South Africa: Two years on, Marikana massacre still reverberates

Dead miners massacred by police outside the Marikana platinum mine in Rustenburg, 100 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg, August 16, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

By Federico Fuentes, Johannesburg

August 29, 2014 -- TeleSUR English, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- On August 16, activities were held across South Africa to mark the second anniversary of the Marikana massacre in which 34 striking mineworkers were slain by state security forces.

The killings occurred one week into a strike over pay by several thousand rock drill operators at the Lonmin-operated platinum mine in Marikana. Despite the massacre, workers remained on strike and a month later won a settlement that went a substantial way towards meeting their initial pay claim.

An ongoing public investigation has continued to shine a public spotlight on this tragic event, while the reverberations of South Africa’s first post-apartheid massacre linger on in a number of important ways.

Cold-blooded murder

Footage collected in the powerful documentary Miners Shot Down has provided ample evidence of the police forces’ pre-mediated actions against striking workers. Perhaps the clearest signal was the presence of four mortuary vans, summonsed to the protest site on the morning of August 16 before a single shot had been fired.

This version of events has been collaborated by evidence presented to the Farlam Commission of inquiry into Marikana.

Shadrack Zandisile Mtshamba, a Lonmin rockdrill operator, told the commission: “There was sound of gunfire from all sides… One man said we should surrender. He raised his arms. He was shot on the right arm and he bent down.

“He raised his hands and said we should surrender. He was shot again in the stomach. The third bullet shot his leg and he fell down.”

Mtshamba said another miner was shot in the neck as he too tried to surrender. “He fell on his face. We became scared of surrendering after witnessing the shootings.”

As the miners lay face down on the ground, police officers searched and kicked them, “bragging among themselves about the manner in which they had taken people down.They said if it were in Zimbabwe, they would burn us alive with petrol.”

In all, 17 miners were killed at the initial site of the protest.

A further 17 died at a nearby hill as a result of what, evidence suggests, were extrajudicial killings. A number of workers who had attempted to flee the scene and hide from police were found there with wounds to the back of the head, from bullets that had been shot at close range.

Another 78 mineworkers suffered gunshot wounds that day.

While no officer has been charged for the killings, 270 mineworkers were arrested and initially charged with the “murder” of their fellow workmates.These charges were later downgraded, and later dropped.

State-business collusion

The commission has also revealed how the culpability for the killings went well beyond the security forces who shot at the protesters. Dali Mpofu, the lawyer for the 270 arrested mine workers, explained to the Farlam commission: “At the heart of this was the toxic collusion between the South African Police Services and Lonmin at a direct level. At a much broader level it can be called a collusion between the state and capital and that this phenomenon is at the centre of what has occurred here.”

In the days leading up to the massacre, Lonmin collaborated with the police, providing them with crucial logistical support in the form of offices, intelligence reports, access to more than 200 security cameras around the mine, barracks for the police, transport, a helicopter and a detention camp.

They did so because they feared the strike could spark further unrest in South Africa’s platinum belt, source of 80% of the world’s production of this precious metal.

This meant that the strike also posed a threat the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that had long ago dropped its historic demand to nationalise the mines, and had instead chosen to cuddle up to the mining industry.

The wildcat strike also represented a threat to ANC-aligned trade unions, in particular the National Union of Miners (NUM). NUM opposed the demands of its own members and their decision to take unprotected strike action, which they saw as a direct challenge to the traditional institutions of management-trade union negotiations.

In fact, when Lonmin workers marched on the local NUM offices to demand their union represent them, gunmen within the offices shot at the workers, leaving two dead.

Then, just days prior to the massacre, NUM general secretary Frans Baleni issued a press release calling  “for the deployment of a special task force or the [South African National Defence Force] to deal decisively with the criminal elements” behind the strike.

It was this same task force that carried out the massacre at Marikana, and left at least 10 NUM members dead.

Cyril Ramaphosa

The nexus between mining capital, ANC politicians and the trade union bureaucracy is most clearly personified by Cyril Ramaphosa. As a founder of NUM in the early 1980s, Ramaphosa led some important miners’ strikes against the apartheid regime.

Ramaphosa went on to rise through the ranks of the ANC and headed its team to negotiate the end of apartheid.  He was subsequently elected chairperson of the constituent assembly entrusted with drafting up South Africa’s new constitution.

In 1996 Ramaphosa decided to concentrate on his business dealings.

Ramaphosa’s personal wealth is estimated to be over $600 million and he sits on the board of a number of companies, including being on the board of Lonmin at the time of the massacre.

Emails made public during the Marikana commission revealed Ramaphosa’s role in the collusion between business and government.

On the day before the massacre, Ramaphosa sent an email to Lonmin's chief commercial officer, in which he called the action of the strikers “plainly dastardly criminal” and said “concomitant action [was needed] to address this situation".

Other emails sent that same day reveal Ramaphosa told then police minister Nathi Mthethwa to come down hard on striking miners and warned former mining minister Susan Shabangu that her “silence and inaction” about the happenings at Lonmin was “bad for her and government”.

Despite the public outcry over Ramaphosa’s involvement in the events at Marikana, he was elected to the post of ANC deputy president at the party’s December 2012 congress.

Lasting impact

Marikana will go down in history as South Africa’s first post-apartheid massacre, and will take its place alongside those that occurred in Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976).

Like those events, Marikana also marks a turning point in South African politics.

In many ways its impact resembles how Ruth First, a Communist Party leader killed by the apartheid regime in 1982, described the 1946 African mineworkers strike. At the time, police attacked the 70,000-strong strike, with at least nine miners being killed. While workers soon after returned to work, with little to show for their efforts, some have said this event was the starting point for what became South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

Ruth First wrote that the 1946 miners' strike “was one of the those great historic incidents that, in a flash of illumination, educate a nation, reveal what has been hidden, destroy lies and illusions. The strike transformed African politics overnight. The timid opportunism and servile begging for favours disappeared.”

This is precisely what business and the state had feared, and exactly what has occurred since, with the example of Marikana going on to inspire a wave of strike actions in the mining sector and beyond.   

Between August and October 2012, more than 60,000 miners participated in a series of unprotected, non-union organised strikes across several of South Africa’s most important platinum and gold mines. In November 2012, an unprecedented strike wave broke out across farming areas in the Western Cape, leading to a pay increase of more than 50% by early 2013.

Meanwhile in community townships, considerably more protests were registered in 2012 compared to any previous year. In numerous cases, protesters and observers made reference to Marikana, which has come to represent a catchphrase for resistance.

Left-wing union officials have recounted how workers have spoken openly at national bargaining conferences about doing a "Marikana", while a Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) spokesperson responded to the farmworkers' rebellion by declaring : “Marikana has come to the farms!”

At least four settlements have renamed themselves Marikana. Asked why, one of the residents of the Marikana settlement in Potchefstroom, said: "We will do exactly as they did at Marikana, and we will get what is ours."

And there is no sign of the Marikana effect waning.

Last year saw a further 15.2% increase in the rate of strike incidences, taking it to an all-time high. This year has already witnessed important disputes such as the five-month-long strike by 70,000 workers in the platinum sector, and a month-long strike by 220,000 metalworkers and engineers.

Tellingly, unions that continue to support the Tripartite Alliance, which includes the ANC, the South African Communist Party and COSATU, led neither.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which since it was formed in 2001 has never been aligned to the ANC, headed up the dispute in the platinum minefields. Its new-found militancy is largely a result of the mass influx of some 100,000 new members in 2012 alone (swelling its membership to 120,000). This was largely due to its supportive role during the Marikana dispute.

In many cases, after the non-union strikes in the mining sector ended, workers gradually dissolved their committees into AMCU branches, feeling the need for a union for collective bargaining.

AMCU has now surpassed NUM as the biggest union in the platinum belt, while NUM has lost its status as South Africa’s largest union.

The second strike was led by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which has overtaken NUM as the country’s biggest union, and since 2012 NUMSA has adopted an increasingly anti-Alliance stand.

Today, NUMSA is the main driving force behind a left-wing challenge to the existing COSATU leadership that proposes breaking with the Tripartite Alliance and creating a new workers' party to challenge the ANC.

What will be the lasting impact of Marikana? Two years on, it is too early to say.

However, it is evident that significant political dynamics have been unleashed by those fateful events at Marikana, which have left an indelible bloodstain on post-apartheid South Africa.

[Federico Fuentes is a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance. He was invited to attend the conference.]