Lonmin, slavery and normality
So I met some people who work in finance. Work hard, get some money and then get out. Maybe even before 45. Support your family. Etc. Then I read the story about Lonmin (London Mining, gettit?). And I thought, ‘but what would you be investing and trading in while you earn that money?’
If you missed the story – it’s all on the Guardian website. Platinum miners in South Africa go on strike, demanding a threefold increase in their £300-a-month wages. Bosses don’t want this to happen. Fight with some scabs and police leave 2 police and 8 other people dead. Later, police kill 34 and arrest 259.
In light of the tragedy, President Zuma declares national mourning (desperate to keep up his ratings?) and Lonmin in an unprecedented act of capitalist generosity give the strikers one more day to decide that they should give up and go back to work / get sacked. It’s a free world, guys!
Lonmin’s executive vice-president even mentioned the word ‘tragedy’ but was quick to add “we need to try to return to some kind of normality as we go through that healing process.” Normality – by which he means white men in offices exploiting black men working up to 14 hours a day to mine a strange and rare metal. What is this normality? Can we really return to that? Most years, according to figures presented here by George J. Paulos , (Editor/Publisher of the exciting sounding Freebuck.com, “a website devoted to wealth preservation and enhancement … using precious metals”) Platinum’s largest use is jewelry (2520 oz in 2001), slightly more than in catalytic converters (2360 oz in 2001). These are easily the two biggest uses for it. In order to obtain it in the tiny amounts that are available (Lonmin’s target for the year, a target they seem highly unlikely to achieve, is 750,000 ounces), Lonmin employs 35,000 people, who, if they were to distribute the work equally among themselves,would need to dig up 21 ounces each per annum . About 4/5ths of the platinum supply in the world is mined in South Africa. Most of the rest in Russia.
So this is the normality Lonmin want to return to. From The Guardian again, the words of Thembelani Khonto, 24:
“Lonmin treat us like dogs. When you’re underground, it’s like you’re a slave and they don’t know you. But on the surface people who don’t do anything in offices are earning more than us.”
Of course, if you try to do more than just whinge about it, this is what happens: a complication of the race-class divide. As KRS One noted in Apartheid times: “Black slave turned black cop is not logical / But very psychological, haven’t you heard? / It’s the black cops killing black kids in Johannesburg.”
So a test case for capitalism. Can we accept a system where Lonmin will not back down and give the workers a bit more money, reducing the salary of the “surface people” (Chief Exec Ian Farmer earned £1.2 million last year) to accommodate the extra expense? Where investors in platinum see the price of their investment shoot up the longer the strike continues.
Of course not. Will it change? er… um … well… Maybe Lonmin will see sense. Stalinists in – or expelled from – the ANC hope for the company to fold and the mine to be renationalised. Better working conditions, reinvest some of the profits in health and education and welfare. Make yourself president forever. Parts of South America might give you something like that. Or of course we could decide we’ve got enough cars and nicely made shiny things and leave the platinum in the ground. Work less and do more useful things – sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, art.
‘A 22-year-old woman, who did not wish to be named, had lost a loved one in the shooting. “He was shot in cold blood,” she said. “My tears have not dried; I cried all day. I’m worried about things like who’s going to feed the kids he left behind. No one is going to give the love to his children like their father.”‘
Come on, investors and traders, chief executives and executive vice-presidents, don’t you think these guys deserve a break?