The Marikana massacre and South Africa since apartheid

The end of Apartheid has not delivered change for South Africa’s black working class. Marikana showed the new divide in the country, writes Lucy Honan

On the morning of 27 April 1994, black people in South Africa, oppressed for decades, lined up to vote for the first time. Millions queued across the country, savouring their victory over apartheid and voting for Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). It pledged to deliver “peace, jobs and freedom” and carried the hopes of millions who had struggled for so long to bring fundamental change to South Africa.

But a year ago, on 16 August 2012, South Africa witnessed the Marikana Massacre, when police opened fire on striking workers at South Africa’s Lonmin platinum mine, killing 34 and injuring more than 80. The massacre has exposed the stark realities of South Africa since the end of Apartheid.

The details of the calculated police brutality at Marikana are shockingly reminiscent of Apartheid-era South Africa. Mortuary vans were ordered for the morning of the massacre; police penned peaceful, retreating strikers into their line of fire, and hunted down those who escaped.

One year on from the Marikana massacre, South Africa's workers are fighting back

Despite police efforts to cover their tracks, there is no hiding the fact that the ANC government, trade union officials and the Lonmin mine owners collaborated in this massacre. The blood on their hands makes it plain that those who were once leaders of the anti-apartheid movement are no longer on the side of freedom and justice for black South Africa. They are now maintaining a system of inequality, poverty and violence barely distinguishable from Apartheid.

The courage and self-activity of the Marikana workers has inspired mineworkers and others across South Africa to take the reigns of their own struggle.

Entrenched inequality

The Marikana strikers’ six-week battle for a wage rise starkly revealed how the ANC has spent the 19 years since the end of Apartheid ruling in the interests of capital at the expense of the mainly black working class.

The strikers’ demand for a liveable wage highlighted the huge gap between the wages of mine workers and their bosses. Platinum mine bosses earn 230 times the average wage of a miner. The top three Lonmin executives together earned as much as that of all of their workers.

Not only have mine owners kept their workers impoverished; the ruling ANC has done nothing to redistribute the wealth of mining companies and the mega-rich. While the total worth of South Africa’s mineral reserves is estimated at $2.5 trillion, the mine workers still live in shanty towns without proper housing, sanitation, clean running water or electricity.

Where once the ANC called for nationalisation of the economy under its 1955 Freedom Charter, now it drives through neo-liberal policies such as privatisation of public services including water, electricity and housing. The results are regular disconnections and evictions as workers cannot afford to pay the escalating prices.

Class collaboration

Tragically, the ANC’s commitment to profiteering companies was structured into the very foundation of the post-Apartheid Government of National Unity. Strikes, mass actions, protests, and soldiers’ mutinies convinced the South African ruling class that unless they made substantial concessions to the anti-Apartheid movement there would be a revolution.

But in negotiations for the new constitution in the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela from the ANC and Joe Slovo from the South African Communist Party (SACP) bent over backwards to welcome business to the table. Mandela stressed the need to restore business confidence and attract foreign investment. The very first act of the interim government was to accept an $850 million loan from the International Monetary Fund, whose secret conditions included lower import tariffs, cuts in state spending and large cuts in public sector wages.

While making the capitalists like Lonmin who profited so much from the legalised racism of apartheid feel comfortable, the ANC had to reassure the black working class that harmony between the classes that would bring a delayed equality. De-racialising capitalism wouldn’t bring prosperity all at once, Mandela said, but it would eventually happen.

Certainly, GDP grew steadily until 2008. Platinum mine owners are still turning enormous profits, white South Africans are as rich as ever, and a black elite has joined the ranks of the rich and powerful. But unemployment rates are now higher than they were in 1994. At an official average of 25 per cent, South Africa’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world. Fifty per cent of young black workers are unemployed.

Those who controlled the economy under Apartheid had zero interest in empowering and raising the living standards of the black working class—it was madness to hope they would.

ANC does Lonmin dirty work

So tightly has the ANC tied itself to the interests of big business that when the Lonmin workers showed they were willing to fight, the ANC never hesitated to play the same violent role as the Nationalist Party had under apartheid.

Cyril Ramaphosa, once a leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and a true hero of the struggle against Apartheid, but who now owns of 23 per cent of Lonmin and 100 per cent of McDonald’s South Africa, encouraged the ANC government to brutally attack.

The day before the massacre, he wrote to the Minister of Mines, Susan Shabangu, “The state should bring to bear on this crucial sector of the economy using resources at its disposal to resolutely bring the situation under control. The police and the army presence needs to be planned.” The minister agreed, and went on to brief President Jacob Zuma.

Lonmin provided the police with a headquarters, and banks of monitors to watch the strikers, as well as medical services and detention facilities on the day. The ANC government provided 800 police armed with water cannon, grenades, helicopters, armoured cars and the notorious R-5 rifles—a lethal military weapon which fires 600 rounds a minute. Working hand in glove, Lonmin and the ANC government set out to kill the miners who dared to stand up to them.

Union leaders

But the ANC’s betrayal was not the first the Marikana miners suffered. Despicably, the National Union Mineworkers (NUM) leadership itself did everything it could to crush the strike from the outset.

The NUM was once the powerhouse of the struggle against Apartheid. Twenty-five years ago, the same Cyril Ramophosa who last August called for the slaughter of the Marikana miners led the NUM in a key strike against the Apartheid regime.

But Cosatu (the main trade union federation) formed part of the “revolutionary alliance” which, alongside the ANC and the SACP, sealed the deal with the white regime. In return for welcoming big business into post-Apartheid South Africa, Cosatu and its affiliate unions, including the NUM, would have access to protected strikes and centralised bargaining.

The Marikana strike was organised independently of the NUM, although many of the workers involved, including 11 of the workers killed, were members. Workers were frustrated that the union wouldn’t push hard enough for their demands. In fact, the NUM has restrained its membership so tightly that workers have started calling it the National Union of Management.

The Marikana strikers’ frustration burst through the NUM’s restraint. However, when the wildcat strikers would not return to work, the NUM worked with Lonmin bosses to break the strike. “You provide the transport, we’ll provide the workers,” wrote a full-time branch secretary to Lonmin Human Resources.

When 3000 miners marched to the NUM offices on 11 August, just days prior to the massacre, 20 or 30 union officials opened fire on them. Two miners were shot in the back and seriously injured as they fled. NUM lawyer Karel Tip was quite happy to tell the inquiry into the massacre: “A confrontation ensued between the marchers and a number of NUM members during which firearms were discharged … [the] NUM will in due course lead evidence that in the circumstances the use of firearms by NUM members was justified.”

The NUM leadership, like the ANC and Lonmin itself, are terrified of the potential power of the black working class. But their resort to naked violence backfired. The Marikana workers, despite the murder of their comrades, went on to win a 22 per cent pay rise.

There is much more to be won.The Marikana workers have shown the way out of the post-Apartheid muzzle of the ANC. Inspired—and angry—hundreds of thousands of South African workers have been following the example of the Marikana miners, fighting to win the kind of freedom promised by the end of Apartheid.

Gold miners, textile workers, retail workers at petrol stations, technical and construction workers have all staged strikes in recent weeks, organising independently, and in new unions like Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

The massacre made it brutally clear that the end of Apartheid has not brought an end to exploitation.

A recent UN report found that 1.4 million children live in homes with no clean drinking water, and 1.7 million live in shacks, with no proper bedding, cooking or washing facilities.

The massive struggle that brought down Apartheid now has to be focussed on the struggle against capitalism itself. As the struggle against the Apartheid showed, the decisive factor is the self-activity of the working class, something which is on the rise.


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