Has the sun set on SA mining? – by Sam Ashman and Ben Fine (Independent Online – December 13 2015)


The mining core of South Africa’s economy saw, in 2012, the most explosive and significant strike wave since the defeat of apartheid which challenged the terms of settlement in the industry and the low wage regime on which it rests.

At Marikana, it involved the killing of 34 Lonmin strikers by police on August 16. These events, and the response to them by the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP, starkly revealed key economic and social issues in South Africa today, highlighting how many features of the apartheid system have not been so much preserved as reproduced and even intensified.

Further, the strike wave threw the labour movement into acute crisis as many members of the National Union of Mineworkers led the strike wave by rejecting the union’s politically powerful but industrially conservative leadership. Many workers joined the Association of Mining and Construction Workers Union (Amcu), the rival union formed in 1999.

Now, once more, the industry is in the grip of a crisis, which the media all too often suggests is terminal despite the scale of South Africa’s mineral wealth.

Systemic factors

Against this backdrop, we suggest that there are four systemic factors underpinning events at Marikana and South Africa’s political economy more generally.

Mining starkly exhibits these central features – monopolistic industry structures, tight corporate control, vertical integration, and the co-option of emerging black capitalist interests.

It also reveals the continuing emphasis of post-apartheid economy on exporting minerals over local beneficiation, the diversification of the economy, and greater employment generation.

The first is the nature of South Africa’s extractive economy, highlighted by the notion of the Minerals-Energy Complex (MEC).

The MEC refers to the core set of heavy industries, powerful vested interests and institutions which evolved around minerals extraction and processing and their interaction as a distinctive system of accumulation whose dynamics and linkages have long determined South Africa’s evolving patterns of industrialisation.

Critical actors in the MEC were the six mining houses that grew out of the minerals revolution in the late 19th century, established the migrant labour system, fused with Afrikaner finance capital in the 1960s, and diversified ownership out of the minerals and energy core so that by the 1970s and 1980s they dominated the whole economy.

The concentration of both industrial and finance capital in the MEC core rested both on state support provided for key sectors, particularly through the establishment and development of energy parastatals, and beneficial tariff and pricing policies, combined with extreme exploitation and political oppression of the black majority.

Political settlement

The political settlement of 1994 protected white capital, despite more radical demands from the liberation movement. Since 1996 the ANC has reduced capital and exchange controls and allowed conglomerates to move their primary listings abroad, which they have combined with intensive unbundling at home.

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