Fuel and food supplies are beginning to run out as labour violence escalates in South Africa, leaving its ruling party facing a mounting national economic crisis while it is paralyzed by a leadership struggle.
The wildcat strikes are inflicting heavy damage on some of the world’s biggest gold and platinum producers in a country that remains Africa’s economic powerhouse. South Africa is the world’s biggest platinum producer and the fifth-biggest gold producer.
Two more people were reported murdered on the weekend in Marikana, the platinum mining town where 34 protesters were gunned down by police in August.
The labour unrest could become more chaotic this week as rail and port workers threaten to join 28,000 truckers whose strike has already disrupted fuel and food deliveries across South Africa, leaving some gas stations out of supplies, bank machines running out of cash and supermarkets suffering shortages of some products.
One oil company, Shell, has declared “force majeure” and said it cannot honour fuel-delivery contracts in Johannesburg, the biggest city. About 30 per cent of gas stations have run out of at least one type of fuel product, according to reports on Sunday.
Scores of trucks have been torched by truckers in their two-week strike. Dozens of drivers have been injured, often pelted with stones or pulled from their vehicles.
One South African newspaper, City Press, is using the banner headline “Strike Nation” to describe the crisis. But despite the clashes, the ruling African National Congress has seemed unable to respond, distracted by an internal leadership battle that will culminate in a conference in December to decide whether President Jacob Zuma keeps his job.
Mr. Zuma and the ANC have close links to the labour movement, and they rely on unions for key political support, which makes them reluctant to take action against the latest wave of strikes. But the wildcat strikes are outflanking the mainstream unions, radicalizing many workers and leaving the big unions scrambling to catch up.
Wage negotiations with the truckers and miners are expected to resume this week, and settlements are possible. But the violence and illegal strikes have shaken South Africa’s reputation and exposed its persistent inequalities. Eighteen years after the end of apartheid, it remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with widespread poverty and unemployment in a country where most whites still have comfortable incomes.
About 60 people have died in strike-related violence in the mining sector this year. Several of the latest victims were shop stewards of the National Union of Mineworkers, closely affiliated with the ANC, which is accused by some mineworkers of being too moderate.
South Africa could be facing disastrous economic consequences from the strikes, analysts warn. Its currency, the rand, has suffered its worst weekly decline in more than a year.
Many mining companies are expected to close shafts or reduce employment in the wake of the strikes. Some have already lost $70-million to $80-million in revenue as a result of the strikes. The country’s debt has been downgraded by ratings agencies, and a full percentage point could be shaved off its growth rate this year.
Chrome mining companies and major automakers have also been hit by illegal strikes this month. And the port and rail strike, if it happens, could further damage the country’s exports and imports.
Mining companies have been split in their response to the wildcat strikes. The world’s biggest platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), broke ranks with other companies on Friday by announcing the firing of 12,000 of its 28,000 striking workers, sparking threats of more violence from some angry miners.
The ANC Youth League, which is seeking to topple Mr. Zuma from the party leadership, said it was outraged by the dismissals and predicted it would heighten tensions in the country.
“Amplats is a disgrace and a disappointment to the country at large, a representation of white monopoly capital, out of touch and uncaring of the plight of the poor,” the Youth League said in a statement.
Another leading producer, Lonmin, caved in to the strikers last month and gave them a 22 per cent wage hike after a six-week illegal strike. The hefty increase has sparked similar demands by many other workers in the mines and elsewhere. The truckers are seeking a 12 per cent wage increase for each of the next two years, more than double the inflation rate.
In the latest killings in Marikana on the weekend, one victim was the cousin of a shop steward in the National Union of Mineworkers. The union said the cousin was shot dead by gunmen who burst into the steward’s home, in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
A branch leader of the same union was killed on Friday. The union called it a deliberate assassination, saying the leader was scheduled to be a key witness in a government inquiry into the killing of 34 protesters in Marikana on Aug. 16.
A day earlier, a miner was reported killed in clashes with police at the Amplats mining site at Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg. Workers said the man was killed when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the strikers.