On August 16 of last year, South African police shot dead thirty-four mineworkers at the Lonmin Platinum mine in Marikana. People in South Africa are referring to this as the “Marikana moment,” a turning point where the realities of South African politics are revealed in a violent instant. During the days of apartheid at least three such moments were etched into popular memory. The first was at Sharpeville in 1960, when police killed sixty-nine people demonstrating against the pass laws, the dreaded segregationist legislation that required blacks to carry IDs at all times and kept them out of the so-called white areas. The second moment was the Soweto uprising in 1976, where police shot dead hundreds of students who were protesting against the use of Afrikaans in the schools instead of English, a symbol of the inferior education offered to black children at that time. And lastly, there was the shooting of twenty-eight people in Bhisho in the Eastern Cape in 1992 as they protested against the “independent” Bantustans that the white government had set up in place of a democratic, one-person, one-vote system.
Marikana is different from these moments because the police firing shots here represented a democratically elected government of the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, an organization that once carried the hopes and dreams of freedom lovers across the planet. Yet these police of the ANC government seemed to be acting like their predecessors. Of course, the majority of the police were black (though from the videos there seems to be a white man giving the commands). But Marikana is not a once-off event, not an aberration, or in many ways even a surprise. Marikana, like Sharpeville, like Soweto, like Bhisho, had been long in the making. If it wasn’t Marikana, we would have had another “moment” somewhere in South Africa—in a mine, a township, a factory, or maybe even in a city center. So to understand Marikana, we need to look more broadly at what has been happening in South Africa in the past eighteen years since the first democratic election in 1994.
The Mining Industry in South Africa
Historically, mining has been central to the South African economy. The country’s growth and development into the most industrialized economy on the African continent was founded on this industry—first the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1867, then the discovery of gold some two decades later. Mining is what drove imperialists to take over this country and run it with a racist, militaristic colonial system, and later apartheid. Capital accumulation from mineral extraction precipitated the formation of South Africa’s homegrown corporate conglomerates—Anglo-American, DeBeers, Goldfields, and the opulent families of the white ruling class, most notably the Oppenheimers.
Although we are now eighteen years down the road from South Africa’s first one-person, one-vote elections, mining is still central to the economy. About a quarter of South Africa’s exports come from mining. South Africa is number two in the world in gold production and produces 80 percent of the world’s platinum, the ore mined at the Lonmin mine in Marikana.
Democracy has been good to the mining industry. During the days of apartheid, the international boycotts kept huge mining companies out of global markets. They were pariahs. Since 1994 they’ve been all over the place, relocating their global headquarters to London and New York, floating shares on the NYSE, merging with major Australian mining companies, buying up mineral rights and mines across the African continent. They couldn’t do any of this before 1994; ever since, South African democracy has been, as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker likes to say, “open for business.” During this period the ANC evolved into a party that increasingly adopted free market dogma and enacted its tenets with a vengeance. Meanwhile, the white mining capitalists, like Lonmin’s CEO Ian Farmer (who earns $3 million year), have maintained their position of privilege while providing some openings for politically connected black partners like Patrice Motsepe, worth about $2.7 billion, making him the 442nd richest person and fourth wealthiest black person in the world (a few notches above Oprah).
In order to fully understand the mining industry, however, we also need to examine its workforce. During the twentieth century mineworkers epitomized apartheid’s oppression and exploitation of black labor. Some 69,000 miners died in work-related incidents during the pre-1994 era. Mineworkers were cheap, migrant black workers drawn not only from the hinterlands of South Africa but from the entire region—Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, even as far away as Tanzania. During the 1970s and ’80s, mineworkers found ways to fight back, forming the National Union of Mineworkers. By 1983 the NUM had some 20,000 workers. By 1986 they were the fastest growing union in the world, with nearly a quarter of a million in their ranks. And in that year alone, they pulled off 113 strikes. In 1987, at the height of a national state of emergency targeted to suppress all anti-government political activity, the NUM embarked on a national walkout. By that time their ranks had swelled to 300,000. And virtually all of them went out, facing down the police just like their heirs did at Marikana, with their traditional weapons, their bare hands, and their indomitable collective spirit.
The 1987 mineworkers strike was a revolutionary moment in South Africa, the most important strike in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. The miners stood strong for three weeks against the might of the apartheid state. The bosses fired 50,000 workers but the miners still stayed away. In the end, they lost the strike but won the war. The strike showed that, even with its apparatus of repression, the white government could not keep black workers under its thumb any longer. And at the center of this strike sat the leader of the NUM, a young lawyer named Cyril Ramaphosa, at that time the NUM general secretary. (Remember that name.)
The NUM and the unions of that era were part of a revolutionary movement—a sizable grouping within the anti-apartheid forces who not only wanted an end to segregation and white supremacy but had an explicitly socialist agenda. They put this into practice in two ways. First, they had an openly socialist political program that included the nationalization of the mines. Second, they organized themselves along the principles of participatory democracy—“workers’ control,” they called it. Shop stewards, elected leaders who were actual shop-floor and mineshaft workers, were the most powerful voice in the unions and were directly accountable to those who elected them, the rank-and-file union members.
The Real Story of the Strike
While the media has mainly told us about the massacre of August 16, they haven’t focused on the actual outcome of the strike. Despite the killings, the workers stayed on strike. And they won. They didn’t get all their demands, but they got a pay increase of more than 20 percent for underground workers, those men (and a few women) who sweat blood in underground hellholes to extract platinum and keep the global economy supplied with catalytic converters and Rolex watches. And they set an example that inspired other mineworkers: since August 16, there has been a rash of strikes in the mines. Industrial action has spread to transport workers, to municipal workers, even to farmworkers. In a way, the South African working class has come back to life. The new government is not about to fall or fundamentally change its ways, but as the famous regional slogan goes, a luta continua—the struggle continues.
NUM and the trade unions remain a powerful force in South Africa. Union leaders, like Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), are household names in South Africa. Whenever there is a major issue on the political agenda—HIV/AIDS, gender inequality, housing—the trade unions weigh in and the media and the populace pay attention. But while the unions and NUM have an important voice in South Africa, they have also become part of the problem. Their constituency has changed, and their agenda along with it. Whereas during the apartheid era the unions were squarely against the government, post-1994 COSATU and the NUM, which is affiliated with COSATU, have remained in alliance with the ANC. Even as the government has taken a progressively more pro-business stance COSATU and the NUM have stayed on board, albeit with more than occasional protest.
Cyril Ramaphosa symbolizes the path that this process has taken. Cyril left the unions long ago but remains a major political force in the ANC. Some people have even suggested that he should be the next president. But he also has carved out another career for himself. He has become a major capitalist in South Africa, said to be worth nearly a billion dollars. He is the head of Shunduka, an investment firm with considerable holdings in the Lonmin mine. To top it off, Cyril sits on the board of Lonmin. On the night before the Marikana massacre, Cyril sent an email to Susan Shabangu, South Africa’s Minister of Mines, saying that what was happening at Lonmin was not a labor issue but criminal activity that required “concomitant action.”
But it’s not only lawyer Cyril who has shifted. The NUM has as well. Now only 40 percent of the union’s membership is underground workers. The union is focusing on the better paid workers, those who work in the offices, drive the vehicles, don’t come home from work covered in the dust and grime of platinum extraction—whose loved ones don’t worry every morning whether they will come out of the mine alive that evening.
This has not gone unnoticed by the underground workers. And at Marikana, another union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), challenged the hegemony of NUM by approaching the underground workers and offering to take up their struggle for an increase from the meager $500 a month that they were earning. The workers, who wouldn’t take such a decision lightly, flocked to the AMCU.
The NUM reaction to this was appalling. They labeled the AMCU as thugs and criminals. When Frans Baleni, the general secretary of the NUM, a man who now earns about $160,000 a year (about 320 times the wage of an underground worker), showed up to talk to the striking workers he arrived in a police vehicle and he never emerged. He shouted at them through a window. He was terrified to talk to these righteously and rightfully angry people his union was supposed to be servicing. This is where the NUM is today and why the workers at Marikana sought out an alternative.
What has happened to the NUM and the mining sector has parallels across South Africa. The advent of the neoliberal model has provided an open door for South African employers to restructure. For anyone familiar with what has happened to the U.S. workforce and unions in recent years, the pattern should be familiar. Where possible, as in the textile and clothing industries, employers have either relocated offshore or simply collapsed due to competition from cheap imports. In other industries like mining and retail, employers have opted for out-sourcing. They maintain their union contracts but look for other arrangements through which they can hire part-time or contract workers and pay them low wages and no benefits. With an unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent in South Africa, there is a plentiful supply of people willing to work under such conditions. COSATU has not found a way to organize these “precarious” workers, who some now call the “precariat.” Instead, the unions have moved up the ladder, drawing in more white-collar workers, leaving the precariat, the underground workers, to fend for themselves. The South African mines now have two tiers of workers, a shrinking core with some kind of permanence and decent pay and conditions alongside a growing periphery of people left out of the social contract. A new form of organization is needed to serve this precariat.
The workplace is not the only site in South Africa where all these conflicts are playing out. Across the country, on an almost daily basis, there are demonstrations in impoverished working-class communities, demanding what has been promised by the ANC government: housing, water, electricity, roads, health care, education—the basic necessities of life, which were systematically denied to black people by apartheid and are now being systematically denied by the market and the allied forces of the Oppenheimer family and the Cyril Ramaphosas of this era.
The key question is, where will it all go and what kind of organizations will emerge out of this process? The ANC and COSATU seem to be hopelessly compromised, but efforts to form alternatives have proven difficult. For a moment it looked like maybe AMCU would stick, but in the end the workers left both AMCU and NUM behind and formed their own workers’ committee to negotiate their successful contract. Perhaps a new worker organization has been born, beholden to no political commissars or traditions. We will have to wait and see.
During the last decade-and-a-half, a number of social movements have also arisen with the intention of channeling local protests into a campaign and structure at the national level. There has been an Anti-Privatization Forum, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Environmental Justice Network, the Landless Peoples’ Movement. All of these have had their moments and then collapsed. Abahlali Basemjondolo, an organization of shack dwellers, remains vibrant in Durban but has had difficulties gaining a national presence and has also experienced direct attacks from the ANC.
In the 1980s, apartheid fell largely because the trade union movement and the social movements in working-class communities and rural areas made the apartheid state unmanageable and made the economy unsustainable. These movements also forged a collective vision that another world was possible and put it into practice in the democratic structures of their own organizations. The forces of globalization, which were new and exciting to South African big capital at that moment, helped undermine those organizations, opening the door to compromise and diminishing the possibilities for the future of South Africa.
Clearly, for any major change to take place some kind of national organization must emerge that offers an alternative to the ANC and COSATU. This Marikana moment is an important step in that process. Let us not forget those who gave their lives for justice and equality on August 16.
James Kilgore is a research scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois and the author of three novels: We Are All Zimbabweans Now, Freedom Never Rests, and Prudence Couldn’t Swim.