Revolutions distinguish themselves as phenomena that change those who wield social power, replacing old ruling classes with new classes of rulers.
In South Africa, the revolution that culminated in the 1994 April Democratic Breakthrough is always thought of as having ushered in a new era of social relations because social power that had for centuries concentrated in the hands of small minority was now thought to be evenly distributed irrespective of race, class and gender. This theoretical equality “regardless of race, class and gender” is the defining essence of the country’s Constitution and the ANC’s strategy and tactics. So April 1994 was an historic moment because it was proclaimed: “The people are now governing!”
In other words, the South African revolution was always thought of as a social revolution rather than merely a political one. For the first time in its history, the fate of the country could now be decided by all citizens with equal status before the law. And as a basis of that equality, there was a promise to redress the living conditions of the historically dispossessed. A better life for all was promised, as a base for the new social relations.
“The people shall now share in the country’s wealth!” was also proclaimed in 1994. The promise of a better life for all was the centre of social and economic policy. But the reality that unfolded, post-1994, was that in many respects old power relations formed under apartheid, in the economic production system, remained almost the same. The big monopolies in the mining, energy and finance industries remained in charge, continuing to wield social power. They have co-opted, as junior partners, the black business class and the black political elites to lend legitimacy.
The Marikana massacre and revelations at the Farlam Commission have exposed the deepening systemic crisis of old apartheid social power relations that continued post-1994. The low wages that constituted cheap labour, the reproduction of a large reserve army of the unemployed and massive poverty have remained the basic structures of the labour market. Democracy has not been associated with significant social progress for the majority.
Because of the centrality of wealth and economic power in capitalist societies, those who have wealth and economic power wield political power, even if they are not in political office – and they wield even more social power!
The liberal economic policies initiated in the 1990s were meant to appease big business with the hope that it would invest in the expansion of production so that more labour could be employed, thus raising incomes and total output. Big business did not meet its side of the deal on local productive investment; instead it globalised and financialised. That is why its profits grew exponentially while labour’s share of national income declined, despite the long period of consistent economic growth from 1999 to 2008.
This was the longest expansion phase in the South African business cycle since the 1960s. Big business could afford to break its part of the deal with government and pursue a jobless growth path because it had social power.
The Marikana Commission is laying bare the facts of the systematic crisis resulting from systemic power relations in which big business is the leading core of the ruling class, with the black business class and government as junior partners. Lonmin represents big business in major industries such as mining; Ramaphosa, a Lonmin shareholder and director, represents the black business class; and government ministers and senior police officers representing the post-94 black political ruling elites.
Given these relations, it is not difficult to see that Lomnin used its power to pressure government to stop the strike by any means. Ramaphosa, who was elected four months later asANC Deputy President at Mangaung, was Lonmin’s conduit. The strike was not about a mere increase of servitude wages. Rather, with its R12,500 minimum monthly wage demand, it was a call to end the cheap labour that was still being perpetuated after 1994, despite the revolutionary promise of a better life for all.
An end to cheap labour would ignite a deeper systematic crisis for South Africa’s capitalism. This has been exacerbated by the lack of a reorganisation of the production system that moves away from extractive mining production to an industrially developed, value-adding production.
Marikana was a crisis moment, and Lonmin employed desperate measures to alleviate the situation. So Ramaphosa wrote his now-infamous email to the minister of mineral resources, in which he characterised the strike as a “criminal” act requiring “concomitant action”. What followed, to borrow from Frederick Engels, is that the Marikana Koppie became a place “where the final mass murder was consummated, still standing today, as a mute but eloquent testimony to the savagery of which the ruling class is capable as soon as the working class dares to come out for its right.”
Deputy President Ramaphosa has conceded under cross-examination that the strike was not criminal, as he claimed. He has conceded that had he called upon Lonmin management to negotiate with AMCU, a different and better outcome could have resulted, instead of the tragic massacre. He has also conceded that Lonmin should have fulfilled its corporate social labour plan obligations with regard to providing decent housing for workers; and he even described the living conditions of workers as “appalling and inhuman”.
Here you have a representative of a major mining house acknowledging the pauperisation of the workers under their watch. In other words, his own description of workers living conditions as “appalling and inhuman” amounts to conceding that Lonmin was incompetent to assure an existence of its workers; even within its wage slavery. That can only spell crisis.
But then, instead of acknowledging blame on behalf of Lonmin, Ramaphosa shifted the blame to some amorphous collective: “We must all take collective responsibility for the deaths.”
No, Deputy President. The Marikana massacre, like those of the apartheid era, was committed by those who wield power: Lonmin and government. It’s a tragedy that such a massacre occurred at all in the post-1994 era, after the glorious triumph against the apartheid social system that was described by the international community as “a crime against humanity.”
It is even more tragic that the massacre happened because workers dared stand up to demand a living wage. Marikana confirms the ongoing class power of the white bourgeoisie that continues to shape basic social structures and social relations in post-apartheid South Africa. Marikana is the boiling point for a systemic crisis, exposing the basic structures and ravages of South African capitalism that uses barbarism, misery and squalor to hold back any possible progressive transformation.
Our unfolding reality is yielding profound material meriting serious reflection. We don’t do enough analysing of this material. Even that is part of charting the way forward. Thus we cry: The Revolution is Dead! Long Live the Revolution!
Gunnett Kaaf has been active in the SACP, YCL, ANC, ANCYL and COSAS in the Free State and nationally.