Was it a ‘tragedy’ or was it a ‘massacre’? Were the police, shocked by the killing of cops and security guards a few days before, entitled to feel threatened by an advancing column of panga-wielding strikers fortified with traditional medicine to immunise them from bullets? Or were the cops guilty of penning the strikers in, making an unnecessary attempt to disarm them by force, employing unconscionable firepower to block their escape and killing stragglers in cold blood? Who fired the first round of live ammunition?
What we do know is that on August 16th 34 striking miners were gunned down by police at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in South Africa’s Northwest Province, and that there was at a minimum an unforgivable failure of police crowd control.
With luck, a government-appointed judicial commission will tell us who did what to whom and in what order. In the meantime South Africans nurse their bewilderment. Theirs is a violent land in which fifty people are slain daily in ‘ordinary’ criminal murder, and strikes are often enforced with deadly brutality, but a special shame attaches to a slaughter by state forces so redolent of apartheid-era massacres.
There are layers to this story. It’s about wage grievances, but also a battle between unions. Black platinum miners have until now been organised by the National Union of Mineworkers, a member of the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions. Critics claim that NUM, a stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is now a status quo union. Comfortable as management’s recognised bargaining partner, NUM resists calls for mine nationalisation. The union increasingly represents upwardly mobile above-ground workers rather than the rock drillers who do the most arduous work. The fact that NUM negotiated a better wage deal for the former than for the latter appears to have been a spark for the unrest.
Rock drillers have it hard. Platinum companies have invested little in surrounding communities. Those of its employees who do not wish to live in hostels are given living-out allowances to find their own accommodation nearby, where they are left to the tender care of dysfunctional ANC-led municipalities. Most end up in shack settlements threaded with bumpy roads and open sewers.
Given this, it is little surprise that a breakaway union, the Association of Construction and Mining Union, has found in drillers a ready recruiting pool. Precisely what role AMCU has played in the Marikana strike remains to be determined.
There is a gloomy economic context to this. The country’s crucial mining sector – weighed down by electricity price hikes, falling ore grades, safety concerns, labour unrest and skittishness about nationalisation – failed to ride the recent global commodities boom. Platinum long seemed immune from the industry’s decline. South Africa produces 80% of the world’s platinum, an extremely rare metal vital in catalytic converters. In 1999 international platinum prices began a long surge that transformed becalmed bushveld mining towns into new conurbations. But recently prices have fallen and platinum companies face financial losses. Successive strikes at platinum mines have made matters worse for the companies, their workers and a middle-income country that still depends on mineral exports for foreign exchange. Job losses loom.
The political ramifications could be equally far reaching. Expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, an arch critic of President Jacob Zuma and longstanding mine-nationalisation enthusiast, has returned to prominence on the back of mineworkers’ grievances. Zuma’s prospects for being re-elected as ANC leader at the party’s December leadership conference suddenly look shaky, especially with so many of the strikers hailing from the politically crucial Eastern Cape. The hegemony of NUM, a pro-Zuma union, is under threat. So perhaps is that of Cosatu, a federation willing to challenge the government but viewed by some as guarding a labour aristocracy in a sea of labour casualisation and unemployment. The ANC too is getting nervous: the Marikana strike is just the latest in thousands of incidents of local unrest signalling growing disaffection with the party of national liberation.
I for one do not welcome Malema’s opportunistic intervention or the left’s instant attributions of heroism and villainy. South Africa urgently requires a social-democratic accord, one underwritten by strong trade unions capable of winning decent work and expanding employment in exchange for industrial peace and productivity gains. Nationalisation may work for Norway’s oil industry but the South African state is chronically incapacitated and lacks the fiscal means to meet demands for new mining investment and rising mine wages. The splitting of established unions could weaken organised labour and leave mining in a limbo between institutionalised bargaining and quasi-revolutionary insurrection.
The truth of what happened at Marikana also needs to be objectively established, and its discovery is ill-served by incendiary sloganeering. Blame must be carefully apportioned and justice must be done. Only that will clear the air sufficiently to enable a worthwhile debate about what sort of socio-economic regime South African mining needs.