Set in platinum, sharp divides

Striking miners gather on a hillside at the Lonmin mine near Marikana, South Africa, Wednesday Aug. 15, 2012. Ongoing violence that started last Friday has seen 10 people killed, with no end to the strike in sight. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)   | Photo Credit: Jon Gambrell

Half a century after the Sharpville massacre that raised international outrage against apartheid, last week’s shootings at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in South Africa seemed like déjà vu. While apartheid is now safely a thing of the past, the Marikana site of 44 casualties, just 80 km northeast from the capital Pretoria, is a reminder of how inextricably race, class and representation are enmeshed in democratic South Africa’s trade union rivalries.

At the heart of the strike that provoked police shooting were the mine workers carrying out the lowliest paid but hardest job of drilling the rock underground. The rock drillers earned $500 a month for risking their lives on a daily basis while working in pitch dark pits sometimes 400 metres below the earth’s surface. There was little or no support for this demand from their trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which commands a vast membership of over 3,60,000 members and boasts an impeccable record of anti-apartheid struggle since the 1980s, called this strike illegal. Workers attributed this to NUM’s revolutionary past getting unforgivably rusty: its founding father, Cyril Ramaphosa, now sits on the board of the London-listed and World Bank-advised Lonmin; its general secretary Frans Baleni, who earns a comfortable monthly salary of $13,000, allegedly likened the rock drillers’ strike to “sharks attacking under water” and hence needing dewatering.

Elitism within trade unionism led a large number of platinum mine workers including the Marikana rock drillers to flock to the new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), founded by disgruntled leaders from NUM. As the Marikana strike turned violent and NUM agreed to the mine owners’ call for a heavy handed police intervention, AMCU saw the writing on the wall. On the ill-fated day of the shooting, its leaders went among the striking workers to convey the danger in no uncertain terms. NUM leaders also addressed the workers, but they felt so threatened by the workers that they refused to leave the safety of a police-armoured vehicle while addressing the crowd. There were no political negotiations and the workers refused to return to work. Within 10 minutes of AMCU leaders leaving the scene, the police fired at protesters.


The South African Police Service has maintained that the police acted in self defence. Video footage of a group of workers charging on the police is widely circulating in the national media. True, there were violent clashes between police and striking miners in the days preceding the shooting, making the police especially paranoid. However, the alternative account is that the workers seen in the footage may have been fleeing since the police had shot on striking workers from behind, out of sight of the media. President Jacob Zuma has now ordered a judicial inquiry into the incident and it will take another four months for a detailed report to be put together.

Beyond the immediate unfolding of events leading to the strike and eventually a massacre, however, Marikana is quickly turning into a battleground for politics of class and culture. To start with, rock drillers are mostly uneducated people from the rural Eastern Cape and the mountains of Lesotho whereas their elected Union leaders are usually educated and shrewd men from towns. Even though there are two unions to choose from — NUM and AMCU — the animosity between them has given rise to such extreme opportunism that rock drillers are deeply suspicious of both. In fact, in the days immediately before the shooting, it was reported that a large number of workers had consulted local songomas or traditional healers for substances that would make them invincible to bullets.

Some commentators were quick to attribute this to mob mentality among the striking miners while others see in it the desperate search for the last straw by workers drowning in defeat.

Three issues

What does Marikana say about South Africa’s current politics of race and class? In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, the NUM was publicly booted out of mine workers’ gatherings, and its rival AMCU is rapidly gaining ground in the platinum belt. Even then, AMCU and the workers disgruntled with NUM still have a tough battle to fight because NUM is after all an important wing of the liberation party African National Congress (ANC) which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. The NUM-AMCU rivalry is thus not just about the clash of few egos; it puts a big question mark on the legacy of the anti-apartheid movement for today’s South Africa.

Second, post-apartheid South Africa saw a small number in the black population quickly rise to elitism — thanks to the programmes of affirmative action such as Black Economic Empowerment which sought to redistribute wealth between the blacks and the whites — but did little to ensure a meritocratic and progressive process of transfer. The yawning gap between the earnings of the striking miners and their NUM leaders brings home the reality that the end of political apartheid has not necessarily brought social and economic liberation for everybody.

The third issue is of the ownership of natural resources. The striking miners are right to point out that the platinum they extract goes to the accounts of a few chosen fat cats, most of whom are white, while they themselves risk their lives on a daily basis for a meagre wage and oppressive working conditions. Beyond the immediate issues of trade unionism, the discontent has fuelled the call for nationalising the mines. Indeed, Julius Malema, the radical youth leader of ANC, who carried the banner of nationalisation until he was suspended a few months ago on charges of corruption and incitation of violence, is making a political comeback in the platinum belt.

Trade union politics has never been straightforward. Class is never bifurcated but multifurcated, and its manifestation in the multi-racial and multi-ethnic context is decidedly complex. Marikana reminds us once again that class theorisations based on the pre-multicultural Europe are bound to be redefined in societies facing the overlapping issues of race and class as well as specialised forms of political elitism. Added to this are challenges of perspectives and interpretations: centuries long portrayal of Africa as the Dark Continent makes stories of witchcraft, mob and police brutalities too tempting a narrative, but underneath lie the threads of national transition and social disquiet that may be common elsewhere.

(Mallika Shakya is Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria.)

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 1:53:21 AM |

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