In January this year around 70,000 members of the South African Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) downed tools at mines run by the world's top three platinum producers — Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin — to demand that their basic wages be more than doubled to 12,500 rand a month.
A recent attempt to return to work ended in four deaths as conflict broke out at Lomin offices in Marikana, the latest in a string of violent incidents surrounding the dispute.
To say (as some commentators have) that their strike has reached a critical point is misleading to say the least. This struggle, under-reported except at its all too frequent moments of horrific violence, is both a case study in the extremes of capitalist, state-sanctioned oppression and also a powerful account of solidarity in the face of opposition beyond anything the labour movement in the UK has faced. However, it's crucial that we don't allow the physical distance to turn this into an abstract source of theoretical analysis alone; a powerful and lethal class war is being fought, with surprising consequences.
The Lonmin mine at Marikana became notorious in August 2012 when police killed number of workers. Accounts of the deaths and the exact circumstances vary and at the time of writing, an investigation continues into the atrocity, amid allegations that Lonmin were responsible for coordinating the police response (though not the order to fire which resulted in the fatalities). The more recent deaths occurred during clashes between the AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) and strikebreakers bussed in by Lonmin in an attempt to regain control situation.
Simply put, the industrialised world depends on the output of platinum miners, largely for the production of catalytic convertors. Miners working for Lonmin currently earn the equivalent of around £718 a month. Those who dig one of the most precious metals are apparently not seen to be so precious themselves.
And yet, despite all odds, the strike has Lonmin on the run. The company recently announced that the action has damaged their revenue stream so much that the future of the company is in jeopardy. Whether this is an accurate estimation or just an attempt to scare workers back remains to be seen.
The use of social media in this dispute has been instructive. Contrary to the more familiar use of text and Twitter to organise workers, in this instance it was management contacting workers and attempting to circumvent the union's withdrawal from talks by making back-to-work offers directly. This is a timely reminder that we can't be complacent about the uses of media technology; if we aren't making use of it, someone else already will be.
A company spokesperson stated that the company was "bleeding" revenue and that this would eventually "mean death" — he was referring to their strike inflicted losses of £18billion. To put that into context, striking workers have lost £8 billion in wages. It's not hard to see who is actually in danger of "bleeding to death” here.
That many workers have lost their lives in this conflict should serve as a tragic reminder of the dangers we face. State (and allegedly corporate) sanctioned oppression at its most savage is appalling enough, especially in a year when so much of the UK left is taking time to remember the violence of 1984.
But we should be aware of the other lesson; of what happens when the working class turns on itself. Workers are fighting and killing workers and this must reinforce our own beliefs that we need education and powerful, effective argument to win our battles, less we also start fighting ourselves. The need for a "fighting propaganda" party becomes clear when taking a close look at events such as these.
The strike is strong; it needs to have the courage to argue and convince its opponents within its own class, not do the work of police riflemen for them.