The mine workers of South Africa made history last month. For 21 days, 340 000 workers from nearly 50 gold and coal mines went out on strike. It was the biggest strike in the history of this country.
The strike was a long, hard battle. Nine workers lost their lives, over 500 were hurt, and over 400 were arrested. Mine workers and their families also went hungry. They were not paid while they were on strike.
After the strike Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, said the strike was an important victory for his organisation. He said the bosses were surprised by the size of the strike — and that the strike lasted so long.
Marcel Golding, assistant general secretary of the NUM, said the strike was a big achievement. “We took on the Chamber of Mines — the organisation behind the pass laws, the migrant labour system and the hostels.”
THE MAIN DEMAND
The main demand of the strikers, mostly members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), was a for a living wage. The workers were asking for an increase of 30 per cent in their wages.
The workers did not win this demand. The strike forced the bosses to pay out higher death benefits and more leave pay. But until the end, the bosses refused to pay higher wages — even though the strike cost them more than R250 million.
Golding said the union decided to end the strike when the bosses began firing thousands of workers He said over 41 000 workers were fired. The NUM could not allow the bosses to fire all its members. lf the bosses did this, the NUM would have lost its members, its leaders and its power on the mines.
WITH DIGNITY AND UNITY
Kgalema Motlanthe, a NUM official told a meeting at Wits University after the strike that the bosses were prepared to lose any amount of money before they gave in to the wage demand. He said they were also ready to dismiss every single worker on strike — even if this meant closing down some of their mine shafts.
He said by ending the strike, the NUM won another victory. “We went back with dignity and unity,” said Motlanthe. We showed that our union has the strength to bring our members out on strike for three week. And we showed that the union has the power to ask workers to go back to work when it feels the time is right.”
Motlanthe also spoke about the way the bosses tried to break the strike. He said the mine compounds are like concentration camps. During the strike compounds were closed off with barbed wire.
“Mine security are no different to the SADF. They are armed to the teeth ” said Motlanthe.
TEARGAS AND BULLETS
Simon Fako, a worker from Western Deep Levels South Mine, told Learn and Teach how mine security shot workers at the mine. Fako, who was on the Carletonville Regional Strike Committee, said many workers were injured.
“We were sitting peacefully in our rooms,” said Fako. “Suddenly we saw tents being put up outside the compound. When we asked what those tents were for, we were told they were for workers who wanted to work.
“That same afternoon, they wanted to take some of us to the tents. None of us went because all the miners in our mine were on strike. Then they tried to bring some people to cause fighting among ourselves. That also did not work because we were all united.
“We did not sleep that night. At four in the morning, they came into the compounds. They forced us to go to these tents. We refused. Then they used real bullets, rubber bullets and teargas on us.
“Many were injured. Some workers lost their eyes, others were shot in the stomach and testicles. Many of the injured were arrested when they went to the mine hospital for treatment. But even these things did not break our spirit.”
THE STRIKE COMMITTEES
Jeremiah Majwale, also a worker in Carletonville, spoke about the work of the strike committees in the strike. “We were elected onto the strike committee by the workers after they voted to go on strike,” said Majwale.
“We felt very proud to be on the strike committee. We were able to serve the workers — which also means we were serving the nation.
“In a sense we were controlling the strike. Our task was to make sure that the strike went on legally. We also reported emergency messages from the union — and sent messages from the workers back to the union.
“Our daily task was to help workers who were injured and to watch out for people trying to cause fighting between the workers. We helped to keep discipline.”
“Discipline among the workers was very good in the strike. Our members are real comrades. Nobody got drunk — and there was no fighting. The strike was good for unity. Our union came out of the strike stronger than before.”
LESSONS FROM THE STRIKE
Thabo Marake, from Vaal Reefs gold mine, said the workers and the union have learned some important lessons from the strike. “Although we were united, we need more members to join NUM,” said Marake.
“COSATU unions must also do more to support those on strike. This strike made the bosses feel the pinch, but if all the unions in COSATU are more strongly behind us, then they are going to feel the punch.
“We also learnt that when they are shooting at us, their aim is to kill the union. So it is up to workers to defend and build their union. This strike has opened many workers’ eyes and showed us how the bosses and the police work together.”
THE LION ROARS
But Morake said he is proud of the union. “NUM the lion roared, and shook the mines. The roar could be heard everywhere. And workers from all over the world roared back by sending their messages of support.”
“Many people think that it is ‘fashion’ to go on strike since COSATU spoke about the living wage campaign. The bosses say that workers are just looking for excuses just to go on strike and do nothing.”
“But take these people underground. Make them work in dangerous conditions. Let them do heavy jobs. After work, let them sleep in the compounds away from their families for just one month. Then pay them about R280.00. What will happen? All of them will be rushing to NUM for membership cards.”
Marake ended by saying: “The next time we go on strike we will be prepared and united like never before. A strike like this prepares us for tougher battles ahead. From this strike will grow the brave and fearless fighters of tomorrow.”