Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha: The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa.

Author:Shall, Sydney
Position:Book review
 
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Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha

The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa, London: Pluto Press, 2016; 224 pp.: ISBN 9780745336480, 19.99 [pounds sterling]

This book describes the strikes by workers in platinum mines that took place in South Africa in 2012, 2013 and 2014. However, the book's subtitle--The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa--is misleading in the sense that trade unionism predates this period, most pertinently in the great African miners' strike of 1946.

The northern regions of South Africa possess about 80% of the world's known platinum reserves, accounting for about 70% of global output. This natural asset is owned and exploited by the world's three largest platinum mining companies, one of which had previously been the dominant gold-mining company in South Africa. The wages paid by these companies were, at that time, well below the subsistence level. The work was strenuous and dangerous. Eventually, the miners went on strike for a modest increase in wages. The mine owners refused and, unsurprisingly, South Africa's new capitalist government sided violently with them.

The authors describe these events and a bit of the background, mainly through verbatim first-hand reports by the participant mineworkers. Oral histories like this are rare and the descriptions in this book are vivid, significant and well edited.

The book has six chapters. After a general introduction in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 describes the development of local, spontaneous workers' committees at the mines. Chapter 3 describes the first, unofficial and hence illegal, strike at the Lonmin mine, when South African police killed 34 miners. A subsequent, unofficial and hence illegal, strike at the Amplats Mine is discussed in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 describes how workers' committees evolved into more formal structures, finally joining a recognised trade union. Finally, Chapter 6 considers the huge, successful, legal mineworkers' strike of 2014.

For readers unfamiliar with South African labour law, it is important to mention that when the new South African Constitution was being drafted, a (labour) lawyer involved in the process insisted on the insertion of a clause that essentially made all strikes by workers for better working conditions legal. However, the ANC government subsequently passed a law dividing all strikes into protected and unprotected, thus re-establishing the distinction between legal and illegal strikes.

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