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The struggle of the mineworkers is part of the long war waged by the black working class and poor men to regain their self-worth, write Mbuyiselo Botha and Kopano Ratele.
On Father’s Day when many families around the world celebrate the fathers in their lives, Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin miners’ families are likely to have little to celebrate.
They downed tools on January 23 and have been on strike, demanding a basic salary of R12 500 a month.
Instead of the possible joys of fatherhood, which are historically tied to men’s gainful employment and capacity to support a family, this Father’s Day we need reminding of the miners’ emasculation by an unfeeling racialised capitalism that values profits over people.
Although we are aware that fatherhood – as defined by men’s ability to provide materially for their families – is a social construction that can prohibit men from defining fatherhood in other ways, in capitalist societies men without money are looked down upon. Money is central to the definition of what makes men respectable.
While it is not articulated in their demands, the struggle of the black men at the mines is therefore a struggle for them to be looked upon as men who are as worthy as any other.
Without a salary for months, it means there will be no gifts from their children or any form of celebration in their homes.
More likely, they might get further blame from their partners and children and be called irresponsible men and fathers, who should not have embarked on such a protracted industrial action to demand what they believe they deserve for the hazardous work they do.
However, it is important to realise that the miners’ strike is also a contestation between capitalist white masculinities and poor black masculinities.
Failure to see the demands of the miners as part of the long struggle for black men to be seen as worthy men does an injustice to their stand against an unjust system that seeks to make them feel inferior.
Implats chief executive, Chris Griffiths, was the one who suggested the connection between demands for a better salary and men’s worth.
He said that in contrast to his salary of more than R17 million last year, the men who risked their lives every time they went underground were not even worth R12 500.
While he subsequently apologised for his remarks, the point was already made that the men – because all they do is sweat and work in uncomfortable conditions – are more worthless than those of us who sit in meetings dealing with “complexity”.
We might ask whether highly paid golfers, rugby players, footballers, boxers and sprinters – who cannot be said to do complex jobs – deserve the millions they earn.
It is not really about the so-called complexity, just a capitalist lie that black workers who use muscles to dig for precious metals do not deserve to be paid a decent salary.
Miners in other parts of the world – Australia, for example – because they are mainly white, are paid far better than their South African counterparts, who in the main are black.
It is not hard to see the racial aspects of the platinum miners’ strike. Notwithstanding the public relations efforts by the government, it is not easy to realise that President Jacob Zuma’s government would be relieved if the miners caved in to capitalist pressure and unethical tactics to undermine their demands.
When we learn to identify with the men’s pain and steadfastness in the face of hunger, we begin to understand some of the violence that characterised the strike and the violent incidents in the men’s homes and their communities.
We are not for a moment justifying violence. But it would be convenient to be blind to the mine executives upholding the structural violence of capital that produces miners’ violence.
Their struggle is part of the struggle of the black working-class and poor men to regain their dignity and self-worth in the face of a system that focuses more on the bottom line for shareholders and less on human welfare and building society.
If we imagined South Africa after colonial and apartheid capitalism to be a caring society, we have not shown sympathetic outrage and empathy towards the men, who also have families to support.
While there is often outrage about the failings of the ANC government, we seem to be unmoved by what powerful mining interests can do to the powerless. We seem to accept the view that miners deserve low wages while their bosses are entitled to obscene salaries.
If we were able to express intense feelings against the outrageous expenditure on Zuma’s house in Nkandla, we ought to be scandalised by the salaries of the executives at the platinum mines or other industries, when compared to miners’ wages.
If there is a positive lesson to be drawn from the protracted strike, it is that the struggle of the men at Marikana for a decent wage is inextricably intertwined with the struggle for liveable black masculinity.
It is becoming clear that the struggle to persuade black men to support gender equality cannot be separated from the struggle for material and racial equality.
If we continue to delink the struggles of black men for a better salary and ignore the economic inequalities that characterise society, we increase the risk of failing to convince black men of the value of gender equality.
Gender equality without the economic liberation of the black poor and working class must sound meaningless to them.
A decent salary is not only necessary to feed their children and send them to school, but is also a buffer against the pain that most black men go through as they try to make meaning of their lives in what is turning out to be a confusing freedom.
If being a father is tied to the fact that a man should provide for children, the capitalism that refuses to reward the miners fairly denies them an important avenue towards the fulfilment of being the worthy men that a capitalist society requires.
As we mark Father’s Day, let us take a moment to reflect on the pain that the black men – and others who earn slave wages and live in abject poverty – might be going through.
* Mbuyiselo Botha is a gender activist and Kopano Ratele is a professor at Unisa. See www.genderjustice.org.za.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.