5 November 2012. A World to Win News Service. The cold-blooded murder of 34 striking miners at the Lonmin platinum mine near Rustenburg, in the country's Northwest Province on 16 August, sent shockwaves around the world. The international media was incredulous that such a thing could occur in what is often touted as Africa's star democracy, 18 years after the end of apartheid was negotiated.
While violent deaths of poor blacks are still very common in South Africa, where the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest on the planet, this was a massacre by special forces very likely acting on orders from the top of the African-National Congress-led (ANC) state in a planned military-style operation.
Even before the accusations and counter-accusations began to unfold, together with the discovery that many miners were shot in the head or back at close range that day, it was difficult to avoid a flood of memories of the repressive apartheid state machine, for which assassination and gunning down blacks as a form of "crowd control" were a key pillar of white minority rule until 1994.
I. What happened at Marikana?
Accounts of what happened at Marikana vary widely, and that is part of the drama behind the 16 August massacre.* The previous week, on 10 August, a contingent of miners marched to the local office of the National Union of Mineworkers in Marikana to demand that the NUM take up their call for a strike. These workers, mainly men, work 800 to 1,000 meters underground and earn between 4,000 and 6,000 South African rand (ZAR) ($480 to $730 U.S.D.) net per month. Their primary demand was a wage increase to 12,500 ZAR ($1400) a month gross, but years of exploitation, dangerous working conditions, very poor living conditions and frustration all combined to erupt in the form of a wildcat strike.
The NUM rebuffed them, reportedly by insisting they return to work and go through the proper collective bargaining procedures under its auspices. Later many eyewitnesses described in detail how several armed NUM officials came out of their offices to break up the march and fired on the workers, killing two of them. From there tensions escalated and so did the strike. On 13 August police shot at a group of strikers walking to another Lonmin mine nearby to enlist the support of workers there. The police killed two or three workers, while the workers reportedly killed two policemen with their traditional weapons.
Led by 3,000 men, mostly rock drill operators, miners occupied the small rocky hills called koppies near the Marikana mine, where they spent several days and nights, meeting and planning the strike, singing struggle songs, wooden sticks in the air. They refused to talk with local NUM leaders and mine management refused to negotiate with them.
As one person summarized events that week before the massacre, "Mine owners called in the nyalas (armoured police vehicles), and police were beating up people in the settlements. NUM officials were collaborating with the police and the strikers chased the NUM shop-steward types out of the townships. The strikers banded together for protection." During the skirmishes that week two security guards were also killed in a nearby mine village, as part of 10 deaths that preceded the massacre.
The national SA police spokesman announced that 16 August was going to be "D-day". Lonmin's representative constantly repeated on TV that the strike was illegal and the company wouldn't meet with "criminals". On 16 August, a South African Council of Churches delegation tried to negotiate the conflict but Lonmin management refused to meet with them also. Just as the church delegation was leaving the area they heard bursts of gunfire. They got a cell phone call from one of the strikers who asked, "Where are you? They are shooting us". Then the phone line went dead.
Heavily armed special forces – including a Tactical Reaction Unit, a National Intervention Unit, a Special Task Force and regular police – backed up by 62 armoured vehicles set up a razor wire barrier in front of the largest hill. As the miners came down, apparently planning to return to the settlement, police opened fire with automatic weapons amid a cloud of tear gas that partially obscured their assault. In a matter of minutes, 34 miners lay dead. This was the scene shown in the initial video of the shootings broadcast around the world.
Some reports say that the police vehicles then rolled over and crushed the bodies of those who hadn't died instantly. It was revealed later that most of the 34 who died were not killed in the initial attack filmed on video. A different story emerged after journalists and activists went to the scene and spoke directly with survivors and their families and filmed the blood on the rocks on two smaller koppies. While helicopters fired tear gas from above to immobilize other groups of miners hiding on the back side of the main hill, police also attacked on foot, approaching one after another of the miners and apparently killing them at point blank range. Some witnesses testified that several men were also shot through the head from the circling helicopters.
Police rapidly collected cell phones to get numbers and identities of strikers. A young miner who escaped death had found the phone of his friend crushed by a police vehicle. When he opened his hand, there was nothing but a flattened piece of metal.
In addition to the murdered miners, more than 80 were injured and 279 were arrested, 150 of whom said they were beaten in custody.
According to Lonmin management, 95 percent of its 28,000 mineworkers didn’t report for work.
Who is responsible? Because of the intense political fall-out, this is a question that the ANC government and its institutions and organizations are ducking even after officially defending the police. A Commission of Inquiry is under way. Much of the controversy hovers around the way in which the massacre went down and the lies, cover-up and political stakes nationally and internationally, but also the justice of the demands of these platinum miners or whether they were being "too greedy", as one headline screamed.
The militant confrontation with big corporate mine owners, the police, the ANC government and its unions ignited a wave of strikes not just across South Africa's platinum belt, but in gold, chrome and iron ore mines as well. An estimated 80-100,000 mineworkers in at least a dozen companies have gone on strike for varying durations between 10 August and early November. But the contagion spread further. Thousands of truck drivers quickly followed suit in a three-week union-backed strike and in KwaZulu-Natal Province 3,800 clothing workers, paid below the minimum, demanded a ‘living wage'. Apparently nearly 200,000 government employees also threatened to walk out, their union said.
Originally the conflict in Marikana was presented as just a turf war between rival unions, but as the story began to unravel, not just the repression but the politics of the ANC and its national trade union confederation (COSATU, which includes the National Union of Mineworkers) came under attack. Because NUM, the dominant union in the mines since the ANC took power, did not support the miners' strike, the workers quickly cast aside NUM's authority. As a result, a section of its membership shifted to the independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and refused to talk to NUM. COSATU, the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), all part of the ruling tri-partite political alliance, at first condemned the "violent illegal strike", calling it the work of "anarchists" (i.e. non-ANC). As one activist remarked, "NUM is 'king of the hill' inside COSATU", so this rebellion sent tremors throughout the ANC alliance.
The massacre provoked immediate and widespread outrage throughout the country and the world. People from every social class and in every corner of the country have been debating the massacre, the strikes and the media coverage. Initially murder charges were brought against the arrested miners, employing an old apartheid "common purpose" law under which they were held responsible for the deaths of their own comrades at the hands of the police, but the National Prosecuting Authority quickly dropped them after a national and international outcry. In some cities as well as in the Rustenburg area solidarity demonstrations were held.
The ANC was losing sleep over threats to its legitimacy, its image and frankly, its future. Along with investors, it kept a worried eye on the stock exchange, where precious metals dipped. Stock prices jumped back up again when both sides in the strike reached an uneasy settlement a few weeks later.
II. Life for miners in the platinum belt
A large number of the platinum miners – and of these strikers – are migrant labourers from poor rural areas of the Eastern Cape Province, those ethnically segregated reserves for the black population known as bantustans under apartheid rule. Many funerals were held in the former Transkei and it was reported that the common language of the strikers was Xhosa rather than Tswana, spoken in the Northwest Province where the mines are. Partially to get around labour laws, mine owners often hire workers through centralized labour brokers rather than directly.
This practice drives down wages and expectations and preys on the highly vulnerable unemployed rural poor from outside the area, partly in order to foster divisions among workers.
Those hired by labour brokers often don't get benefits or allowances for housing or healthcare. Many miners can't afford to live even in the more established black townships nearby because they must send money home each month to support their families in the rural areas – the reason they travelled so far to get a job in the first place. So they have little choice but to live in the hated single-sex mine hostels or in dense settlements of shacks. Many shacks don't even have windows for fear of being robbed. One miner at Lonmin who buried his brother back in the Eastern Cape after the massacre, said he and his father, also a miner, support 18 people back home between them.
Two days before the shootings a report released by the Bench Marks Foundation, an NGO of the SA Council of Churches, detailed the still appalling living conditions of platinum miners and warned that if they weren't improved further uprisings were likely. Sanitation is terrible and clean water often not available, partly due to environmental pollution caused by the mines. Townships and informal settlements sprawl around the stark, dry landscape, in sharp contrast to the multi-billion dollar operations around Rustenburg, with high-tech security and CCTV monitors to control theft by miners.
Even if mine wages have increased since the days of apartheid, daily life for miners remains hard and dangerous. Safety hazards are many, from falling rocks to high noise and temperature levels. The constant exposure to fumes and platinum dust over time often results in permanent skin and respiratory complications associated with a disease called platinosis. If you add in the reality of non-existent or chronically under-serviced health facilities and extremely rudimentary living conditions, it's not a job to envy. Yet at least it is a job, in a country where unemployment is more that 25 percent, often reaching more than 70 percent in the former bantustans, which are easy recruiting grounds for labour brokers.
Social conditions are intolerable too and women bear much of the brunt. One miner told a reporter, "There's nothing to do here but work, get drunk and use prostitutes". Speaking in front of the dusty shack settlement outside the mine shafts where she lives, one unemployed woman in the area, also from the Eastern Cape, said that although she passed the entrance test for the mine, she was not hired because she refused to provide sexual services in return and didn't have the money for a bribe to be put on the hiring list. She also recounted how many men didn't want their wives or girlfriends to work underground "because they know what goes on down there".
III. The imperialist mine owners and the ANC led-state
These conditions are not so different from those suffered by miners working for mainly international mineral extraction companies during long decades of apartheid and settler colonialism. At the same time, semi-protective labour laws have now been passed.
South Africa's mines are and always have been a key artery to the imperialist world. Exploitation of minerals and the forced harnessing of black labour to work the mines through accelerated land dispossession and colonial tax laws began back in the 1860s with the discovery of gold and diamonds. Platinum, used primarily in automobile catalytic converters, but also jewellery, was discovered only in the 1920s in the Northwest. Three giant mining corporations – Anglo Platinum (Amplats),** Lonmin and Impala Platinum (Implats) operate dozens of shafts in the Northwest Province, where 80 percent of the world's platinum is mined.
These groups mainly comprising international capital have added a few hand-picked black businessmen and women to their boards. Their participation in shareholding was financed in large part by the mining companies themselves to fulfil racial diversity expectations. And the role of the mainly black ruling party, the ANC, has been key in facilitating the slightly modernized exploitation of South Africa's raw materials since the end of white minority rule.
Picture this example: Lonmin, the world's number three platinum producer, has a license issued by the SA government to run its operations until 2037, renewable until 2067. Who sits on their board as a "non-executive" director? Cyril Ramaphosa, a long-standing ANC "comrade" and prominent member of its National Executive Committee, its highest leading organ. As a representative of the bridge between the ANC and the private sector, he was a top contender to become the ANC's presidential candidate in 2009 before Jacob Zuma was chosen instead. Ramaphosa used to head up the NUM and helped build the COSATU federation under the ANC's wing. He became one of South Africa's handful of black super-rich, derogatorily called "Black Diamonds" created through the Black Economic Empowerment programme that aimed to promote black-owned businesses. That scheme enabled him to invest in land and build up his own investment holding company with shares in resources (minerals), financial services, property, infrastructure, energy and food and beverages.
So behind the Marikana massacre, you can connect the dots of the kind of populist bourgeois democracy that reliably serves imperialist interests and national capitalists alike (some black, but mostly still white): brutal repression carried out by the state's special police forces; ANC political leaders with direct financial interests in mining; ANC-led unions fighting with independent ones and trying to dissuade mineworkers from striking for higher wages while signing a "peace agreement" with management (which most strikers refused to recognize); and, from the central government, a warning from the Public Enterprises minister that prolonged labour unrest will undermine investor confidence and lead to losses in jobs.
In other words, while the lion's share of profits are going to Lonmin's imperialist pockets and while they and other corporate interests are by far the major players in the industry, the collaborative political role of the ANC government and its direct and indirect linkages with the private sector – still mainly in white hands – provide the necessary lubricant for this capitalist machine to properly function. In addition, the populist face of the ANC in power laments and "empathises with" the deep inequalities that blacks continue to suffer from the colonial past and offers reform salves for these wounds. When it came to governance in 1994 the ANC pledged to eliminate poverty, unemployment and racial injustice, redress white monopoly land ownership and provide universal education, healthcare and other services – all without uprooting the system that causes all this misery. Although this social reform plan has been nuanced somewhat over time, such promises were at the heart of the ANC's Redistribution and Development Programme, or RDP, merged into a neo-liberal framework.
But very little has changed for the poor in South Africa since 1994, especially in the countryside. The ANC-led state has not been able to re-wire capitalist growth for the benefit of the oppressed black population, nor did its neo-liberalizing economists ever really believe this was possible. If anything, alongside the new black middle class, especially visible in the cities, the gap between rich and poor has grown.
Social discontent took root long ago. This recent strike wave among miners followed a series of public sector strikes. After numerous police crackdowns and a couple of deaths, service delivery protests subsided in some areas, only to pop off again in others. In September 2012 workers hired by one of the large labour broker companies targeted a local power station, burning buses and other vehicles. Following numerous demonstrations against cuts in education, technical school campuses in Pretoria were closed in August 2012 as students blocked entrances with burning tyres and boycotted classes to protest the lack of accommodation and financial aid. Although organised social movements and protests tend to be issue-oriented with their ups and downs, different forms of this malaise can be seen almost everywhere in South Africa, spanning different political viewpoints, social expectations and understandings of the system and the state.
The ANC's triangular political alliance (ANC-SACP-COSATU) plays an important role in helping the state stabilise an otherwise potentially much more volatile black population which expected not just more services and infrastructure but a major change in the whole social order that would be different from apartheid.
The South African Communist Party, formerly a pro-Soviet party, set its sails towards the West and accepted aid and sponsorship from several imperialist countries when state capitalism in the Soviet Union collapsed. Now they debate the shortcomings of the capitalist system as a close ally of the ANC in power, helping to preside over this murderous and unjust system that was flexible enough to do away with formal apartheid laws and give black people the right to vote in 1994. Through its writings the SACP also continues to try to lend theoretical and political substance to a hollow national liberation programme that in reality always represented little more than an agenda for political compromise and sharing power within the existing bourgeois state – exactly what the masses got.
Although it was the defiant, decades-long struggle of the people that brought apartheid to its knees, and the ANC was part of the anti-apartheid movement, there was no revolution of any kind in 1994. The power-sharing deal between the ANC and the ruling apartheid National Party was the outcome of lengthy negotiations brokered by the West. Many of those South Africans who bought into the demagogy and helped build the trade unions today deeply resent what they see as its betrayal.
Now the political forces grouped around the ANC are feeling the sting of public opinion reacting to the Marikana massacre from a variety of points of view. In an editorial following the massacre, after tracing the history of exploitation of black workers in South Africa, the SACP deputy secretary-general expressed his indignation that charges of "authoritarianism" were being directed against such a democratic state with such a democratic constitution. He pleaded with people not to "demonize" the alliance because of the Marikana events.
The political cracks in the ANC's rule are widening and its true nature as servants of the parasitic capitalist class has been made more visible to many. As one observer commented, "People see COSATU-ANC as part of the same system that is oppressing them and are protecting the capitalist interests. Not just in the mines. Those people have become oppressors themselves. It's taken a number of years for people to see it but as time moves on, the interests of these black capitalists will also become clearer to them."
Naturally opposition parties are lapping up every false step of the ANC government for their own potential gain, constantly repeating charges of corruption and inept administration. And all is not well within the ANC alliance itself, which the Marikana massacre has further strained. As the ANC heads into its national congress in December 2012 that will decide whether to continue with Jacob Zuma or replace him, factions are vying over how to revitalize its posture for more social reform while pushing ahead with the neoliberal agenda and what it requires.
One rift involves Julius Malema, former leader of the ANC youth league who was recently kicked out of the party and is now facing prosecution for money laundering. Fist in the air, he also jumped into the miners' conflict as a platform for his dispute with the ANC leadership. A favourite distraction for the South African media, Malema (renown for, among other exploits, eating sushi off half-naked women's bellies at an ANC nightclub), has his own ambitions in national politics, so his timely denunciation of Zuma's "handling of the crisis" boosted his following, at least temporarily, particularly among ANC youth.
IV. Tensions continue to run high
With the murders and funerals of their comrades hanging heavily in the air, miners rejected several wage offers that did not meet their demands for 12,500 ZAR / month during more than four weeks of negotiations and continued skirmishes with the police, reinforced by army troops in Marikana, sent to prevent further political meetings and demonstrations. On 18 September Lonmin finally agreed to an unprecedented 22 percent wage increase. That gave rock drill operators 11,078 ZAR*** ($12,275) per month before numerous deductions, and general miners 9,611 ZAR, up from 8,164 ZAR. Most Lonmin miners returned to work two days later
A planned four-month long inquiry has begun and more ugly details of this mass execution are likely to emerge. But not without a struggle. On 2 November strike leaders who had presented initial testimony and were returning to their township were stopped by a police barricade. Lawyers reported that police put a hood over their heads and told them that if they talked they would be shot.
The Lonmin settlement came far too late to stop the spark to many other platinum mines, as well as chrome, iron ore, and especially gold mines.
In particular, after the massacre 15,000 miners at Goldfields' KDC West shaft sent the NUM packing in a dramatic sequel to Marikana, demanding similar wage increases. They were followed shortly afterwards by 24,000 miners at AngloAshanti Gold. On 2 November that company announced it was suspending its operations at two mines. More than 8,000 of the striking workforce at KDC East were then fired, and dismissal appeals are pending.
Twelve thousand striking workers from four Anglo Platinum (Amplats) mines in Rustenburg have been out for seven weeks and are still refusing to return without a hefty wage increase. In an effort to get tough, to "draw a line in the sand" and break miners' will and expectations after the Lonmin deal, management dismissed them all, before offering to reinstate them later in the month; some speculate that this is to wipe out benefits built-up and avoid severance pay. Strikers marched on NUM offices to withdraw their membership and on 30 October instead of returning to work they built barricades with rocks, logs and burning tyres, blocking fire engines and confronting a police helicopter, water cannons and several armoured vehicles. A power sub-station was set on fire at the Khuseleka shaft in Rustenburg and the NUM office was also targeted. "We won't go to work until we get what we want", one miner said. "Our kids have been shot at, our families have been terrorised and brutalised, but we are not going back to work."
* The article "Hunted like Beasts" by investigative photojournalist Greg Marinovich (Daily Maverick, Mail & Guardian) more or less corroborates the brief summary here, based on his and the accounts of several others who went to the Rustenburg area during or after the massacre, spending time at the sites where the miners were killed and collecting stories from eyewitnesses or from those who escaped death that day; much of it has been avoided by the mainstream media because of the pure police terror it implies.
** Amplats is owned by the infamous conglomerate, Anglo-American, whose massive global wealth accumulation is tightly intertwined with its sordid history of exploiting black workers under apartheid rule.
*** Up from 9,063 ZAR before the strike, which after deductions came to between 4-5,000 ZAR. The Mail & Guardian reported that many workers didn't understand their pay slip, it was so confusing.
Sources: Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Sunday Times, The Sowetan, Daily Maverick, Bench Marks Foundation, iafrica, Forbes, Lonmin, Amplats, a wide range of political organisations' websites and many other press accounts.
Thanks to several comrades who contributed to this article.
- end item-