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34 South African Miners Killed by Police--What's the Real Story?

The sight of the police shooting striking workers on TV has brought the real world of struggle right into the lounges of public opinion.


This story originally appeared at Labor Notes

The story that emerged to explain why 34 South African platinum miners were killed by police last Thursday has so far been painted as an inter-union spat.

The reality is that the massacre reveals far more troubling fault lines for a country struggling to make its way since movements that fused Black liberation, radical politics, and militant unionism upended apartheid in 1994. The moral legitimacy of the African National Congress, the organisation that has ruled the country since liberation, now has been squandered.

In the first few days after the massacre at the Marikana mine, amid the shock and horror of watching people being shot dead on TV, there have been few who want to take responsibility. To do so would be to acknowledge blame.

Some pundits have warned of “pointing figures” or “stoking anger,” helping President Jacob Zuma appear statesmanlike as he set up an inquiry to investigate the massacre at Marikana, owned by the UK-based Lonmin.

But this is not just a story of hardship, violence, and grief. To speak in those terms would add insult to the injuries perpetrated by the police on the striking workers—by seeing the strikers as mere victims and not as agents of their own future and, even more importantly, as a source of a new movement in the making.

More than Rivalry

So far the 3,000 strikers have stood firm not only against the police, and Lonmin, which has threatened mass firings, but also against the media labelling their strike “illegal.”

Strikes are not illegal in South Africa; they are only protected or unprotected. They are not criminal acts for which law and order can be invoked. But if they are not protected, strikers can be dismissed by their employer.

The major labor organizations, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the federation to which it belongs, COSATU, are rallying behind their ally—the governing ANC.

They are all stigmatizing the strikers and the breakaway union they have joined, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), as a “ yellow union” that is “paid for” by corporate interests.

Why corporations would pay to form a striking, volatile union rather than a union like NUM that enforces labor peace makes no sense. But some people choose to believe this nonsense.

NUM has accused the breakaway union of fomenting violence, even though it was NUM that called for police action against the strikers. The entrenched union noted that the Lonmin strike was the third to hit the platinum sector recently. All involved the AMCU, which workers have joined in growing numbers, with the new union providing an outlet for their frustrations.

The frustration has soared as the NUM membership has changed over the last 15 years.

NUM grew out of the less-skilled job categories of South African mineworkers, mostly among illiterate migrant laborers. But they make up just 40 percent of the membership now. An increasing portion of the NUM’s membership is skilled, higher-level mining staff, who dominate the union’s structures.

The morphing membership acted to protect its interests. According to the trade journal Miningmx, NUM stipulated a 50 percent plus one member threshold for recognition in 2007 contracts, foreclosing any role for workers to form new unions and challenge the company-recognised union.

NUM has also struck cozy deals for more skilled workers, which led to a strike at another platinum mine, Implats, earlier this year, after rock drillers learned they had been denied a 18 percent bonus granted to other workers.

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