South Africa's vital mining industry faces potentially massive disruption, as thousands of black miners have gone on strike in the first phase of their struggle for what they call a ``living wage.'' The long-heralded strike is as much a contest for power as it is a dispute over wages. The strike, which began Sunday night, is part of a long-term bid to make black workers major actors in the running of the nation's coal- and gold-mining industry. The strike pits the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest and most politically militant of South Africa's burgeoning black trade unions, in a test of strength against the Chamber of Mines, the organized voice of the powerful mining companies.
The adversaries offered conflicting interpretations of the extent of the strike yesterday as they accused one another of using intimidating tactics. At press time, at least seven miners and two mine security officers were reported injured in strike-related violence.
It is clear that neither the miners, the government, nor the companies can afford a prolonged strike. The NUM does not, as far as is known, have a strike fund to help tide the hundreds of thousands of workers - and their families - over a work stoppage. Gold is South Africa's most important foreign exhange earner, accounting for about half of the total.
NUM General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa told a news conference that 340,000 workers had gone on strike. Johan Liebenberg, industrial relations adviser to the Chamber of Mines, put the number of strikers at less than a third of that figure.
There are a total of 545,000 black miners in the 99 gold and coal mines affiliated with the chamber. The NUM has called on its estimated 200,000 members to strike at 46 of these.
Mr. Ramaphosa's figure of 340,000 - it includes non-members of NUM who struck in solidarity - would account for perhaps at least three quarters of the work force at the 46 mines. Mr. Liebenberg's estimate would reduce the number of striking miners to a more modest total of some 130,000 - still enough, as he admitted, to drastically curtail production at some mines. An independent monitoring group put the number of strikers at 230,000.
In expectation of strong-arm measures to break the strike, Ramaphosa advised the strikers to return to their homes in South Africa's tribal ``homelands'' and neighboring states. Contingency plans had been made for buses and taxis to ferry workers home, he said yesterday after accusing some of the mining companies of calling in ``their trusted ally,'' the police, to control the strike.
At one level the strike is for better wages and living conditions and is part of the ``living-wage campaign'' launched by the militant Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The congress is South Africa's largest trade union federation; NUM is its biggest - and most politically vocal - affiliate.
NUM demanded an across-the-board wage increase of 30 percent, as well as danger pay - each year scores of black miners are killed in work-related accidents - and an increase in death benefits from two to five times a victim's annual salary. The chamber refused to accede to these demands, insisting that soaring mining costs made them unreasonable. Instead, its member companies unilaterally put through wage increases of between 15 and 23.5 percent.
Unions take up political cudgels
But the struggle for a living wage - COSATU and its affiliates are demanding a minimum wage of 4 rand (a little more than $2) an hour - cannot be separated from the wider political struggle.
The black workers' unions have increasingly taken up political cudgels as the popular black political opposition movements - notably the United Democratic Front - have been driven underground by the detention of their leaders under the state of emergency.
Significantly NUM was the first of COSATU affiliate to formally adopt the 1955 Freedom Charter as its credo. The charter, which calls for the nationalization of banks and mines, is the ideological linchpin of the outlawed African National Congress.
NUM does not see the mining bosses as politically neutral. In its view, they are archetypal capitalists who bolster the South Africa's system of apartheid (racial segregation). When NUM accepted the Freedom Charter at its congress this February, it declared: ``The workers' struggle in the mines cannot be separated from the struggle in the community. ... Apartheid and capitalism are two inseparable evils that must be smashed.''
NUM's drive to take control of the mines to secure a living wage is reflected in the presidential address of James Motlatsi at the NUM congress.
``Comrades, the answer to our problems on the mines is clear,'' he declared. ``We need to take control. Nineteen eighty-seven is the year we march in that direction. ... Under capitalism we will never find a solution to our problems. It is only with a democratic socialist South Africa that the working class and all the oppressed people will have the wealth which they produce under their control.''
Calling for the abolition of the migrant labor system on which the mines are still dependent and which the government favors, Mr. Motlatsi said, ``should they fail to heed our call they will have to face mass struggles on the mines for control.''
Confronted with that stance, the chamber and the mining companies decided to resist NUM's demands in a bid to assert, or perhaps reestablish, their paramountcy.