Mining: the capitalist experiment that detests workers rumbles on

This week marked 204 years since the birth of German philosopher Karl Marx. A lot of ink, controversy and affirmation have gone into decoding Marx’s views and positions on the political economy over the years.

I will not burden you with such, except to say Marx’s political project was all about expanding human freedom and fighting oppression in every form.

History and the present teach us one thing: the lucrative mining sector is the poster boy for exploitation where inequality has thrived for nearly 200 years in South Africa.

The sector has been the cornerstone of the South African economy for over a century. It helped build cities and towns. But we know too well that the history of the industry is not a bed of roses.

Many miners have been killed or seriously injured in pit accidents, and thousands died of lung diseases brought on by working in enclosed spaces filled with coal dust. These are mainly black workers. The sector has historically played a big role in expanding the inequality that has made this country the most unequal society in the world.

Even now, the meagre wages and poor conditions in which mineworkers continue to work today in South Africa are the direct legacy of the early years of the mining industry and apartheid. It’s as if the Freedom Day we commemorated last month was not meant for workers.

What has also been constant is the sector’s blatant refusal to recognise thelegions of workers who risk life and limb extracting the wealth from the belly of the earth – wealth that has made fat cat CEOs fabulously rich while workers have to beg for peanuts. This is the face of mining in the country. It’s an ugly sight.

As I type this, workers in Sibanye-Stillwater have gone over three months without pay, for merely asking for a pay increase of R1 000 a month for the next three years. The mine wants to give its workers only R800, suggesting the workers are greedy. Good gracious!
This is a company whose CEO Neal Froneman took home R300-million last year. His bounty is made up of a basic salary of R12.42-million, an R7.8-million cash bonus and R264-million in additional share proceeds.

Froneman is but one of the many fat cat CEOs, mainly white men, who continue to earn generously while their workers live hand to mouth.

The surge in commodity prices last year resulted in lucrative profits for the mining industry. But this has, by design, not trickled down to the average South African miner. For the past century companies have concentrated on designing performance yardsticks to justify soaring pay levels for executives.

The disgruntled workers in North West who chased President Cyril Ramaphosa away last week operate not very far from the Marikana mine in the country’s
platinum belt where police gunned down 34 striking mineworkers and seriously injured dozens more in 2012.

The Marikana massacre revealed the extreme consequences of consistently paying low wages, all while extracting vast mineral riches from the earth.

It is a national shame that on the edges of some of the most valuable platinum deposits on the planet, poverty, underdevelopment and low wages continue to be a feature of this economy that condemns workers and their families to generational poverty.

Our leaders have consistently said we cannot afford to have another Marikana. But little has been done to ensure workers get their fair share of the wealth they produce under gruelling conditions.

Sibanye workers, and generations before them, have never asked or expected to be wealthy. All they demand is a fair share of the wealth their labour creates.

For capitalists, it is a battle for super profits and generous bonuses. For workers, it is a fight for their rights as humans.

South Africa cannot continue to hold the dubious distinction of being one of the countries with the most cavernous gulf in pay between fat cats and typical workers. The road to economic freedom starts with paying workers well for the work they do. And the government cannot pretend it’s an honest bystander when workers across industries continue to be exploited by multinational companies.

 

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