Platinum giant Lonmin says it is seeking a swift deal to end a labor dispute that killed 44 people at its South African Marikana mine. Work at the mine remains suspended as most workers stay away.
DW: Professor Bond, how has platinum production in South Africa been affected by the unrest
Patrick Bond: Well, in the first week about 15,000 ounces did not get extracted and one can assume that this week it is probably the same figure. The question is whether there will be a return to work on Monday and whether the illegal wildcat strike ends because of the extraordinary pressure that the company Lonmin is placing on the workers, threatening to fire them. But the counter pressure is very interesting, because now the balance of forces is quite fluid after Thursday's events where the youth league leader Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC, upstaged the other politicians in supporting the workers. The workers are still holding out for a wage of roughly 400 hundred euros ($500) a month. This is the battle over wages, but it is also a battle over politics and whether the other platinum miners will also face such strikes. It depends on how strong the Lonmin strikers remain.
Is this just a short-term phenomenon?
Well it has been building for quite a long time. Over a year ago, the same mine was subject to a strike and two of the other large mining outfits, Implats and Anglo, have also suffered major unrest, and in the case of Implats, a long strike. The fact that South Africa has about 88 percent of the world platinum reserves, producing about three quarters of the reserves with most of that going to the European diesel engine market, is of some importance. The reason is that, because of the European
economic crisis, demand is low, but the supply is quite fragile as it comes from one belt near Johannesburg, stretching up towards Zimbabwe. That means these disruptions do affect the price quite dramatically. So everything is in flux, including a local political economy where people are beginning to ask not just why did the police massacre so many of the workers, apparently on behalf of Lonmin, but does this tell us something about the broader dependencies of the South African economy on a fragile and quite brutal industry?
President Zuma has just set up a commission to investigate the clashes. What effect could its findings have on the world platinum industry?
There are two critical questions for the commission of inquiry. Firstly, what is the orientation of the three judges chosen? They are not well-known judges and if they are judges that basically accept the party line from the police that they did the right thing by killing the workers, then the commission will be discredited. The second big question is the relative scope of the commission's questions – they can obviously ask about the conditions of the mine, they can ask about the community, the environmental and the trade union disputes. But there is also the broader question concerning how Lonmin operates as a company. Is it still, as British Prime Minister Edward Heath called it in 1973 "the unacceptable face of capitalism?" But what the commission isn't really doing is asking these bigger questions that society now has to face. And that is that because we have about the highest protest rate in world, that is protest per person. China is quite high. But South Africa has been at the top for the last seven to eight years, and also because we have the world's worst inequality and because these are so evident in place like Rustenburg, where this is all happening, they may be a much bigger set of questions that a genuine commission of inquiry should investigate. Because this one isn't trusted, because it comes from government, a whole society inquiry should be set up to ask those bigger questions.
Professor Patrick Bond is a political economist at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.
Interviewer: Asumpta Lattus.