IN A HIGHLY significant development, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was forced to abandon his May Day speech and flee for his life in the northwestern city of Rustenburg on Sunday, when striking miners stormed the stage.
The workers, employed by the Sibanye-Stillwater mine, are demanding a wage increase of 1,000 rands ($63) per month instead of the 850 rands ($54) being offered by the mine.
Ramaphosa had decided to mark May Day by giving a speech to union members in Rustenburg, a mining centre.
But he was booed as he started his address with a call for the striking workers and other members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions to calm down and listen to what he had to say.
‘We have heard that you want your 1,000 rands. We will deal with that matter,’ Ramaphosa said as he tried to placate the audience and deliver his speech.
But shortly after that he was forced to give up altogether and flee when the angry miners stormed the field and overwhelmed the police surrounding the stage at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium.
Ramaphosa’s security guards only just managed to whisk him away from the venue.
The striking workers have become angrier and angrier in recent days following the revelation that Sibanye-Stillwater’s CEO, Neal Froneman, received more than 300 million rands ($19m) in 2021 in salary payments and company share schemes.
Rustenburg in the North West province is a tumultuous area for Ramaphosa and South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) party.
Many union members continue to blame them for the Marikana massacre, where 34 miners were shot dead by police during the strike at the Lonmin mine in 2012.
Ramaphosa was a non-executive director of Lonmin at the time.
North West police spokesman Brigadier Sabata Mokgwabone said on Sunday: ‘This disruption led to the event ultimately being called off. The situation is currently stable with no reports of injuries, loss of lives or damage to property.’
Mokgwabone said that the authorities are disappointed in how the events unfolded at the stadium and warned: ‘Decisive action will be taken against anyone who breaks the law or threatens the safety and security of law-abiding citizens in the province.’
Confederation of South African Trades Unions (COSATU) spokesman Sizwe Pamla described what happened as ‘regrettable’, adding: ‘We made it clear to our alliance partners (the ANC government) and they knew exactly what they were walking into because we had been raising these issues with them, saying that on the ground this is what workers are saying.
‘We would have hoped that things turned out differently.’
After the event, Cosatu said on Monday that it would be meeting this week to discuss the status of its fragile alliance with the ANC, saying that the strength and stability of the tripartite alliance will be tested and lead to some questioning the relevance and significance of the tripartite alliance between the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP (South African Communist Party).
Cosatu referred to the chaotic scenes as ‘inevitable’, saying ‘workers are tired of unkept promises’ by the governing party.
Pamla said that the leaders of the tripartite alliance have to address the issues which cause disunity among them.
He said that the trade union federation has called on Ramaphosa to reflect on Sunday’s events as a direct message and warning to the ANC over its failures to address workers’ demands.
Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi said Sunday’s chaotic scenes at the rally in Rustenburg were ‘always likely to happen’.
She said the refusal by angry workers to listen to Ramaphosa’s speech, was ‘inevitable’ and that Cosatu had previously warned the ANC about workers who are getting tired of the governing party’s failed promises.
‘We would always remind the ANC that workers are getting tired. When we went for the local government elections (last November), we warned the ANC.
‘We said workers are fed up, workers are getting tired of the promises that are made but (with) no delivery.’
Since the first week of March, members of National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) have been striking at Sibanye-Stillwater, demanding an increase of R1,000 a month.
Losi said she fully understood why the workers disrupted the president from delivering his speech, adding that they should not be sanctioned for their behaviour.
‘I understand exactly what workers are going through. As the president of Cosatu, I’m not employed by the federation. I have my own workplace where I understand the day-to-day challenges workers are faced with.
‘So, we are not bourgeoisie as we sit here as leaders of trade unions.
‘We have workplaces where we also understand the challenges that workers are faced with.’
Losi said what happened on Sunday must cause Cosatu and its leaders to go back to the drawing board to understand why workers are angry with government.
‘What we saw today is inevitable and perhaps it is good that it has happened because other things could be hidden from us … but what we saw is the real issues that workers are dealing with in the workplace.’
Meanwhile, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) said on Sunday morning that it believes South Africans have no reason to celebrate May Day, declaring that the working class and the poor of this country have reached breaking point.
‘Today’s commemoration of international labour day in South Africa falls against the backdrop of a crippling high unemployment rate which is now at a staggering 35 per cent.
‘Despite the sacrifices made by many during the liberation movement, the black working class in this country continue to struggle.’
- Over 2,000 Sundays River Valley workers and residents gathered at the Steve Tshwete Stadium in Kirkwood last Thursday to discuss the prosecution of their ongoing strike for a R30 wage.
Sundays River Valley Citrus Producers claim they can’t pay the increase that workers are demanding but will continue paying R23.19 an hour.
Almost no citrus fruit has been picked and packed in the region since the strike by thousands of farm workers started two weeks ago on April 20.
The strike follows several days of mass protests by farm workers and residents from Kirkwood and Addo townships, where there have also been a number of violent incidents.
A farmer in the region has claimed that damage to property during the protests is estimated at over R70 million.
Last week, the High Court in Gqeberha granted an interim interdict to farm owners in the Sundays River Valley Municipality seeking to prevent protesting farm workers and leaders of the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) – who have been assisting striking workers – from entering or being within 500 metres of several farms.
Last Thursday, over 2,000 protesting workers and residents filled the stands at the Steve Tshwete Stadium in Kirkwood to discuss the impasse with employers over their demand for a R30 per hour wage hike.
Major roads leading to the stadium were littered with stones and burning tyres.
Before the crowd started discussing the implications of continuing their strike, they held a minute of silence for two strikers who were shot dead during the protest.
SANCO provincial secretary Tony Duba said his organisation would continue discussions with employers’ lawyers to find an amicable solution.
In a statement responding to workers’ demands, the Sundays River Valley Citrus Producers Forum chairperson, Hennie Ehlers, claimed the employers can’t pay the increase, but said that a team has been set up to deal with issues, including wages disputes, in a ‘lawful’ manner ‘to avoid a repeat of the damaging effects of the 2018 protest action’.
Ehlers was referring to a strike four years ago when the farmworkers from Addo and Kirkwood protested and struck against the Sundays River Citrus Producers Forum ‘slave’ wages and victimisation. The workers were then earning less than the South African minimum wage of R20.