comments_image Comments

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.

Photo Credit:


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 African National 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.

See more stories tagged with: