless to say, the numbers far exceed those killed in incidents today. Additionally, the living conditions for the South African miners of the past were far worse than for those today.

Black mining compound at Kimberley
Black mining compound at Kimberley

Jacob Zuma has a lot to answer for. As head of the African National Congress (ANC), the supposed champions of the impoverished, he should have empathy for dissatisfied workers and have avoided a deterioration in relations with an important workforce which has led to such unreasonable demands.

However, he is too concerned with lining his own pockets through a convenient relationship with big business, including the powers-that-be in the mining industry. He wants to appease them by keeping worker wages low, at the same time hoping to encourage foreign investment.

But who is going to invest in an industry corruptly and unfairly managed, breeding a volatile and deluded workforce? Maybe Mr Zuma can answer that one.

Margaret Thatcher: a truly conflicting legacy

Margaret Thatcher has died at the age of 87, leaving behind her one of the most divisive legacies in British political history. Politicians throughout the UK, even outside Thatcher’s own Conservative Party, have been quick to pay tribute to her political skill, if not her actual policies. David Cameron has gone so far to say that Thatcher “saved our country”.

As is often the case when a famous figure dies, the initial reaction, particularly amongst the establishment, is positive. It does, after all, appear rather callous and inconsiderate to criticise someone on the moment of their passing. However, the “popular” reaction is often more enlightening. Here, people’s memories of Thatcher within the UK are highly conflicting, particularly with regards to the economy and class.

Margaret Thatcher oversaw a complete upheaval of the British economy during her tenure at 10, Downing Street (1979-1990). Privatising state-owned industries, she opened up the economy to greater competition, making it more flexible in a increasingly globalised world. Simultaneously, she severely curtailed the powers of the trade unions, which opposed her acts of privatisation and the enforced closures of industrial and manufacturing bases. Her iron will was best displayed in facing down Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) during the strike of 1984-5.

Thatcher's response to the striking miners divided the nation
Thatcher’s response to the striking miners divided the nation

Thatcher’s policies unarguably led to job losses amongst the working class, particularly as mines closed and industry was outsourced abroad due to cheaper labour costs. Yet the economy was in need of a transformation. To engage with an increasingly competitive global economy, and with the financial miseries of the 1970s still fresh in the memory, her neoconservative approach was a necessity. Without her reforms, Britain would not have so rapidly advanced its technological skills base and would not be one of the world’s leading financial centres. Unfortunately, this resulted in a widening wealth gap between rich and poor that, partly thanks to Thatcher’s uncompromising elitism, became associated with class. The massive sale of council houses to private ownership furthered the impression that Thatcher was unconcerned with the common man.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that people in several cities, including Glasgow, attempted to organise ad hoc street parties on the news of her death.

That said, her handling of the Falklands War in 1982 had received almost unanimous support across the country and helped prevent a complete alienation between the classes. Refusing to bow to aggression from a brutal Argentine regime, Thatcher’s swift and ruthless execution of the war brought a renewed patriotic fervour and unity to Britain, if only temporarily.

Victory in the Falklands War helped bolster Thatcher's popularity despite some controversial policies
Victory in the Falklands War helped bolster Thatcher’s popularity despite some controversial policies

The fact that Thatcher won re-election twice testifies to a persisting popularity amongst large segments of the population. She may never have been loved but there was perhaps a grudging acceptance from some quarters that a leader of her conviction and strength was necessary to revitalise Britain and make it relevant in a modern world. Whilst many will refuse to admit it, her reign at the top was a platform from which New Labour and Tony Blair could bring strong economic growth back to the UK. It is the reason why Britain, despite an obvious downturn, remains a global economic powerhouse in the twenty-first century.

Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)
Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)

Rarely loved, revered by some, grudgingly admired by others, and intensely hated by many more, Margaret Thatcher will raise passions in almost every person that experienced her rule as Britain’s Prime Minister. Only someone of immense character and resolve could precipitate such a reaction.