Not a lot has changed for South Africa’s 500,000 miners since the end of apartheid. Most days, a miner is killed as he labours in unsafe conditions to extract precious metals for sale by the mining corporations. Today, members of the 270,000-strong Miners Union of South Africa stage a 24-hour strike against the rising death toll. Some 201 miners have been killed in accidents so far this year, compared with 199 for the whole of 2006.
The union expects some 40,000 members to march on the Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg, which includes famous names like AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Anglo Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin. South African miners produce three-quarters of the world's platinum and more than a 10th of its gold in shafts that are up to 3.78 kilometres underground.
South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki ordered a safety audit of the country's mines after 3,200 workers were temporarily trapped at Harmony Gold Mining’s Elandsrand operation in October, but the death rate has continued to rise. Despite ever-rising prices for precious metals, especially gold and platinum, the owners have failed to invest in improved safety measures.
The owners know that there is a massive pool of unemployed workers ready to work in dangerous conditions, especially in mines where the union is not strong. Those who extract the fabulous wealth that lies underground, just like the poor workers in the townships, are treated with contempt, or are at best targets for token acts of charity while the mine owners and the country’s ruling political elite live off the fruits of their labour.
Miners are not the only South African workers battling for a decent standard of living 17 years after the ending of apartheid. In Cape Town, work is underway on a showpiece new stadium for the 2010 World Cup. It is a 68,000-seat arena within sight of the notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandel was imprisoned for years under the apartheid regime. The city’s newest icon has already been the subject of strikes and protests.
The government is spending R420bn [£30.1bn] on the 2010 World Cup and related infrastructure projects. Fifa is making a big show of providing affordable tickets for the poor. It has announced that the cheapest tickets for games will be sold only to South Africa residents for about $20, and a further 120,000 will be given away to the lowest paid. But even at $20, tickets are beyond the reach of ordinary workers who are building the stadium. So the World Cup is simply another profit-making bonanza for contractors and the media.
President Mbeki and his deputy Jacob Zuma are presently engaged in a struggle for the leadership of the ANC at its conference later this month. Zuma’s left demagogy has won him widespread backing, despite his pro-business policies and association with corruption. Today’s one-day strike is an indication that the working class needs to go beyond the ANC and its grip on power to carry through the social revolution against capitalist corporations.