The Marikana Massacre. Watershed in the history of post-apartheid South Africa?

Di Arnold Wehmhoerner Lunedì 08 Ottobre 2012 09:57 Stampa
The Marikana Massacre. Watershed in the history of post-apartheid South Africa? Foto: Pan-African News Wire

Lo scorso agosto la polizia sudafricana ha aperto il fuoco contro dei minatori in sciopero, uccidendo trentasei persone. Non si tratta di un incidente isolato: la crescente violenza costituisce un’inevitabile conseguenza delle sempre maggiori diseguaglianze del paese. Il Sudafrica è, infatti, uno dei paesi con il più alto tasso di povertà del mondo e, a diciotto anni dalla fine dell’apartheid, il governo democratico non è ancora riuscito a produrre le necessarie trasformazioni sociali.

On 16th August 2012 police opened fire at striking workers of the Marikana platinum mine in South Africa killing 36 miners. Autopsies later revealed that most of them had been shot in the back. Violence surrounding this strike cost the lives of 44 persons, among them two police officers who were hacked to death. The police shooting was obviously an act of revenge although the police claimed that they had reacted in self-defence. 270 arrested workers were charged with murder under a “common purpose” clause dating back to apartheid times, meaning whoever is engaged in an illegal action is responsible for whatever follows out of this action. The charge was later withdrawn due to the protest of a disbelieving South African public.

The mines are not only the most important economic sector for South Africa but what happens there has always been an indicator for the political state of the country. Originally built on migrant workers the sector has relied on cheap black labour up to today. During apartheid the NUM, the National Union of Mineworkers, was able to organise this sector efficiently and, with this union strength, became one of the most important political organisations in the fight against apartheid. Today, at Marikana the NUM representative did not even dare to confront strikers in person but could only speak to them from a police vehicle and through loudspeakers. At another strike a NUM representative lost an eye when workers threw stones at him. The once powerful NUM has lost its political leadership role for workers in South Africa.

In the past weeks thousands of disgruntled workers went on illegal strikes denouncing the leadership of the NUM. A rival union has emerged, the Association of Mine and Construction Workers (AMCU) which is more militant. It has become an accepted organisation for many mine workers. Critics claim that AMCU is intentionally stirring up violence at strikes to increase the pressure on management. Patterns of strikes in the platinum mines in the Rustenberg area reveal that violence has become routine and workers feel that it is working for them. Earlier this year, through an illegal strike at Implats they ended up getting more outside the bargaining agreement. The risk is known; some were dismissed, but most of them got their job back. A researcher explains that workers have become more fragmented. ”Some are residing in informal settlements outside the mines; some live still in hostels and some black workers occupy more skilled positions than others. Violence is used as a way of enforcing solidarity”.[1]1 And he states that AMCU is like NUM 30 years ago, “an upstart union stepping in to fill a void of disgruntlement.”[2]

Many of the former NUM leaders have moved to government positions or have joined the new class of black businessmen. Like in Namibia from the union NUNW to the party SWAPO there has also been in South Africa a continuous brain drain from the unions to the ANC and into government positions or into business through BEE (Black Economic Empowerment). After 1994 (end of apartheid) NUM started an investment arm which is now valued at 2.8 billion Rand (€280 million). NUM leaders have become top business managers. The former NUM Secretary General Ramaphosa has a 50% stake in Incwala Resources, Lonmin’s black economic empowerment partner (Lonmin is the company that owns the Marikana mine). He has donated 2 million Rand to the families of the deceased miners, but was prepared in April to pay 19.5 million Rand for a buffalo at an auction. Union members observe the lavish lifestyle of their union and party leaders and are at the same time told that their wage demands are too high. The median monthly wage in mining is 4.743 Rand (€474) and is already higher than in other sectors. In contrast the average yearly remuneration of CEOs in the mining sector during 2011 was 20.2 million Rand (€2.02 million).[3] In the worker’s minds, black entrepreneurs are no better as employers. Workers were left unpaid in the Grootvlei mine shortly after the mine was taken over by Aurora Empowerment Systems, a company partly owned by President Zuma’s nephew Khubulus Zuma and Nelson Mandela’s grandson Zondwa Mandela.

On the background of these developments it is not surprising that NUM has lost its credibility with workers. It fits into this picture that NUM is conspicuously silent on the issue of the nationalisation of the mines. This issue is brought into the public debate time and again by the leaders of the ANC Youth League. The union had a clear resolution that the mines should be nationalised.[4] To keep numb on this issue raises the suspicion that the interests of some leaders are protected. If the NUM leaders have changed their opinion on this issue i.e. to be against nationalisation, than they should have started a debate on the pro and cons of nationalisation.

Is the massacre at the Marikana mine an isolated incident? As explained above violence has become part of the bargaining process in the mine sector. But also in other sectors of the South African society violence has become a common feature. Almost daily newspapers report on so called “service delivery protests”. Still millions of South Africans live in informal settlements without electricity, water or sanitation. During the writing of this report hundreds of protesters blocked for hours the important national highway N1 which leads into Cape Town. During the protest the police run out of rubber bullets and tear gas. The community leader responsible for the protests said: “We were promised formal houses, flush toilets, tarred roads, electricity and running water and we want these promises fulfilled. We are prepared to die until our demands are met.”[5] In that particular community many households have been on the housing waiting list for 20 years. These “service delivery protests” have occurred in South Africa since 2004 and happen mostly in informal settlements where people live in shacks. The incidents have been continuously on the increase up to today and quite a few have ended tragically with people being killed.

Another form of violence that seems to be on the increase is mob justice in townships. Within one year up to today in Khayelitsha, one of the largest townships in Cape Town, 14 people have been killed by vigilantes. The insufficient police presence in the townships but in particular the slow judicial process until someone is finally imprisoned, fuels the anger of township residents. Known thieves are released on bail again and again because of insufficient evidence produced in court. This is conceived by the local community as lack of necessary prosecution and leads them to take justice into their own hands. Some of the vigilantes have been caught and sentenced to life imprisonment, but the police have difficulties to control this problem.

South Africa has one of the most unequal societies of the world. Many observers have predicted long ago that the current levels of poverty and vast inequality cannot be maintained.[6] The government’s excuse has always been that it takes time to correct the legacy of apartheid. This was again offered by President Zuma in a recent speech: “There are still glaring backlogs in service delivery after 18 years of democracy – and apartheid is to blame for it”.[7] There is no question that the new democratic government faced a Herculean task in transforming the society. The lack of schools and trained teachers are delaying the development of a sound educational base which is a prerequisite for a modern society and economy. The new leadership, especially at local levels, was and often still is inexperienced in running a modern administration, in particular in the technical sectors. On the economic front the new ANC leadership soon realised that the nationalisation of mines and large companies is not possible for South Africa’s globally integrated economy. They had to follow the path of globalisation and exposure to international competition. As a result, low skilled jobs in manufacturing, especially textiles, disappeared under the competition from Asia. 22% of the economically active population is unemployed and 11% are discouraged job seekers. Youth make up 70%[8]8 of the unemployed, which understandably creates a huge potential for dissatisfaction and therewith violence.

The South African Institute of Race Relations in a recent press release states that President Zuma is correct when he describes service delivery as a success. Over the period from 1996 to 2010 the number of households living in formal houses has increased by 86%, the number of households with access to electricity increased by 127.9% and the number of households with access to piped water increased by 76.6%. The institute states that this service delivery success together with increased access to social welfare, which now reaches 15 million people, “are responsible for the fact that the proportion of South Africans living on less than $2 per day has declined from 12% in 1994, and a peak of 17% in 2002, to just 5% today”.[9] And the institute’s representative Frans Cronje continues: “There is no contradiction between the successes we identify and the protests that are commonplace around the country. These protests are not a function of the failure of delivery but rather in that this success has raised expectations that cannot be met because of shortcomings in the school system and the labour market.”

President Zuma has set up a judicial commission of inquiry to report within four months on the Marikana massacre. The results will probably only been known after the ANC congress in Mangaung (16–20 December 2012). Then Zuma will stand for re-election as ANC president and therewith candidate for the next presidential elections in 2013. He seems to be buying time amid growing criticism about his lack of leadership. Can he just remain quiet as he has done in face of the tragic events and in face of how the police and the National Prosecution Agency (NPA) have handled the massacre? The new National Police Commissioner just stated without further explanation or any self-criticism that the police were acting in self-defence, although most of the strikers had been shot in the back and the NPA had the insensitivity to charge the arrested strikers with murder.

Zuma’s sit-out strategy may not work. The Marikana miners have not yet returned to work, five weeks after the beginning of the strike. This is a precondition for mediation efforts. On the contrary, the strike has spread to other mines in the Rustenburg belt. Some mines were closed by companies “to protect its employees against outside intimidation”.[10] Share prices of mining companies are falling while the price of platinum on the world market is soaring. The mining troubles are a threat to the already widening current account deficit of South Africa letting the Rand slip. The Marikana strike is no longer a strike like many others which can be left to the normal collective bargaining procedures and mediation efforts. A decisive and unconventional intervention of the national leadership is required, but is not forthcoming.

ANC leaders do not dare to come close to striking workers while the expelled ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, is welcomed by them as a hero. Being now outside the ANC, he vigorously attacks President Zuma, demands the resignation of the NUM leadership, and calls for a general strike to bring the entire mining sector to a standstill. Malema as a known populist is following flash points in the mining sector to mobilise against Zuma’s faction in the ANC. But he puts his fingers into the wound. Some believe that “after Marikana, working class support and commitment to the ANC and its monopoly of power is unhinged”.[11] The same commentator also believes that “the Marikana moment is also strengthening the tide for a post-national liberation and post-neoliberal politics in South Africa”.[12]

However, neither President Zuma nor Vice-President Motlanthe, who will probably stand for election against Zuma at the Mangaung congress, has hinted that they are considering a review of the basic ideology of the ANC. But events may change this. The way the NUM lost its leadership role for the workers in the mining sector is a stern warning to the ANC. It may be easier to form rival organizations in the union sector than in the party arena but the apodictic certainty in the ANC to be the leading party is lost. At this stage of South Africa’s history one may not wish the disintegration of the ANC which is a stabilizing factor since apartheid times. One may also not wish that the ANC leadership submits to the calls of the populists for radical nationalisation. The deep integration of South Africa in the world economy requires a careful handling of any state intervention in the basic structures of the economy.

In its latest report the IMF assesses that South Africa has a stable and resilient economy “but one that could do better”.[13] The IMF argues that the country needs to take more action to create labour-intensive growth and mentioned its concern about the country’s growing public sector wage bill. The fund welcomed the focus on job creation in the government’s New Growth Plan and the Draft Development Plan but says “concrete action is needed to implement this”. The lack of implementation capacity is a problem and Prof. Luiz from the University of Cape Town believes that South Africa’s problem is brought about by a “combination of incompetence, patronage and an unimaginative, very traditional economic model”.[14] There are positive examples among similar countries and in this connection he refers to Brazil with its progressive social spending and its industrial policy.

After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when 69 protesters were killed by the police, it was obvious to all inside and outside the country that apartheid was an ideology without a future. After Marikana it is obvious that a country with such huge differences in standards of living cannot continue to exist peacefully. After Sharpeville it took 34 years to achieve democracy in South Africa. How long will it take after Marikana to achieve an inclusive economy which is the base for a peaceful South African society?


Reprinted with the permission of Foundation for European Progressive Studies

[1] Crispen Chinguno, PhD candidate at Wits University cited in K. Sosibo, Lonmin Crisis: A Tinderbox of Discontent, in "Mail & Guardian Online”, 17 August 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] SA Cannot Afford the Cost of Cheap Labour, in “Cape Times”, 31 August 2012.

[4] C. Molele, M. Letsoalo, NUM: A Union’s Striking Fall from Grace, in “Mail & Guardian Online”, 7 September 2012.

[5] Cape Times, 11 September 2012.

[6] Moeletsi Mbeki.

[7] Cape Times, 11 September 2012.

[8] D. Janzen, Political Finger-pointing Ignores Increasing Desperation of Unemployed, in “Cape Times”, 13 September 2012.

[9] South African Institute of Race Relations, Press Release, 11 September 2012.

[10] Mining Troubles Snowball, in “Business Times”, 13 September 2012.

[11]V. Satgar, Marikana Marks Rift in ANC Ideology, in “Mail & Guardian Online”, 7- 13 September 2012. 

[12] Ibid.

[13] See, 24 August 2012.

[14] Prof. John Luiz, e-mail interview with “Business Insider”, 11 September 2012.

Foto: Pan-African News Wire

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