According to the ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, those responsible for “the anarchy that is happening in the platinum industry” are the “Swedes and Irish”. It was a comment that left many commentators dumbstruck.
Citizens of Sweden and Ireland seemed a rather strange choice as scapegoats to take the place of the former “counter-revolutionaries” of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). But Amcu, certainly over the past week or two, no longer fits the scapegoat bill: the ANC has stated that earlier pro-National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and anti-Amcu comments by prominent ANC figures had been “resolved”; Amcu and NUM were now regarded equally.
But why the use of “Swedes and Irish”? Some commentators saw in this parallels with the apartheid government’s claims of “foreign agitators” and “white communists” being behind the mass uprisings against their regime.
However, the consensus view was probably summed up by mining analyst Peter Major. He felt that Mantashe was indulging in pre-election “politicking” and should “quit trying to manufacture people from outside the country” to explain the complex problems in the industry.
The problems are indeed complex and Mantashe’s remarks probably do belong, on one level, to the category of opportunistic politicking and spin.
But there is also a history involved and, especially for many members of the SACP, he conjured up a spectre from South Africa’s trade union past – and this at a time when political rivalry and fears about the 2014 election are growing.
Mantashe’s comments also seem to be part of the desire by the ANC-led alliance to try not only to mend bridges with Amcu, but to ensure that this now major player on the union front does not end up either forming or supporting a rival left-wing workers’ party. This is a particular concern of the SACP, which is formally acknowledged by Cosatu as “the [only] workers’ party”.
But as with most political spin, there is also an element of fact amid the fiction. So Mantashe did not have to manufacture people: a few individuals, related in some way to the platinum belt, do exist to provide a veneer of credibility to his claims.
He noted that “it is a Swedish citizen who is at the centre of the anarchy”. This was a clear reference to Liv Shange, a member of the small Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), which has been quite active helping to organise workers on the platinum belt.
A slight, blonde woman, she made it onto television screens and newspaper pages when, megaphone in hand, she addressed hundreds of striking miners.
Her gender and complexion made her more newsworthy than other socialists who were – and remain – more active among miners, especially in the platinum sector. Mametlwe Sebei and Elias Juba, who are both more prominent in the Rustenburg area, have attracted little media attention. But, like Shange, they are members of the DSM, which was, until 1996, the Marxist Workers’ Tendency (MWT) inside the ANC.
The three are also members of the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), launched earlier this year. The general secretary of Wasp is a former SA Municipal Workers’ Union and ANC organiser, Weizman Hamilton.
There was also an Irish connection at the Wasp launch in the form of Joe Higgins, a Socialist Party member of the Irish parliament who has long had connections with South Africa and with the local union movement. The presence of Higgins and the involvement of long-time activists such as Hamilton gave Wasp a degree of credibility as a potential political contender: history seemed to be repeating itself.
For some 30 years, the MWT was a thorn in the side of the ANC and formed part of a challenge to the dominance of the SACP over the main labour movement. The challenge came in the demand for an independent workers’ party.
An often forgotten fact is that the SACP initially opposed the formation of Cosatu, insisting instead that the self-exiled SA Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) was “the only true representative of South African workers”. However, reality quickly overcame ideological certainty; Cosatu was recognised and Sactu dissolved. But the battle about an independent workers’ party subsided only after 1993.
“Now I think there is something of the ghost of the past coming to haunt them,” said Shange, speaking from her family home in northern Sweden, where she is holidaying with her 14-year-old step-daughter and her own son and daughter, aged five and eight. She is booked to return to South Africa on July 14, but has been told by the South African embassy that she lacks “the proper papers”.
A former Socialist Justice Party councillor in her home town, Shange is married to a South African and has lived in the country for the past 10 years.
“I had a spousal visa that was in the passport I lost when I was mugged in 2010,” she said. Attempts to get the visa re-issued proved fruitless because “they couldn’t find my file”. She suspects she may now be a victim of political persecution, but feels that the loss of the file could just as easily be a matter of bureaucratic bungling.
Yesterday she was still trying to gain permission from the South African embassy in Stockholm to return to South Africa. “The children have to start school on July 15,” she said, adding that it was “ridiculous that any single individual or group can be responsible” for events in the mining sector.
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa concurs: “Workers organise as workers irrespective of religious and political affiliations or whatever,” he says. Amcu, he insists, is politically non-aligned.
“Politics is for politicians [although] we know our opponents would like to associate us with particular political structures to calm their guilty consciences.”
So while religious and political evangelism continues, among unionists as well as in wider society, Amcu will remain “apolitical”. “This is our position and we shall not be persuaded otherwise.”