Massacre of South African Mine Workers Recalls Dark Days of Apartheid

The shooting dead of striking miners by armed police exposes hard truths about post-apartheid South Africa that the country's new elites have preferred to ignore.

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South Africans are reeling in horror at a violent incident on 16 August 2012 which recalls the darkest days of the country's apartheid past: the killing by armed police of around thirty-four miners (the precise number is not yet confirmed) at a platinum-mine owned by the giant Lonmin company, near Rustenberg in the country's north. Government ministers and senior figures in the ruling AfricanNational Congress (ANC) are expressing simultaneous shock, outrage and perplexity at what has become known as the "Marikana massacre". The recurrent refrain is that the task now is to understand what lies behind the tragedy, and that it’s too early to "point fingers" in blame. President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, has promised the appointment of a commission of inquiry with a wide-ranging scope.

There is, in short, a mixture of surprise, puzzlement and remorse among the ruling elite. But why the surprise? The writing has been on the walls of the powerful for a long time now, even if it is indecipherable to those lacking the will to read it. In fact, the Marikana massacre has been a tragedy waiting to happen. When the commission of inquiry comes to write its report - though it is most unlikely to allocate any responsibility before the ANC’s leadership election at Mangaung (Bloemfontein) in December 2012 - it might well choose to peel the Marikana onion in four stages.

The unions

The first, outer skin of the onion can be said to comprise the rivalry between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest affiliate of the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The AMCU originally split from the NUM in 1998, but has come to prominence only over the last two or three years - notably at the Implats and Lonmin mines in the emerging platinum-belt in Rustenburg, in North West Province, not far north of Johannesburg.

The AMCU has been growing at the NUM’s expense, even while the latter has been dismissing its rival as promoted by the bosses to undermine it. Lonmin says it informed the NUM in March 2012 that the union's membership amongst the company’s employees had fallen to less than 51%. This meant that in terms of the recognition agreement between the company and NUM, the latter had six months to restore its membership level, failing which new negotiation arrangements would need to be concluded. The immediate outcome was an aggressive recruitment campaign by the NUM which was met with an equally aggressive response by the AMCU (which probably claimed a membership level of around 20%, notably amongst rock-drillers).

The ensuing competition became increasingly violent, with both the NUM and Lonmin claiming to be victims - the former of rogue forces seeking to divide the unity of the workers’ movement, the latter of an inter-union dispute which it claimed it was powerless to prevent. The commission of inquiry will do well to track the specifics, but when it comes to analyse the dynamics of the rivalry it will almost certainly point to a growing gulf between workers on the ground floor and their union officials.

The NUM itself is uncomfortably aware of this. Since 1994 it has commissioned five-yearly surveys of how its members see the union and how it addresses their needs. Just recently, it has been talking of making these surveys once every two years. Meanwhile, Cosatu general-secretary Zwelenzima Vavi has complained in his organisation's own annual report that the federation is increasingly bedeviled by its preoccupation with ANC politics, as major forces within Cosatu (including Frans Baleni, general secretary of the NUM) line up alongside the South African Communist Party (SACP) in order to boost the chances of Jacob Zuma's re-election to the ANC presidency in December 2012. Vavi’s report was rejected by Cosatu’s executive; this was no surprise, since the majority of the executive is said to be increasingly irritated by Vavi’s loud and increasingly insistent critique of the ANC as presiding over a cesspit of corruption, and doing nothing to clean it up.

The standard critique of Cosatu from the right is that it is becoming the vehicle of a privileged stratum of formally employed workers amongst a growing sea of the informally employed and unemployed. This is undoubtedly unfair, if only because average wage levels for even formally employed workers remain dismally low, and wages need to be spread around households steeped in gruelling poverty. Nonetheless, it can be argued that there is an increasing class dimension to Cosatu’s internal politics, from which the NUM is not immune - notably the use of union office for purposes of personal upward mobility rather than as a project for fighting the battles of the working class.

Indeed, an irony of the more labour-friendly industrial-relations dispensation which has been put in place in post-apartheid South Africa, may well be that it has removed workers' struggles from the factory floor and the mines into the boardrooms, even as the unions themselves have established and grown investment companies which, whilst formally separate, offer prospects of opportunity, enrichment and profit. Unsurprisingly, the AMCU expresses the discontents, anger and frustration of some of those who feel they are being left behind and ignored by the powers-that-be - not only employers, the government and the ANC but the established trade-union movement as well. No wonder that the AMCU’s demands are for a wage rise from around R4,000 (L310) a month to R12,000-plus a month, and the right to a decent standard of living!

The police

Beneath the onion skin lies a second layer: worryingly apartheid-style policing. Television images of the Marikana massacre showed armed cops, some of them in camouflage uniforms, confronting the protesting AMCU workers. Yes, the workers were themselves bedecked with pangas, knives and anything else at hand. It is also not improbable, as police claim, that some of them were armed with guns and may even have started the gun-battle which had such disastrous consequences.

But it’s all so predictable. Post-apartheid policing was meant to get away from the bad old days when police patrolled the rioting townships and the black majority was the enemy. Even now there is much lip-service to such heartwarming notions as "community policing" and serving the public. And certainly, it’s tough out there, with the police themselves suffering many violent deaths, as well as demoralisingly low pay levels. Yet alongside some progress towards more acceptable modes of policing, there are worrying signs of regression.

The arrest of a police hit-squad in KwaZulu-Natal which had taken the law into its own hands is one example; the disturbingly high incidence of deaths in police detention (albeit fewer than under apartheid) is another. But Marikana is a forceful reminder of a shift towards the militarisation of policing, prefigured by events in 2010 (a call by the deputy police minister Fikile Mabalula for the transformation of the police into a paramilitary force, followed by the return to a system of military-style ranks). Even before then, controversy had erupted around statements by then top cop Bheki Cele which were widely interpreted as endorsing a "shoot-to-kill" policy by police. Cele strenuously refuted this reading of his remarks, but nonetheless they appear to have set the tone for a tougher, "no-nonsense" style of policing in which preparedness to resort to violence to confront crime has become increasingly acceptable.

At Marikana, police claim that the striking miners opened fire first. They may well be right, but numerous questions would still follow, notably their use of live ammunition in such apparent disproportion. Perhaps, as at Sharpeville in 1960, police panicked (there are stories of a wrong order being given). But whatever the case, the level of slaughter was unforgiveable. Some days before Marikana, it was reported that the number of protests in South Africa between 1 January and 31 July 2012 has already exceeded the highest number recorded for any single year since 2004. Increasingly, it would seem, South African police are being brought into confrontation with a growing revolt of the poor, with Marikana just another episode.

The politicians

A third layer, ever closer to the core of the onion, is the failure of the politicians to take responsibility. The dispute at British-owned Lonmin (formerly Lonhro) has been rumbling for months. About a week before the massacre, management had increased security and called in the police. Subsequently, two policemen were hacked to death, apparently by supporters of the AMCU. More police were then brought in. After the death-toll had risen to ten, senior cops moved in, but still the politicians stayed away. As the week moved on, senior AMCU officials were imported to address the striking workers, who were gathering on a nearby hill, while the workers themselves demanded to speak to senior management. When management failed to turn up, the workers became increasingly angry, and the scene was set by 16 August for the police to decide to disarm the swelling number of armed and militant workers. They boasted standard tools of "crowd management" and rubber-bullets, but were armed with live ammunition as well.

Meanwhile, government ministers who might reasonably have got involved to calm a dispute which was visibly getting out of hand chose to stand back and to view the crisis as simply a union matter. Perhaps it was simply too politically dangerous to venture into Cosatu territory, to adopt a neutral stance between the AMCU and the NUM. When, in the lead up to the tragedy, the Chamber of Mines had sought to bring the two unions together for talks, the NUM had refused to meet with AMCU. When belatedly the minister of mines, Susan Shabangu, sought to bring different parties together, her department reportedly omitted to invite the AMCU on the grounds that it did not recognise it as a legitimate union.

Belatedly, after the massacre and amidst much wringing of hands, ministers are eager to be seen to taking action - with the police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, now thrown into the thick of things. The crisis is also accentuating a crucial political gulf. The contrast in styles of the visits to Marikana by President Zuma and one-time-disciple-turned-enemy Julius Malema was symbolic. Zuma was at a conference in Harare when the massacre occurred. Perhaps he could not get to Marikana earlier, but when he did arrive it was under cover of darkness, met with management, and visited the injured in hospital. His main response has been the appointment of the commission of inquiry - a sensible but bureaucratic course of action, and unlikely to appease the striking workers.

In contrast, Malema - who was driven out of the ANC in March 2012 following extended party-disciplinary procedures which many believe were driven by his campaign to see Zuma unseated - drove from his home in Polokwane without any formal authority, refused police offers of protection, and walked unarmed and unescorted into a large open field where the striking miners were waiting for him. There he railed against Zuma ("he doesn’t care about the mineworkers, he came here last night and met with whites" [i.e. management]...He went to speak to the white people, not you. It was not the white British people who were killed, it was you."

Malema railed against the police; he railed against Cyril Ramaphosa (one-time NUM general-secretary and now rich businessman, who doubled up as the chair of the disciplinary committee which expelled him from the ANC); and he railed against the NUM ("when the workers have problems, the NUM sells them out").

Malema’s intervention is telling, and may yet prove to have been momentous. When he was expelled from the ANC (and, apparently, the taxman was sent after him to query his highly dubious financial affairs), it looked to many that he was down and out, and that Zuma had vanquished him. Now that is not so clear. Let’s forget that Malema’s populist politics threaten to lead South Africa down the road of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: there is probably no other politician in South Africa who could have walked onto that field unarmed and exited alive - certainly not the luminaries of the SACP who are in bed with Zuma and are working so hard to get him re-elected (see "South Africa's political duel: Zuma vs Malema", 22 November 2011).

Hitherto, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe (another former general-secretary of the NUM) has been reticent about whether he will run against Zuma at Mangaung. But with Zuma fast losing his allure (and many would say his grip on government), and with Malema threatening by implication to undermine the ANC’s basis of support amongst the poor, it may well be that Motlanthe will increasingly be pressurised to stand for the party presidency by those who - with good reason - have begun to worry about the ANC’s longevity.

The employers

The fourth layer, lyingat the core of the Marikana onion, lies the legacy and present performance of the mining industry. South Africa’s economy was, notoriously, built upon the super-exploitation of migrant labour imported from neighbouring territories and the bantustans. Gradually, from the 1970s, things changed. For both economic and political reasons, foreign labour was largely phased out (or in the case of Lesotho, encircled by South Africa, heavily reduced). This presaged a new mining landscape, which gathered momentum after 1994. Its main features have been a massive decline in gold-mining, the rise of platinum alongside other minerals, and the closing down of the compounds into which migrant labours were previously forcibly corralled.

Today, increasingly, the mines draw their workforces from local communities, amongst which those who still retain connections with the former bantustans reside in backyards and shanties. Meanwhile, as the mines become increasingly capital-intensive, the proportion of their labour force which is permanently employed declines, and numerous mineworkers are now casually employed, or supplied by contracting companies.

No one should lament the passing of the compounds. Yet this has allowed for the externalisation of many of the social costs of looking after workers - from feeding and housing them to attending to their sanitation. The burden falls upon already overburdened local communities, at the very time when local government in South Africa is collapsing.

It is often supposed that this is an era in which the attitudes and practices of mining companies are becoming more enlightened; indeed, all the large ones are signatories to a "mining charter" which promises wondrous things. But a report by the Bench Marks Foundation, coincidentally released just before the massacre, reports a massive gap between the the mining companies' promises and their practice. It also highlights (inter alia) a lack of educational facilities and training, environmental pollution, and a total absence of concern for the social conditions in which their workers now live.

In the particular case of Lonmin, 9,000 workers were dismissed in 2011; and those losing their jobs who had also participated in the company’s housing scheme would simultaneously have been deprived of their homes. Lonmin, like other platinum companies now cutting back amid the global slowdown, pleads penury and responsibility to shareholders. Accordingly, its management cannot be immune from speculation that it has not been too worried to see the AMCU and the NUM at each other’s throats, rather than face a workforce united by a single union determined to better workers’ conditions.

The Marikana massacre has coincided with a time when many South Africans have come to feel increasingly uneasy, fearing that the promise of 1994 has faded and that the country has lost its way. Hopefully, it will serve as a jolt to the national conscience, and shame those who claim that the only way to attract foreign investment is by reducing the cost and conditions of labour into rethinking. But don’t count on it: for while, conceivably, the tragedy may undermine the Zuma presidency, more and greater shocks may yet be needed before government and employers combine for a serious assault upon poverty and inequality.

Roger Southall is professor of sociology and research associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.