Striking South African mineworkers were gunned down by police on Thursday. Charlie Kimber looks at events leading up to the massacre—and the business interests behind it
Police in South Africa have opened fire at striking workers at the Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg, leaving at least 18 people dead. Ten people have died over the last few days in other clashes.
This disgusting slaughter evoked memories of how the police acted during apartheid. All the hope at the end of that vile racist regime has come to this.
The recently appointed police chief Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega visited the mine a few days ago and she is believed to have coordinated Thursday’s action.
But the decision by the heavily armed police to use live rounds must have been endorsed at the highest level—perhaps even by the ANC’s President Jacob Zuma.
Zuma said he regretted the killings. But disgracefully he made no reference to the handling of the situation by the police.
There must be justice for the strikers killed at Marikana—and those who ordered the deaths must pay for them.
This is another bloody page in the history of South African mining, a history of massive profits for the bosses, of racism and of heroic resistance.
The strike takes place as platinum, which was fabulously profitable before the world financial crisis, is now falling in price. This squeezes profits and so bosses look to impose job cuts. Mineworkers, already doing a very dangerous job, now face even more insecurity.
The boom in platinum, a key component for the auto industry, has transformed parts of South Africa. It has brought riches for a few—and misery for many. The massacre opens a window into the reality of a minerals boom, driven by Chinese demand, that is meant to be uplifting Africa.
A report this week from the Bench Marks Foundation said that despite the value extracted from platinum mining, local communities were facing harmful social, economic and environmental consequences.
“The concern is that private corporations, often with the support of government leaders, make very large profits while communities suffer high levels of inequality and poverty. The situation in Marikana testifies to this,” said Bench Marks chair Jo Seoka.
Police attacked miners who had been striking for nearly a week, bringing production to a halt at the site which employs 28,000 people. It is run by Lonmin, successor to the Lonrho firm which has worked with every rotten regime in Africa for over a century.
The strike is over pay, with workers rightly demanding big rises. This has led to splits between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), South Africa’s traditional mine union, and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which argues for a more militant approach.
AMCU is not a bosses’ union. It began in 1998 among workers disgruntled with the increasing bureaucratisation and “partnership” approach of the NUM. Many of its leading figures are former NUM activists.
The NUM played a central role in the battle against apartheid and led courageous strikes. But it is now seen by many as right wing and in bed with management.
Whatever its intentions, AMCU has sometimes been used to introduce disunity at a time when workers face big challenges. It would have been better for the workers who formed the rival union to fight among the NUM rank and file and shift its policies from below. But none of that in any way excuses the police killings.
The AMCU has grown as the anger at the NUM has developed. In recent years NUM has worked closely with the bosses, summed up by the appointment of Cyril Ramaphosa, the first NUM leader, as a non-executive director and “chairman of the transformation committee” at Lonmin.
In particular AMCU has backed the demands of rock drillers for higher wages when NUM leaders did not. The rock drillers do an extremely hazardous job and are hard to replace. They can therefore put pressure on bosses. And when they stop, the whole mine stops.
The NUM is also close to South Africa’s ruling ANC at a time when the government is increasingly unpopular. There are more protests per capita in South Africa than anywhere else in the world, often over issues such as housing and other basic services.
At the end of last year AMCU played a big role in the strike at Impala Platinum, a few miles from the site of Thursday’s massacre. The NUM won recognition at the Impala mine in 1993 after a bitter struggle against the “homeland” regime of Lucas Mangope. But in the latest strike, sections of workers thought the NUM had betrayed them.
Bosses sacked some 13,000 workers and many felt the NUM should have done more than meekly order them back to work. AMCU grew at Impala, and then at the Lonmin mines.
The recent Marikana strike began among rock drillers. The NUM denounced them for sectionalism, while AMCU said it was fighting for everyone.
Police and bosses decided that Thursday was “D-day” to break the strike. They attacked thousands of strikers who had gathered on a hill. The strikers fought back—and the police shot at them.
There is strong evidence that the NUM’s attitude encouraged the police’s crimes. Speaking on Thursday morning NUM general secretary Frans Baleni appealed “to all workers to go back to work and for the law enforcement agencies to crack down the culprits of the violence and murders”.
“Our members are more than ready to report back for work,” Baleni added, calling on the police to clear the way through the strikers.
After the massacre NUM spokesperson Lesib Seshoka said that while the union condemned the violence, it was pleased the police had dealt with “criminal elements provoking violent behaviour at the mine”.
The bosses will be delighted at the splits among workers and the proof that the state is prepared to stand with the elite. Bosses will also be cheered at the latest show of lethal support for the private mine firms. There is a big debate in South Africa about the nationalisation of the mines.
We should remember how capital has exploited black miners in South Africa. The apartheid system of systematic racism that robbed and humiliated black people, stripping them of all political rights, was the result of the development of capitalism—and especially mining capital.
In 1997 the Cosatu trade union federation gave evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings into business and apartheid.
“Far from being innocent of racial oppression, it was precisely the captains of industry—particularly those associated with the diamond and gold mining industry—who pioneered many of the core features of what later came to be known as apartheid,” it said.
Around 69,000 mineworkers died in “accidents” between 1900 and 1993—and more than a million were seriously injured. Even now, nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid, some 40 mineworkers have died this year.
Facing the brutality of capital and the state, miners need a fighting unity. There will be anger and protest now about these horrendous murders.
The best way to remember the murdered workers would be to build stronger opposition to the mine bosses—and to the ANC leaders who back them.