by BENJAMIN FOGEL, CounterPunch
“Two hundred thousand subterranean heroes who, by day and by night, for a mere pittance lay down their lives to the familiar `fall of rock` and who, at deep levels, ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 feet in the bowels of the earth, sacrifice their lungs to the rock dust which develops miners’ phthisis and pneumonia.”
– Sol Plaatjie, first Secretary of the African National Congress, describing the lives of black miners in 1914
Last week’s massacre of 34 striking workers in Marikana, marks perhaps the lowest point in post-Apartheid South African history. Poor, black working class miners were shot down like animals, killed for profit. South Africa remains possibly the most unequal society in the world – the black majority still faces a life of poverty and toil, if they are lucky enough to even find work; while the still largely white elite, enjoy a life more familar to the suburbs of Atlanta or Los Angeles, than a country in which over the half the country’s citizens live below the poverty line, without access to basic services. As a wave of community protests which has arisen the townships of the country over the last few years intensifies South Africa has been dubbed the protest capital of the world. In the last three years, there has been an average of 2.9 “gatherings” per day resulting in a 12,654 “gathering” incidents during 2010.
The violence needed to sustain the profit-margin in the South African mining industry has a long and sordid history — it was one of the principle reasons for the implementation of Apartheid, principally the mines of the Witswatersrand’s need for cheap migrant black labor, from the rural Eastern Cape and Kwazula-Natal. The miners of Marikana principally came from the former Bantustan of Transkei, one of the underdeveloped and impoverished areas in the country. Violence was consistently used by both the Apartheid and colonial states against attempts to organize mineworkers, events such as the 1946 miners strike- which saw 70 000 workers go on strike and the murder of 12 miners, are an all-too common feature in South African history. Apartheid was built upon a two-tiered labour market in which white labour and white unions were actively nurtured by an interventionist state, while black labourers were disposed of their citizenship- in the form of the Bantustan system and the denial of their freedom of movement in the form of the pass laws and their ability to organize in the form of the banning of trade unions. Violence was used in many other key moments of SA labor history including the 1973 Durban Strike and countless battles between labor and the state which occurred in the 1980s which saw the formation of both the trade union federation COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and NUM (the National Union of Mineworkers).
The fact that a multinational corporation was at the center of the massacre shouldn’t surprise us either. Anglo-American, the largest corporation in South Africa, was one of the principle funders of the slaughter in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the capuability also extends to President Jacob Zuma and his cronies in NUM, figures such as the chairperson are directly implemented in the murder of the 34 workers both in the deployment of police at the mine and NUM’s attempt to break up the strike..
The strike has continued into this week even after Lonmin issued an ultimatum to the workers, demanding that they return to their jobs or face being fired. At least 3 000 strikers refused to comply and the ultimatium was later rescinded . Furthermore, as of today, workers in the nearby Anglo American Platinum’s (Amplats) Thembelani mine and the Royal Bafokeng’s BRPM mine issued similar wage demands to management and downed their tools, giving management until Friday to respond. Lonmin’s manage failed to properly respond to the one essential demand of the striking workers, which was to meet with them. The following account clearly shows that the negotiating team was not comprised of Lonmin management and was prevented from intervening by the police. as this report clearly shows.
”However later they agreed to a meeting provided the workers committed to three conditions: surrender their weapons, elect a small representative group to engage with management and disperse from the mountain … On leaving the briefing area to report back to the miners, the SACC team was told they could not go back to the camp as the place was now a security risk area under the police. Bishop Seoka said they saw two helicopters taking off and assumed that they were going to the mountain where the workers were camping. ‘As they left the area a call came through from the man we spoke to telling us that the police were killing them and we could hear the gun shots and screams of people’, says the Bishop. ‘The man covered with green blanket lying dead was the last person we spoke to who represented the mine workers.”
Clearly, it was the police’s intent to break up the strike. It’s unclear how much political pressure they were under but rather than letting the negotiating team do its work over 500 police surrounded the striking workers with armoured cars and officers on foot carrying assault rifles. A report from University of Johannesburg academic Peter Alexander suggests that the killing was possibly premeditated, as the police erected razor wire fences around the area in which the miners were located. Later tear gas and water cannons were used to disperse the crowd, forcing them to flee towards the police lines which greeted them with live ammunition.
* Why did police use live ammunition after an order was issued last year forbidding the use of even rubber bullets during public protests?
* Why did Lonmin bosses refuse to negotiate with representatives of the Associated Mining and Construction Union (Amcu) after initially agreeing to?
* Why didn’t the country’s intelligence services pick up
on the brewing tension at the mine and take the appropriate action?
* Who supplied the newly made traditional weapons carried by thousands of
* Do platinum mines discriminate in favor of certain categories of workers when it comes to wage negotiations?
So far none of the country’s political and civil society leaders have offered anything besides shameful banalities about a future inquiry and mild to enthusiastic support for the police and NUM. The silence of liberal NGOs and civil society organizations has been remarkable. The absence of real leadership on the issue, or strong showings of solidarity for the ongoing strike is a profound statement of the extent of the failure of post-Apartheid South African civil society, which has been largely monopolized by NGOS.
Perhaps the most strident apologist for the massacre has been the South African Communist Party (SACP), a party already deeply comprised by its support for the neoliberal policies of the ANC and its own Stalinist history. Take this appalling bit from Domnic Tweedie of the Communist University: “This was no massacre, this was a battle. The police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to. That’s what they have them for. The people they shot didn’t look like workers to me. We should be happy. The police were admirable”. Not even the bosses of Lonmin and the most reactionary strata of the South African press are so bloodthirsty. This type of disgraceful rhetoric has sadly become all too-common among the once-admirable SACP.
The only exception to this rule was ex-ANC youth league president Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC earlier this year primarily because of his opposition to Jacob Zuma. Malema, a figure who is best described as Hugo Chavez meets Kanye West, accused Zuma of having “presided over the murder of our people “ and called for the nationalization of ‘the British owned’ mines to a crowd of thousands of cheering workers. He further accused Lonmin of having “ a high political connection [… which] is why our people were killed. They were killed to protect the shares of Cyril Ramaphosa,” Cyril Ramaphosa being an ex-communist, the ex-chairperson of NUM, and the current owner of the McDonald’s franchise in South African, as well as a Lonmin board member
The mainstream press has found others to blame, however. The newspaper Business Day ran a shameful editorial which referred to Lonmin’s workers as being “[…driven by antiquated beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery, [… and believing] in the powers of ‘sangomas’ (traditional healers) to make them invincible. Try reasoning with that.” Hence the perceived suicidal charge at the police lines with officers armed with R4 assault rifles and the suggested narrative of police defending themselves from primitive black miners clinging to superstitions which resulted in their deaths. The miners were not stupid enough, except in the racist imagination of white South Africans and the apologists of the massacre, to charge at policemen armed only with clubs. These sorts of images revert to classic colonial stereotypes.
The blame is placed on hubris brought on by black magic, rather than the fact workers are being paid less than $500 a month. And obviously it couldn’t have been the tear gas and stun grenades used on the striking miners that made them run towards the police clutching spears, pangas and knobkerries. Some reports have even accused the police of firing from helicopters and later driving over the still-living bodies of those shot.
On the other-hand the same Business Day editorial praised NUM. “The NUM is the thoughtful, considered heart of the union movement here, one of the two rival unions involved in the dispute there. Cyril Ramaphosa and Kgalema Motlanthe, for instance, come out of it. As a union it is a powerful voice of reason in an often loud and rash movement.” A more damning indictment of the true loyalties of NUM’s leadership is harder to find, than such praise in the country’s leading pro-business (and anti-union) daily.
I accuse Zuma and NUM of colluding with the bosses at the Lonmin mine as part of Zuma’s re-election campaign. The blood spilled on the dirt of Marikana is on the hands NUM and Zuma, not just Lonmin and the police. Zuma’s favoured union and principle support base within COSATU is NUM and they could not afford to look weak in the build-up to Zuma’s re-election bid at the ANC’s Manugang conference in November, in which he faces a strong challenge from deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, who draws support from several of COSATU’s strongest union, most notably the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and their radical socialist leader Irwin Jim.
If they were to have been shown up by a bunch of upstart, wildcat striking workers at one of the largest platinum mines in the world, in a country where platinum has replaced gold as the principle source of profit for extractive capital, it would have constituted a serious obstacle to Zuma’s re-election campaign. Furthermore the South African mining industry is in its last days, as gold reserves- historically the foundation of the South African economy- and platinum prices continue to drop. This is the real reason for the intensification of extractive mining practices, without workers being compensated for the added risk with any rise in wages
This precarious situation involving the primary industry in South Africa has led to NUM working with the mining capital in order to protect the jobs of their members and attempting to ensure that these companies secure the requisite profits needed to keep the mines open, leading them to view any threats to their position with these companies as a threat to their very existence. Zuma on the other-hand can’t afford to face any more job losses, in the build up to his re-election campaign, unemployment in the country is unofficially at over 40% and youth unemployment is over 60%.
Forget the media propaganda about the union battle between NUM and AMCU. The majority of the strikers were not AMCU members, they were non-unionized workers or NUM members. AMCU was trying to recruit workers who were already involved in the strike rather than organizing it. The background to this, something that none of South Africa’s reflexively anti-union media explicated in their initial coverage, was a strike that occurred in February-March of this year at the Implants mine located close by. During this strike, wildcat strikers affiliated to AMCU, were subjected to similar violence as NUM attempted to protect their position as the dominant union in the mining sector and the favoured union of the mining industry. The difference is the the wildcat strikers won over a 100% increase in wages from the bosses. The average return after deductions 4000 rand a month or 500 USD for some of the most degrading, dangerous and depressing work imaginable. This in a country with one of the highest costs of living for the poor striking workers at Implants managed to get the bosses to give them a 5500 rand (660 USD) increase. This opened up space for the AMCU to appeal to the miners of Lonmin.
The real underlying scandal of the strike was well put by Chris Rodrigues from Rolling Stone:
But what still embitters them is their understanding that they would have to be reincarnated many times over to earn what the CEO of Lonmin did in one single year. Comparing their salary of R48 000 per annum with Ian Farmer’s (2011) earnings of R20, 358, 620 amounts to an, approximately, 424 years discrepancy. Taking a recent estimate of average male life expectancy in South Africa (49.81) and deducting just 18 childhood years from that would mean even if they worked every day of their adult life – they would have to do so over 13 unlucky lifetimes!
Such is the normalization of this capitalist metaphysics that the rival union has been universally rebuked for wanting to reduce it to a ratio of 1 year: 4.26 life spans. No wonder these strikers then entrusted the magic realism of a sangoma, for nothing today needs to be more urgently remedied than “reality”.
As a worker told the Mail & Guardian’s website: “It’s better to die than to work for that shit … I am not going to stop striking. We are going to protest until we get what we want. They have said nothing to us. Police can try and kill us but we won’t move.”
This massacre highlights the degeneration of the dream of post-apartheid South Africa into a nightmare of capital, patronage, corruption, and repression. Now is the time for displays of real solidarity with the miners and a full exposure of the truth behind this awful crime.
Benjamin Fogel is a writer and activist in Grahamstown, South Africa.
Please note that this article has been lightly edited to remove a few typos in the original published at CounterPunch.