South Africa's Mine Massacre Reveals Ugly Realities
by Leonard Gentle
August 24, 2012
The story that emerged to explain why 34 South African
platinum miners were killed by police last Thursday has
so far been painted as an inter-union spat.
The reality is that the massacre reveals far more
troubling fault lines for a country struggling to make
its way since movements that fused Black liberation,
radical politics, and militant unionism upended
apartheid in 1994. The moral legitimacy of the African
National Congress, the organisation that has ruled the
country since liberation, now has been squandered.
In the first few days after the massacre at the
Marikana mine, amid the shock and horror of watching
people being shot dead on TV, there have been few who
want to take responsibility. To do so would be to
Some pundits have warned of "pointing figures" or
"stoking anger," helping President Jacob Zuma appear
statesmanlike as he set up an inquiry to investigate
the massacre at Marikana, owned by the UK-based Lonmin.
But this is not just a story of hardship, violence, and
grief. To speak in those terms would add insult to the
injuries perpetrated by the police on the striking
workers--by seeing the strikers as mere victims and not
as agents of their own future and, even more
importantly, as a source of a new movement in the
More than Rivalry
So far the 3,000 strikers have stood firm not only
against the police, and Lonmin, which has threatened
mass firings, but also against the media labelling
their strike "illegal."
Strikes are not illegal in South Africa; they are only
protected or unprotected. They are not criminal acts
for which law and order can be invoked. But if they are
not protected, strikers can be dismissed by their
The major labor organizations, the National Union of
Mineworkers (NUM), and the federation to which it
belongs, COSATU, are rallying behind their ally--the
They are all stigmatizing the strikers and the
breakaway union they have joined, the Association of
Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), as a "yellow
union" that is "paid for" by corporate interests.
Why corporations would pay to form a striking, volatile
union rather than a union like NUM that enforces labor
peace makes no sense. But some people choose to believe
NUM has accused the breakaway union of fomenting
violence, even though it was NUM that called for police
action against the strikers. The entrenched union noted
that the Lonmin strike was the third to hit the
platinum sector recently. All involved the AMCU, which
workers have joined in growing numbers, with the new
union providing an outlet for their frustrations.
The frustration has soared as the NUM membership has
changed over the last 15 years.
NUM grew out of the less-skilled job categories of
South African mineworkers, mostly among illiterate
migrant laborers. But they make up just 40 percent of
the membership now. An increasing portion of the NUM's
membership is skilled, higher-level mining staff, who
dominate the union's structures.
The morphing membership acted to protect its interests.
According to the trade journal Miningmx, NUM stipulated
a 50 percent plus one member threshold for recognition
in 2007 contracts, foreclosing any role for workers to
form new unions and challenge the company-recognized
NUM has also struck cozy deals for more skilled
workers, which led to a strike at another platinum
mine, Implats, earlier this year, after rock drillers
learned they had been denied a 18 percent bonus granted
to other workers.
NUM is moving on from its history as the union of
coalface workers to a union of white collar
above-ground technicians. It is these developments
within NUM that led to the formation of the AMCU in
2001. The breakaway was pushed along when NUM ousted
Joseph Mathunjwa, a popular leader in the platinum
sector who now heads the AMCU.
New Means, Old Methods
Mining itself also has changed. Much of the hard work
underground is now done by workers sourced from labor
brokers. These are the most exploited and insecure
workers who work the longest hours and have short-term,
unstable jobs. In some cases contract engineering
firms, hired by mine owners, are responsible for the
actual mining. Into the mix are so-called "illegal
miners" who literally mine with spades and their own
dynamite and then sell on to middlemen who themselves
have links to big businesses.
Lonmin has exploited these divisions, exacerbated by
the old mining industry strategy of recruiting along
tribal and regional divisions. The drill workers at
Lonmin, who break apart the rock containing the ore,
were Xhosa-speaking and brought from the Eastern Cape
into an area where most people speak another language,
Tswana. This was a conscious move by the company to
heighten exploitation in the mines.
Add to this the toxic mix heavily armed mine security,
barbed-wire enclosures, and substandard informal
housing--and a picture of institutionalised violence
The mine owners have been aided by the ANC in
maintaining this scenario. By sending police to attack
workers, the ANC moved to defend the new elite in South
Africa: old white business owners garnished with a
sprinkling of politically connected Blacks.
The ANC is stepping squarely into the shoes of its
apartheid predecessors, acting to secure the profits of
corporate mining interests through violence. Successive
governments always have done what was necessary to
ensure a cheap, divided, and compliant labor force for
House of Labor Divided
Whatever the merits or faults of the AMCU, its
emergence is a direct challenge to the control of the
NUM and COSATU.
As such the federation has embarked on a disgraceful
campaign of slandering the striking workers and their
union. They have been joined by the media, which has
relied on NUM sources for information on the strike.
Together they have painted the rock drillers as
uneducated and easily manipulated by the AMCU, which
has supposedly promised $1,500-a-month pay. The
incumbent union and the media have termed that
"unreasonable." Nobody has even bothered to check what
rock drill workers actually earn at present (between
$500 and $1,000 a month).
The slander here is that workers are so open to
manipulation that they will believe any empty promises.
This plays to the prejudice that rock drill workers are
ignorant, and it bolsters the idea that AMCU is some
kind of slick-willy operation that must take
responsibility for the massacre.
Anyone with any experience of organizing in South
Africa knows that trade unions don't come to workers
like insurance salesmen. In the main workers form their
own committees and then send a delegation to the union
office--or go on strike, leading the boss to call in a
union to resolve it.
Nor is any strike decision ever taken lightly, let
alone such a strike such as this one--unprotected,
under the umbrella of an unrecognised union, in a
workplace with mine security and where the workers
themselves are in a strange region far from home.
Wildcat strikes are probably the most conscious act of
sacrifice and courage anyone can take, driven by anger
and desperation and involving the full knowledge that
you could lose your job and your family's livelihood.
The irony of COSATU's vicious criticism of AMCU is
rooted in its own origins. In 1973, workers from
companies like the Frame Group in Durban came out in a
series of wildcat--then really illegal--strikes, and
faced criticisms of being violent and "splitting the
Now this event is celebrated by everyone as part of the
revival of the anti-apartheid mass movement and the
birth of a new phase of radical trade unionism--which
culminated in the formation of COSATU in 1985.
Fork in the Road
The strike and the massacre mark a turning point for
Unlike its partners, COSATU's moral authority has
remained intact since 1994. COSATU has publicly
attacked corruption within the state, has criticized
the ANC's kowtowing to business interests, and
protested limitations on media freedom. Whatever
activists were challenging, they sought out COSATU as a
partner. Its standing was high because it was simply
the most organized voice among the working class.
But today COSATU's links to the majority of the working
class are tenuous.
It is almost intuitive that we consider the notion of a
worker as someone working for a clearly defined
employer, on a full-time basis, in a large factory,
mine, or shop.
In South Africa, this structure of work was accompanied
by the residential spaces of townships. From the 1950s
apartheid increasingly came to accept the existence of
a settled urban working class, which was shunted into
large industrial sites and brick houses in large
Since the 1980s, this has begun to change. Today
outsourcing, homework, labor brokers, and other ways to
make work informal and precarious have become dominant.
Homelessness and shackdwelling are the mode of
existence for South Africa's working class, a direct
result of the withdrawal of the state from providing
and supporting housing.
By way of contrast, the dominant trade unions in South
Africa have largely moved towards white collar workers
and away from this increasingly precarious majority.
Today the large COSATU affiliates are public sector
white collar workers.
Blue collar workers now find work through labor brokers
and in services that have been completely outsourced,
like cleaning and security, so they do not fall within
the unions' bargaining units.
The poor of South Africa are rebelling against these
conditions. For years now South Africans have engaged
in nationwide protests against the government's failure
to deliver basic services.
According to Wits University's Peter Alexander, there
has been an average of 2.9 "unrest incidents" per day
in the last three years. This is an increase of 40
percent over the average recorded between 2004 and
COSATU, however, has not sided with the local community
struggles that have been the dominant form of working
class resistance in recent years. It is entrenched in
ANC leadership politics and its membership is becoming
removed from these social realities.
The revolts have failed to register on the laptops and
Blackberries of the chattering classes. This is because
of the social--and even geographic--distance of the
middle classes to the new working classes and the poor.
The sight of the police shooting striking workers on TV
has brought the real world of struggle right into the
lounges of public opinion.
In the midst of our outrage at this brutality let us
acknowledge something new is emerging. Early signs do
not indicate it is grand and well-organized. Movements,
after all, are notoriously messy. But the struggle to
build new militant unions may succeed in bringing
organized labor closer to the new majority of informal
In normal times trade unions can be almost as much a
huge bureaucratic machine as a corporation or a state
agency, with negotiations conducted by insiders far
from rank-and-file members.
Strikes change all that. Suddenly unions are forced to
be conduits of their members' aspirations. Whatever the
merits of AMCU as a democratic union, or as one with
any vision of transformation, the workers of Marikana
made their choices, to become members of AMCU and risk
everything, for a better future. For that we owe them
more than just pious sympathy.
Leonard Gentle is director of the International Labour
Research and Information Group in South Africa.
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