The vivid images of the Marikana Massacre and its aftermath are strikingly different from those capturing previous strikes by South African mineworkers. What is noticeable is the presence of large numbers of women – not all of them mineworkers – acting in support of the miners’ demands.
Women and men protested side-by-side against the routine violence mineworkers suffered at the hands of their employers and the South African Police Service (SAPS). Women sat on the koppie close to the mine, refusing to be intimidated by threats of violence aimed at getting the workers back underground. They too have been harassed and shot at in the communities where they live.Together and separately, women and men expressed their distrust that the government, the National Union of Mineworkers, or the owners and managers of the mines could address their concerns in an honest and respectful manner.
A month after the shootings, the women of Nkaneng, the settlement adjacent to the Lonmin mine where the shootings occurred, took to the streets in a march that local officials repeatedly tried to ban. They would not be deterred and set out to march on the morning of September 29 – whether or not they were granted official permission to do so. The women of Nkaneng took to the streets and walked shoulder-to-shoulder with women from other parts of South Africa who had travelled there to march in solidarity with them.
At this march and in other fora, the women of Nkaneng publicly demanded healthcare, water, sanitation, electricity, and support for small farmers, especially women, who had long been active in the district and had been negatively affected by the expansion of the mine. They also demanded that the police be prosecuted for their role in the massacre and that they be held to account for the intimidation subsequently wrought on communities surrounding the mines. These demands are critical because they are rooted in women’s daily lives and experiences above ground, where they bear the responsibility for the unpaid care work that sustains households and reproduces the labour force that travels deep into the earth every day.These are the women tasked with the heavy work of stretching R4,000 a month to maintain a household, feeding, clothing and sending children off to school despite appalling living conditions in which sewage floods the streets, ventilation shafts puncture the ground between shacks, and schools are constructed out of asbestos.
Understandably, the women featured in news reports on the Marikana Massacre have frequently been bereaved partners, mothers, and daughters. However, women occupy roles in the local economy beyond these ‘virtuous’ ones. Many have also been coerced into doing sex work. This is the kind of ‘dirty work’ that many people regard as shameful and impossible to talk about. and in the wake of the massacre, almost no attention has been paid to the ways in which sex work in and around Nkaneng is a product of the material and gender inequalities generated by the local mining economy.
In early August, just days before the assault in which 34 workers died, the Benchmarks Foundation released a report on the mining industry in the Rustenburg area. It makes clear that women and girls are routinely incorporated into the local economies surrounding platinum mines as sex workers. Miners traffic women, often from Mozambique and Lesotho, to mining areas under false pretenses. Once they arrive in their new ‘home’, these young women are confined to specific shacks and forced to do sex work.
Researchers heard reports of mothers ‘renting out’ their daughters to mineworkers in Marikana. They were also told that women who work underground as miners at Anglo Platinum fear being sexually assaulted at work, and that some female workers engaged in transactional sex with their male colleagues underground in order to supplement their paltry income.
Sex workers, as well as women and girls that are sexually assaulted in these communities, have very few institutions to turn to for support. Healthcare services are non-existent, and women risk further abuse at the hands of the police when they report their experiences.
Moreover, sexual violence occurs at the hands of the closest thing migrant women have to ‘kin’ – migrant workers that come from the same regions as they do. Aside from the obvious physical and emotional dangers female sex workers are exposed to, sex work is dangerous because it is premised on the idea – widespread in mineshafts, classrooms, legislatures, boardrooms and bedrooms across South Africa – that men may exploit the relative inequalities in physical power, social status and material wealth in order to coerce women into having sex with them.In the case of the communities included in the Benchmarks Report, this patriarchal conception is flourishing under the most desperate conditions.
Our struggle for justice in Marikana cannot shy away from this. This important truth should not be tucked away as if part of a different struggle to be fought on a different day.
In light of the evidence that the women of Marikana are actively involved in resisting the abuse they suffer at the hands of miners, capital, and state agencies, we are forced to ask why have media reports and public conversations about the massacre ignored the violence suffered by women?
The Marikana massacre has re-animated public conversation about labour exploitation, capitalism, neoliberalism, collusion between the South African state and mining capital, and the failure of the state to ensure that its citizens live and work in healthy conditions. but it has not brought about a serious and widespread conversation about the terms under which women, women workers, and female migrant workers, are incorporated into the contemporary political economy of South Africa.
Marikana has made it clear that a feminist critique of the relationship between state and capital is a necessary if South Africa is to become a more just society. What shape this critique will assume is as yet unclear. It is likely that it will entail both a call for the recognition of the distinctive ways in which women are exploited by the market and within households, and for the recognition of the ways in which their voices and experiences are systematically excluded from political life.
In contributing to these feminist critiques, however, it would be wise to keep in mind what Nancy Fraser and Ellen Meiksins Wood think of as the ‘affinities’ between particular strands of feminism and neoliberalism. If a feminist vision of social justice is only based on recognising the specific ways in which women are exploited, promoting women’s autonomy and ensuring that women are incorporated into existing public and private institutions in an equitable manner, it will yield a conception of social justice that is compatible with neoliberalism. After all, neoliberalism also embraces individuality, autonomy and reforms that legitimate neoliberal economic practices by making them appear more inclusive and democratic.
In the wake of Marikana, feminist critics of capitalism thus face the challenge of articulating a conception of social justice that is committed to exposing the affinities between all types of dehumanising social and material systems and to undermining them in all their mutations.
Lauren Paremoer works at the University of Cape Town and is a member of the Rita Edwards Branch of the New Women’s Movement