South Africa: Police back down after 'nightmare’ massacre

September 8, 2012
Thirty-four miners were shot dead by police on August 16.

Pressure from trade unions and human rights groups has stopped plans by South African authorities to charge striking mine workers with the massacre of 34 of their own comrades. Those killed had been shot by police on August 16.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have been competing for members at the Lomin mining corporation's platinum mine at Marikana in South Africa.

The AMCU is a breakaway union formed in opposition to alleged concessions the NUM had made to management in negotiations. At the Lomin mine, each union represents roughly a third of the workforce.

On August 10, members of both unions at Marikana began a strike, but tensions ran high between the two unions. Both blamed the other for delays in achieving results in negotiations with Lomin’s management. The dispute between the unions sometimes devolved into violence. In the days before the massacre, 10 people had died in clashes between the NUM and the AMCU. These included two police officers.

On August 16, 3000 members of both unions were gathered on a hillside near the mine when police ordered them to leave. The workers refused and police began to launch tear gas canisters at the crowd. The police allege that miners ran at them, armed with clubs and machetes, when police opened fire with live ammunition, in order, they said, to protect themselves.

Autopsy reports revealed that the dead were mostly shot in the back while trying to escape police. Video footage of the massacre, available on YouTube, shows police firing with automatic weapons into the crowd and no shots can be seen from the workers.

The August 26 Sunday Independent quoted sociology Professor Peter Alexander from the University of Johannesburg saying the massacre was a “well organised, premeditated slaughter”.

Alexander studied the area where the massacre occurred and said the workers were surrounded by security forces on the hillside. On one side was a barbed-wire fence that had a small section cut out of it.

Some workers left the hillside to see if they could get through this hole and then were gunned down. The other workers were dispersed in the other direction towards a bushy area. This was where most of the killings took place.

Police arrested some 260 of the miners. In a shocking move on August 30, South African prosecutors charged the miners for the massacre.

Political figures from South Africa and beyond condemned the massacre and the charging of the mineworkers. Protest actions were held outside South African embassies in Spain, Ireland and New Zealand.

South African President Jacob Zuma called for a national week of mourning. But Zuma deferred discussions of blame to a national inquiry ― even though people all over the world had seen footage of police clearly killing workers.

Desmond Tutu, one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, condemned the killings in a speech on September 4.

He said: “In 2012? In a democracy? In a new South Africa? Have we forgotten so soon? Marikana felt like a nightmare, but that is what our democracy is in 2012.

“I ask myself, why were we in the struggle? The highest price was paid for freedom, but are we treating it as something precious?

“How can we have children 18 years later who go to school under trees and whose education is being crushed without textbooks and no one is held accountable? Have we so quickly forgotten the price of freedom?

“People are going to sleep hungry in this freedom for which people were tortured and harmed … It is difficult to believe people are getting such money and benefits, and are driving such flashy cars while the masses suffer in cramped shacks.”

Tutu linked the violence to the failures of post-apartheid South Africa to solve the problems of poverty and inequality after defeating Apartheid.

Leonard Gentle, director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (South Africa), said on August 23 that the massacre confirmed the ruling African National Congress’ (ANC) transformation from a party of liberation to a party that secures cheap labour for capital.

“In this the ANC steps squarely into the shoes of its predecessors ― apartheid’s National Party and [Jan] Smuts’ South African Party ― acting to secure the profits of mining capital through violence. This was  Bulhoek and Bondelswaarts massacres all over again.” 

The NUM’s links with the ruling ANC to some extent drove its hostile attitude to the AMCU. Under the ANC’s rule, the NUM has moved from a poor workers’ union to one increasingly made up of white-collar workers.

Seeing the AMCU as competitors, the NUM embraced violence and conciliation with Lomin to achieve their aims. The AMCU, desperate to support its workers, responded in kind.

But the ANC’s support for capital at all costs is really to blame. The ANC and the media have constantly stigmatised striking workers at the site.

The workers’ demands for an increase to their wages, now R4000 ($450) a month, were just and, in a country where the social wage is under constant threat of erosion, necessary to ensure basic living standards. The strike by workers at Lomin can be seen only as part of broader resistance to neoliberalism in South Africa.

On September 2, the acting national director of prosecutions for the National Prosecuting Authority, Nomgcobo Jiba, overturned the decision to charge the workers and most were set to be released on September 6. But workers are continuing their strike actions at Marikana.


For detailled background articles and numerous reactions from the South African left, see

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