South Africa: Marikana massacre sparks militant struggles

August 30, 2014

Activities were held across South Africa on August 16 to mark the second anniversary of the Marikana massacre, in which 34 striking mineworkers were slain by state security forces.

The killings occurred one week into a strike over pay by several thousand rock drill operators at the Lonmin-operated platinum mine in Marikana.

Despite the massacre, workers remained on strike. One month later, they won a settlement that met a large part of their pay claim.

An ongoing public investigation continues to shine a spotlight on the tragedy. The reverberations from South Africa’s first post-apartheid massacre linger on in important ways.

Cold-blooded murder

Footage collected in the powerful documentary Miners Shot Down provides ample evidence of the pre-mediated violence of police against striking workers.

The clearest sign the massacre was pre-planned was the presence of four mortuary vans, summoned to the protest site before a single shot had been fired.

Shadrack Zandisile Mtshamba, a Lonmin rockdrill operator, told the the Farlam Commission of inquiry into Marikana: “There was sound of gunfire from all sides … One man said we should surrender. He raised his arms. He was shot on the right arm and he bent down ...

“He was shot again in the stomach. The third bullet shot his leg and he fell down.”

Mtshamba said another miner was shot in the neck as he tried to surrender.

“He fell on his face. We became scared of surrendering after witnessing the shootings.”

As miners lay face down on the ground, police searched and kicked them, “bragging among themselves about the manner in which they had taken people down”.

“They said if it were in Zimbabwe, they would burn us alive with petrol.”

In all, 17 miners were killed at the initial site of the protest. A further 17 died at a nearby hill as a result of what, evidence suggests, were extra-judicial style killings.

Several miners who had tried to hide from police were found there with gunshot wounds to the back of their heads.

A further 78 mineworkers suffered gunshot wound injuries that day.

No officer has been charged for these killings, but 270 mineworkers were arrested and initially charged with the “murder” of their workmates.

These charges were later downgraded and finally dropped on August 20.

State-business collusion

The commission also revealed that culpability for the killings went well beyond the security forces.

Dali Mpofu, a lawyer for the 270 arrested mine workers, explained: “At the heart of this was the toxic collusion between the SA police services and Lonmin at a direct level.

“At a much broader level, it can be called a collusion between the state and capital and that this phenomenon is at the centre of what has occurred here.”

In the days leading up to the massacre, Lonmin collaborated with the police. The company provided them with logistical support in the form of offices, intelligence reports, access to more than 200 security cameras around the mine, barracks, transport, a helicopter and a detention camp.

Lonmin feared the strike could spark further unrest in South Africa’s platinum belt, responsible for 80% of the world’s production of this precious metal.

Therefore, the strike also posed a threat to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that long ago dropped its historic demand to nationalise the mines.

The wildcat strike also represented a threat to ANC-aligned trade unions, in particular the National Union of Miners (NUM).

The NUM opposed the demands of its own members and their decision to take unprotected strike action. It saw this as a direct challenge to traditional management-union negotiations.

In fact, when Lonmin workers marched on the local NUM offices to demand their union represent them, gunmen within the offices shot at them, leaving two dead.

Then, just days before the massacre, NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni issued a press release calling “for the deployment of a special task force ... to deal decisively with the criminal elements” he accused of being behind the strike.

It was this force that carried out the massacre at Marikana, in which at least 10 NUM members died.

Ramaphosa's role

The links between mining capital, ANC politicians and trade union bureaucrats is most clearly personified by Cyril Ramaphosa.

As a founder of NUM in the early 1980s, Ramaphosa led important miners’ strikes against the apartheid regime. He rose through the ranks of the ANC, heading up its team to negotiate the end of apartheid.

Ramaphosa was later elected a parliamentary deputy and chairperson of the constituent assembly entrusted with drafting South Africa’s new constitution.

In 1996 Ramaphosa decided to concentrate on his business dealings. Ramaphosa’s personal wealth is estimated to be more than $600 million. He sits on the board of several companies, including Lonmin.

Emails made public during the Marikana commission have revealed Ramaphosa’s role in the collusion between business and government.

On the day before the massacre, Ramaphosa sent an email to Lonmin's chief commercial officer. In it, he called the action of the strikers “plainly dastardly criminal” and said “concomitant action [was need] to address this situation”.

Other emails reveal Ramaphosa told then-police minister Nathi Mthethwa to come down hard on striking miners. He warned former mining minister Susan Shabangu that her “silence and inaction” over the strike was “bad for her and government”.

Despite the public outcry over Ramaphosa’s role, he was elected to the post of ANC deputy president at the party’s December 2012 congress.

Lasting impact

The Marikana massacre will take its place alongside those that occurred under apartheid in Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976). Like those events, it marks a turning point in South African politics.

In many ways, its impact resembles how Ruth First, a Communist leader killed by the apartheid regime in 1982, described the 1946 African mineworkers' strike.

At the time, police attacked the 70,000-strong strike, with at least nine miners being killed. While workers returned to work soon after, with little to show for their efforts, some said this event was the starting point for South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

First wrote that the 1946 miners' strike “was one of the those great historic incidents that, in a flash of illumination, educate a nation, reveal what has been hidden, destroy lies and illusions”.

“The strike transformed African politics overnight. The timid opportunism and servile begging for favours disappeared.”

This is precisely what business and the state had feared might be the impact of the Marikana strike ― that it would inspire a wave of strike actions in the mining sector and beyond.

Between August and October 2012, more than 60,000 miners took part in a series of unprotected, non-union organised strikes across several of South Africa’s most important platinum and gold mines.

In November 2012, an  unprecedented strike waveunprecedented strike wave  broke out across farming areas in the Western Cape, leading to a pay rise of more than 50% by early 2013

Meanwhile in community townships, considerably more protests were registered in 2012 compared with any previous year.

In many cases, protesters referred to Marikana, which came to represent resistance.

Left-wing union officials have recounted how workers have spoken at national bargaining conferences about doing a “Marikana”. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) responded to the farm workers rebellion by declaring: “Marikana has come to the farms!”

At least four settlements have renamed themselves Marikana. Asked why, one of the residents of the Marikana settlement in Potcheftroom, said: “We will do exactly as they did at Marikana, and we will get what is ours.”

And there is no sign of the Marikana effect waning. Last year, there was a further 15.2% increase in the rate of strikes, taking it to an all-time high.

This year, there have already been major disputes, such as the five-month-long strike (the longest in South African history) by 70,000 workers in the platinum sector, and a month-long strike by 220,000 metalworkers and engineers.

Tellingly, neither strike was led by unions that still support the Tripartite Alliance between the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has never been aligned to the ANC since its 2001 formation, led dispute in the platinum minefields.

Its newfound militancy is largely a result of the mass influx of about 100,000 new members in 2012, swelling its ranks to 120,000.

This was largely due to its supportive role during the Marikana dispute.

In many cases, after the non-union strikes in the mining sector ended, workers gradually dissolved their committees into AMCU branches, feeling the need for a union for collective bargaining.

The AMCU has now surpassed NUM as the biggest union in the platinum belt.

The second strike was led by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, which has taken over from NUM as the country's biggest union. Since 2012, NUMSA has been increasingly anti-alliance.

Today, NUMSA is the main driving force behind a left-wing challenge to COSATU leaders. It proposes breaking with the alliance and creating a new workers' party to challenge the ANC.

Two years is too early to record the legacy of Marikana. However, it is clear that significant political dynamics have been unleashed by those fateful events, which have left an indelible bloodstain on post-apartheid South Africa.

[A version of this article was published at teleSUR English.]

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