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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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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, lying at 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 m anagement 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.

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