Embryos of working-class power and grassroots democracy in Marikana

by Jan 21, 2013Magazine

amandla-28-democracyThe formation of a workers’ committee is an act of power by the working class. It has shaken capital by advancing far beyond trade union bureaucracy. The workers’ committee in Lonmin had only been in existence for a week when the Marikana massacre took place on the 16 August 2012, killing 34 workers. The committee became so powerful in this short space of time that the ANC’s national security applied its full force and told police to kill the workers if necessary so that they would end their strike. The employers, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the ANC could not cope with the fact that workers at the third largest platinum mine in the world were refusing to go underground to extract resources for the bosses.

In the spirit of participatory or grassroots democracy, decisions in the workers’ committee are made in direct dialogue with the workers themselves, who inform the committee’s direction. This is the core of the committee’s politics and, as the workers indicated to us, its key strength. The body was elected on the basis of previous leadership skills in the work place, community and recreational spaces. There are about 20 people on the committee. An elected sub-committee includes the ‘Five Madodas’ and acts as the executive. The Five Madodas comprise the sharpest thinkers and most articulate speakers in the workforce. They are the ones who negotiate with the employers and police and who receive guests of honour, such as Ministers and Chiefs. The committee’s messenger is responsible for the collection of donations, buying of food and water, another member is responsible for burials and the committee also has marshalls for crowd control.

The committee at Lonmin represents the mineworkers in the Eastern and Western mine shafts, where NUM has become obsolete. In the other shaft, Karee, the committee engages with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which, since 2011, has had elected shop stewards there. The committee views AMCU as a sympathiser to their cause, in part because its leaders came to the mountain on 16 August to listen to them, rather than to kill them.

While the strike ended in September, the committee has vowed to continue its quest for a living monthly wage of R12 500. It is willing to work with other organisations and, although it has links to anti-capitalist forces such as the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), its political direction is inconsistent. While the DLF and DSM have made important strides in providing solidarity to the workers, in fact the objectives of these organisations are unclear to the workers, many of whom are more sympathetic to the ANC than we might like to believe.

The strike was a response to the harshness and strenuous nature of their work as well as a growing recognition of both the value of their work and that their bosses have the capital with which to pay them far more. They have shown that a real living wage is R12 500, not a mere R4 000. At the risk of being ultra-critical of their exercise of working-class power, their main demand has been for more money, not less capitalism or the formation of a workers’ party. The recent strikes at Implats, Amplats and Lonmin have opened up possibilities for the building of a broad-based anti-capitalist alternative, but it will take far more time and commitment for workers to see themselves as being forerunners of this alternative. The challenge posed to anti-capitalist forces is to embed their ideas within the consciousness of the strikers while simultaneously enabling the strikers to lead them.

Tapelo Lekgoa and Luke Sinwell are activists and researchers. They are co-editors of Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer, which will be published in November 2012 by Jacana Media.

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