Marikana massacre

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

The police check for signs of life in the mineworkers who fell to their bullets at the Lonmin platinum mine at Rustenburg on August 16.-AP

The police check for signs of life in the mineworkers who fell to their bullets at the Lonmin platinum mine at Rustenburg on August 16.-AP

The killing of 39 mineworkers in police firing is a turning point in the struggle for economic freedom in the country.

IT was the bloodiest attack witnessed on the working class since the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. On August 16, the South African police opened fire on striking workers at one of the biggest platinum mines in the country, in Marikana, resulting in the death of 34 miners. Seventy-five were admitted to hospital with injuries; many of them were said to be in a serious condition. Ten people had died earlier in clashes related to the strike.

The workers were on an indefinite strike demanding, among other things, a 300 per cent wage increase and better working conditions in the mine, which is owned by the British company Lonmin PLC. They currently earn between $500 and $600 a month for back-breaking labour. The firing occurred on the day Lonmin reneged on a deal with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) to end the strike.

Lonmin, the worlds third biggest producer of platinum, was originally called Lornho. It had extensive ties with the apartheid regime and was owned by the controversial British businessman Tiny Rowlands, once described by former British Prime Minister Edward Heath as the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism.

A report brought out by the Bench Marks Foundation, an independent body looking into the functioning of mines, concluded that working conditions in Lonmin mines were very poor. South Africa has 80 per cent of the worlds platinum reserves. A recent Bench Marks report states: Mine labourers work under dangerous conditions in the mines, and live under appallingly poor conditions in shacks and informal settlements. Further, the surrounding areas experience little of the massive wealth that is extracted through platinum mining. Companies owning platinum mines make huge profits. One ounce (28.3 grams) of platinum sells at $1,400. After the strike in Lonmin, prices have gone up further.

South African President Jacob Zuma announced the setting up of a judicial commission to probe the incident and declared a week of national mourning. The police claimed that they resorted to firing in self-defence. Video images show the police opening fire indiscriminately on workers who were armed only with stones and a few machetes. There is clear evidence that the policemen randomly shot into the crowd with rifles and handguns, said a statement from the South African Institute of Race Relations.

A memorial service for those killed was held on August 24 at the site of the shootings. Many South Africans had expected Zuma to be present at the service, but he did not show up. However, the firebrand former youth wing leader of the African National Congress, Julius Malema, was present. Malema, who was expelled from the ANC in March, blamed the policies of the South African government for the bloodbath in Marikana. He said the ANC and President Zuma were not concerned about the interests of the working class. President Zuma must step down, he said and added that the government has murdered our people.

Malema led the striking workers to the towns police station to file a complaint alleging that the police had murdered protesting workers. He said the firing was totally unjustified and that live ammunition should not have been used even if the protesters were armed. Malema pointed out that during the protests by the Inkatha Freedom Party in the 1990s the police never resorted to firing despite the protesters carrying arms.

As many as 259 of the protesting miners were jailed and denied bail on the grounds that they did not have fixed addresses and that some of them hailed from neighbouring countries. The lawyers defending them argued that the incarcerated miners lived in shacks and hovels, which did not have fixed addresses. Meanwhile, proceedings were still to be initiated against the trigger-happy policemen. Malema told the thousands of workers and their families that they should never retreat, even in the face of death. He warned that many more people would die as the country struggled for economic freedom.

Earlier, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who led a ministerial delegation to condole with the grieving miners and their families, was given a rough reception. The Minister was repeatedly asked why Zuma had not bothered to visit them immediately after the killings. When Zuma finally visited Marikana six days after the killings, he was met by a sullen crowd demanding answers. Despite requests by the workers and their families, the President refused to visit the site of the massacre.

The strike in Marikana is spearheaded by the AMCU and has spread to other mines. Until now, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which is closely linked with the ruling party, had represented the miners. In fact, the NUM had objected to the strike in Marikana. Its secretary general, Frans Baleni, issued a statement immediately after the killings urging workers to go back to work and for the law enforcement agencies to crack down on the culprits of the violence and the murders. The spokesman for the NUM said he was grateful to the police for having dealt with the criminal elements provoking violent behaviour at the mine.

Malema, who is predicted to play an important role in contemporary South African politics, aimed his criticism at the NUM. He said the NUM was a former union and added that the country needed leaders who will not sell you out.

The NUM, with 300,000 members, is the largest affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which, together with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), forms the tripartite alliance that has governed the country since 1994. Cosatu has described the upstart AMCU as an adventurist outfit making unrealistic demands on behalf of the workers. The more militant AMCU now claims to have more members than the NUM.

An editorial in the progressive South African magazine Amandla! described the Marikana massacre as a defining moment in the post-apartheid history of the country. What occurred will be debated for years. It is already clear that the mineworkers will be blamed for being violent. The mineworkers will be painted as savages. Yet, the fact is that the heavily armed police with live ammunition brutally shot and killed over 35 mineworkers. The editorial went on to add that the police behaved no better than the apartheid police when facing the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, 1976 Soweto uprisings and the 1980s protests where many of our people were killed. There is speculation that the use of live ammunition may have been authorised at the highest levels of the South African government.

Post-apartheid South Africa has the highest income disparity in the world. The country, as one commentator put it, is one in which the First World and the Third World coexist warily. Former ANC members have become venture capitalists or have been co-opted by big business, still very much in the hands of white owners. The former leader of the NUM and one of the most prominent anti-apartheid campaigners, Cyril Ramaphosa, is now one of the leading black business icons. He is one of the richest men in the country and heads the Shanduka Group, which has shares in Lonmin. In fact, Ramaphosa sits on the board of Lonmin.

Much of the land continues to be owned by white farmers. The ANC leadership has ensured so far that the capitalist system and infrastructure which it inherited remains intact. South Africa has the best roads, railways and ports in the continent. The number of the super rich those earning $30 million has increased by 20 per cent in the past five years. It has been reported that 543 individuals in South Africa have a combined wealth of $72 billion. Meanwhile, the unemployment figures hover around 40 per cent, though it is officially put at around 25 per cent.

The industrial action by the Lonmin workers is spreading to other mining sectors. The clamour for nationalising the mining sector is growing by the day. The sector employs around a million people and accounts for 18 per cent of the gross domestic product.

The Marikana incident also has the potential of being a game-changer in South African politics. Radical sections within the ANC are known to be unhappy with the current President. Moves are already under way in the party to deny him a second term in office. If Zuma once again carries the day, the way will be clear for the formation of a new party that could be a radical alternative to the ANC, which has monopolised power since the end of the apartheid regime. The South African media commentator Lenny Gentle, writing in Amandla!, concluded that after the Marikana incident the ANC had lost its moral legitimacy as the leading force in the struggle for democracy.

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