WHEN the Marikana massacre broke upon the world a year ago the scourge of low wages on the platinum mines, especially the Lonmin mines in Rustenburg, had already become notorious due to the progressive drop in real wages. Over the years the mine workers' earnings were close to starvation wages.
The situation was compounded by the fact that the migrant labour system on the mines continued as of yore. This circumstance is aggravated by the fact that the ending of the single-sex compound system has exacerbated the mine workers' struggle for living wages.
For, if the old migratory labour system had validated one family in a rural village, the new system encouraged the birth of two families – one "at home", the other in the mining village. This situation only came to deepen the wages crisis of the mine worker.
The struggle for living wages gave birth to the workers' demand for a monthly wage of R12500.
The question that has not been asked by all interlocutors of the Marikana crisis is why non-literate workers on the mines in Rustenburg had developed such contempt for the traditional wage determination system that had been worked out in South Africa by the 1994 political settlement. Why did these sons and daughters of the poor demonstrate categorically such disdain for the typical 5% insult in wage redetermination which had become the stock-in-trade of both the trade union movement and the Department of Labour?
Why was a system so revered by the bosses and declared fair by all civilised individuals in society found so contemptible by these workers? For they refused the negotiating machinery.
They went out on rebellion. They collected such armaments as they could gather.
Already in virtual battle formation, they sent for a traditional healer from the countryside so that they could be "strengthened" for war. They politically cashiered the traditional trade union, NUM, and replaced it with the newcomers, Amcu.
They even developed a healthy suspicion for Amcu and the most advanced of them declared in favour of their own hand-made workers' committee. Further, they went on to support the setting up of a new workers' party.
Instinctively these workers at the moment of historical challenge were developing an even healthier respect for their own independent political enterprise. What the workers on the platinum belt had done was simultaneously to concretise all the contradictions of labour and capital in South Africa. First, a cry rang out throughout the corporate sector: "the payout made by Lonmin at Marikana is unsustainable".
Every trick in the book was employed to render the new settlement unworkable in the future.
Second, every effort was made by a motley crowd of individuals and groups to resuscitate the old and outdated wage determination system, with labour led by NUM and attempting to drag Amcu behind it. Third, government spokesmen led by "communist" Gwede Mantashe went on a campaign of vilification against the new forms of struggle which had emerged at Wonderkop.
Fourth, Cosatu went out to lead a revitalised NUM into a reactionary confrontation with workers in Rustenburg led by Amcu and the workers' committee. The struggle for living wages had to be reversed and defeated at all costs.
On the first anniversary of the Marikana massacre, it is important for the workers to remind themselves of all the factors that gave energy to their movement in August last year. They should recall their distaste for pauperisation.
They should treat the old labour regime with hatred. They should learn to understand the motives of all allies.
They should search for the type of politico-economic solutions to their plight that will guarantee the salvation of the entire working class. They should learn to ask difficult questions and be well advised of the fatal solutions being proposed by their class enemies.
The struggle for living wages is the struggle for a new economic system in South Africa. Long live the heroism of the mine workers in Wonderkop!
Hamilton Petersen, joint secretary, on behalf of the New Unity Movement.