Remembering the Marikana massacre on the third anniversary

Activists gathered across South Africa, and in London, New York and Oakland, to commemorate the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre, the deadliest South African massacre since Soweto.

A deadly massacre under an African National Congress government. And not the only shooting of workers, merely the worst under the harsh neoliberal assault overseen by the ANC.

South Africa’s apartheid system was overthrown in a negotiated process forced by a massive international popular movement backing the ANC, but the party has turned its back on popular forces. (This and the next two paragraphs based in part on The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.) During the long years of struggle by the ANC and pitiless repression by the National Party, the apartheid-era rulers in South Africa, the guiding document of the ANC was its “Freedom Charter.” The charter, adopted after democratic consultations in 1955, calls for the right to work; to decent housing; freedom of thought; nationalization of mines, banks and “monopoly industry”; and land distribution so that all South Africans can share in the wealth of their country.

Marikana DayAlthough the ANC had the moral authority to carry out its program, its negotiators tragically (and unwittingly) gave up all economic control, forfeiting their ability to carry out any aspect of their program, with the result that, two decades later, the economy is firmly in the hands of its numerically minuscule White business elite (which is tied to international markets). The country’s eyes were on the political talks between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, in which the ANC decisively was the victor against the National Party’s attempts to dilute its loss of government control.

But in the parallel economic talks, which drew little attention, the ANC gave away everything. The central bank would be independent of government (as financiers demanded), National Party government finance officials would remain in office and the ANC government would sign on to everything demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all international trade agreements. Having done so, the ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further discipline by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them. From pleasing markets and giving financiers repeated assurances, it proved a short path to President Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, imposing austerity — a 180-degree turn from the Freedom Charter.

Workers face attacks by management and unions

Mining is a critical component of the South African economy, and the foreign multi-national corporations that own South Africa’s mines mistreat local workers with impunity. (This and the next paragraphs are based on Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class by Immanuel Ness.) Workers are often housed in substandard housing that lacks water and electricity, and an increasing number of miners are hired as contingent workers. Not only do mine workers not receive support from the National Union of Mineworkers, the NUM actively joins with managements in oppressing its rank and file.

Nor do they receive support from the country’s largest labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) — in February 2012, NUM and COSATU declared a strike by mineworkers illegal and actually took a harder line against the workers than the mine owner did! Mineworkers continued to bypass the union, or organize through an independent grassroots organization, Amcu, as mineworkers pressed to raise their monthly minimum wage from about US$400 to US$1,150. Two workers were shot by snipers on August 11, and the next day, fearful of returning to the mine, workers gathered on a nearby hill.

The management of the company that owned the mine, Lonmin PLC, called in the police. Lonmin sought to have the strike declared illegal and demanded workers surrender the crude weapons they had fashioned to defend themselves. NUM drove a vehicle equipped with a loudspeaker through the nearby settlements, declaring the strike illegal. Workers gathered on the hill again the morning of August 16 and were encircled by armed police. At 4 p.m., police opened fire, killing 16 workers as television cameras recorded and another 18 were executed off camera after fleeing the initial killings. Another 78 were injured.

An investigation headed by Judge Ian Farlam, appointed by President Jacob Zuma, found that police anticipated the killings hours earlier. Professor Ness, in Southern Insurgency (to be published by Pluto Books in October) provided this summary of the preparation:

“On the morning of August 16, more than eight hours in advance of the police shootings, aware the dozens of workers might be killed in a police assault, Colonels Klassen and Madoda of the [South African Police Service] ordered four mortuary vehicles to the scene from the health department, each with a capacity to carry eight bodies. The report also implicated senior government officials, including ANC and former NUM general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, a shareholder and director of Lonmin as the events leading up to the Marikana massacre were unfolding. … [A]n email from Ramaphosa to Albert Jamieson, Lonmin’s chief commercial officer, written one day before the massacre and concluding the strike was not a labor dispute but a ‘criminal’ action that required ‘concomitant action.’: ‘The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They pare plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. There needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.’ ”

Nonetheless, the commission pinned the blame for the massacre on the workers:

“[T]he tragic events that occurred during the period 12 to 16 August 2012 originated from the decision and conduct of the strikers in embarking on an unprotected strike and in enforcing the strike by violence and intimidation, using dangerous weapons for the purpose.”

Pushing back against government whitewash

The Marikana Support Committee, in rejecting that conclusion, declares:

“This statement is offered as a fact that we have to accept. But it is an opinion. There is no evidence to back it up. The Marikana Support Campaign considers this finding as a gross defamation of the miners. At the same time, despite a run of evidence to the contrary, Farlam and his Commissioners exonerate Ramaphosa and other government ministers. Lonmin is substantially exonerated.”

The Support Committee is calling for a new probe, “a civil society-led inquiry based on the evidence.”

The National Union of Metalworkers of South African (NUMSA), a union expelled from the COSATU trade-union federation after challenging the federation to break with the ANC and the ANC’s neoliberal policies, also sided with the mineworkers. In a statement issued for the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre, the metalworkers union said:

“The Marikana Massacre in 2012 signified the degeneration of our country into a Police State, as evidenced by the continued usage of police and excessive force to undermine popular dissent from below. … The mining industry, like many other key sectors of our economy for many years have been heavily dependent on Black and African working class cheap labour, for its profit maximisation and wealth accumulation strategy. … It is our view that the Marikana Report that was released to the public by President Jacob Zuma was a spit on the face of Marikana’s widows and victims’ families, since it was a whitewash and was intended to make the fast fading ANC-government look caring in the eyes of the working class.”

After two decades of ANC governance, South Africa is the most unequal country on Earth. The country’s gini co-efficient, the most common measure of inequality, was the world’s highest at 0.65 in 2011, according to World Bank statistics, and that the number has not likely improved since. About 57 percent of South Africans live in poverty, and unemployment is 26.4 percent at the same time that only 80 percent of industrial capacity is being utilized.

It is not only divisions along racial, national and gender lines that divide us and block necessary solidarity, it is also the North-South division. An injury to one is an injury to all, regardless of where.

13 comments on “Remembering the Marikana massacre on the third anniversary

  1. Tom Huckin says:

    Thank you, Pete. Had never even heard of this event, had no idea of its background. (A good example of suppression by the corporate-owned mass media.)

  2. Your post is in my view somewhat selective. Whilst it is true that the ANC has been hijacked by neo-liberal influences, you fail to point out that South Africa has arguably one of the most worker-friendly labour law regimes and is one of the few countries in the world to entrench the Right to Strike in its Constitution. In exchange for the right to strike, the law expects as a matter of policy that it be exercised as a ‘weapon of last resort’ and particularly only once state-sponsored mediation facilities have been exhausted. The COSATU affiliate NUM did it’s best to persuade its members to follow the legally institutionalised dispute resolution processes, as it should have done.

    You also fail to point out that before the events of the 16th August, angry mineworkers and/or community members had brutally murdered two police officers and a number of workers who had declined to take part in the unprotected strike.

    There is no doubt that the events of 16th August show a level of lack of preparedness by the police as far as non-lethal control of the strikers was concerned, and that they anticipated the possibility of having to use lethal force at some stage. That said, I defy anyone to argue convincingly, after watching video capture of the events, that the police were unreasonable in assuming that their own lives were in danger when they opened fire on the advancing crowd.

    None of this makes the events less tragic, but its causes are more complex and less sinister than you suggest.

    • You can justify police shooting down strikers if you wish, but I won’t. The “right to strike” is useless if you are subject to physical assault or snipers if you exercise it.

      • Paul Van Uytrecht says:

        What do you understand by the “right to strike”? Surely it is the right to peacefully withhold one’s labour, and equally, peacefully to discourage others from engaging in temporary work otherwise performed by striking workers. Provided that the statutory dispute resolution process has been followed, a strike is “protected” in South African labour law, meaning i.a. that workers may not be dismissed purely for the fact that they are participating in the strike. But the law does not, and neither should it, protect the violent actions of disgruntled workers. If you fail to acknowledge this your viewpoint descends into propaganda.

        • This is your second comment justifying a massacre. I’ll simply repeat my earlier response: The “right to strike” is useless if you are subject to physical assault or snipers if you exercise it.

  3. As Klein and investigative journalist John Pilger remind us, racial apartheid ended in 1994. Unfortunately economic apartheid didn’t end – like many other countries, South Africa has worse economic inequality and poverty than it did 20 years ago.

    • Sad but true. South Africa can’t be expected to be immune from the corporate globalization process, but nor have South African officials done anything other but accommodate themselves to it.

  4. It seems that “concomitant action” equals state-sponsored multiple murder as relates to the 2012 events in Marikana. Those guilty of premeditated murder have yet to be held accountable in South Africa’s courts and punished accordingly. Thanks for sharing more evidence of long-term, global inequality in applying the rule of law.

    • I sure wish I didn’t have to spend so much time sharing such evidence, but South African workers are organizing and beginning to build militant organizations of resistance. We should all watch closely developments there.

  5. Paul Van Uytrecht says:

    You seem to completely miss the distinction between explaining the probable causes of an event and seeking to justify it. Unfortunately, you seem to be so stuck on defending your own, in my view, simplistic analysis that you fail to even understand the points I am making (which you are of course free to disagree with, but you do need to understand them before you can do that).

    So for the last time, do I seek to “justify a massacre” – of course not. One has to recognise however that the police were poorly equipped, badly trained and above all incompetently led on the day in question. One also needs to recognise the terrain where the event occurred (semi rural – poor vehicular access) added to the chances of policing going wrong. But to assert, as you do that police action took place because miners were striking per se, is simply false and no matter how many times you repeat this, it will remain so.

    Your understanding of instutionalised collective bargaining (which includes the right to strike) is flimsy to say the least. The police action (however flawed) was never taken against workers who were striking but against a violent mob. No country in the world tolerates mindless violence as part of a right to strike.

    • You seem to justify massacres. In doing a bit of research, I discover that you are a professor of “Business Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where I taught courses in Employment Relations and Law” and, according to a New York Times article, a “general manager of the Chamber of Commerce.” So you are a business spokesperson and apologist. Now I understand why you believe shooting down strikers is acceptable. Needless to say, I will continue to disagree.

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