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Could We Be About to See a Miners Spring?

The five-week wildcat strike at South Africa's Marikana mine, owned by London-registered corporation Lonmin, ended with an important victory for the miners, which increased wages by between 11 and 22 percent. However, the way that the dispute has stoked the fires of South Africa's miners and brought attention to the shocking living and working conditions which they endure means that the trouble may only just be beginning for the giant mining corporations.

The strike, and the violent repression of the miners, sent shock waves through South African society, caused global outrage, and raised the prospect of a "miners' spring" as wildcat strikes rapidly spread to mines belonging to other companies, including Anglo American Platinum, a subsidiary of the British owned Anglo American, London Stock Exchange registered AngloGold Ashanti, and New York stock exchange-listed Gold Fields.

Up to 100,000 miners are now thought to be on strike in mines throughout the country. And there are signs that the miners' actions are inspiring workers in other sectors to demand better conditions, with oil giant Shell and car manufacturer Toyota amongst the corporations affected.

Mining is South Africa's biggest industry and makes billions of dollars in profits for corporations every year. However, the strike at Marikana has brought to light the grinding poverty and dangerous working conditions endured by workers who toil to produce the wealth of the global mining industry. Many of the miners live in tin shacks which lack basic services, such as water, electricity and sewerage. Martin Hahn, a mining specialist at the International Labour Organisation, has described how dangerous working conditions in South Africa's mines often expose workers to falling rocks, dust, intensive noise, fumes and high temperatures. The victory of the Marikana miners serves as an example for hundreds of thousands of miners, not just within South Africa's borders, but also beyond, as unfair treatment by mining corporations is increasingly questioned.

There has been much talk in the western media of the damage which the strikes are doing to the corporations involved and to the South African economy, with Lonmin arguing that it may have to default on payments and review the long-term sustainability of its operations. Nonetheless, even the most business-friendly observer will appreciate the irony of a company pleading poverty with a turnover last year of £1.2 billion, based on its platinum mining operations in South Africa, while media images show its workers living in squalid conditions and being gunned down live on national television.

Meantime, global financial markets have pressurised the South African government to clamp down on the wave of strikes, and the South African government has been happy to oblige. The influential credit rating agencies Moody's and Standard and Poor's have both downgraded South African debt for the first time since apartheid, both citing the strikes as the key reason for the decision. Moody's referred to the government's "reduced capacity to handle the current political and economic situation". On the stock exchange, the value of shares in Lonmin has fallen by 20 percent since the Marikana massacre.

The reaction of the mining corporations and the government to workers' protests has been one of mass sackings, as well as violence perpetrated by security forces protecting the companies' interests. Even after the slaughter of 34 workers brought global sympathy for the miners' cause and shone attention on the dispute, Lonmin threatened to fire 3000 workers if they did not return to work. On October 4 Anglo Platinum, which made profits of £555 million from its South African mines in 2011, sacked 12,000 striking miners from its largest pit at Rustenburg. The workers were informed via text messages sent to their mobile phones. Meanwhile, strike leaders reported that another miner was killed at the same pit by police when they used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a protest. And last month the workers reported that a miner died after being run over by a police armoured car during violent clashes between the police and striking workers.

It seems, though, that the hostile and violent response of the corporations and the South African government will not be sufficient to quell the unprecedented wave of large-scale workers' resistance, and is in fact pouring fuel on the fire. Sidumo Dlamini, head of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, has said: "What we see happening at Marikana and elsewhere is that workers are essentially demanding a living wage. Workers are simply saying, 'We produce wealth and we want our reasonable share.' And they expect to be given a fair share. This is a reflection of the demands being harbored by millions of our people".

What really worries the corporations and the global financial markets is the prospect of the growing militancy of South African miners -- demanding a living wage which allows them a dignified existence -- not only spreading to other sectors of the economy but also spreading to other countries, in the same way that Tunisian protests lit the touchpaper for the Arab spring last year. In a sign that industrial conflict could spread to the mining industry in neighbouring Zambia, the Chinese manager of the Chinese-owned Collum coalmine was killed by striking workers in another dispute over low pay in August. The Collum mine hit the news in October 2010 when Chinese managers shot and injured eleven protesting miners. It looks as though the strikes spreading throughout South Africa may only represent the beginning of a snowball of workers' resistance unleashed by the massacre of Marikana workers.