Massacre at a South African mine

August 21, 2012

The use of live ammunition last week by police against striking miners in Marikana, South Africa, has invited comparisons to some of the worst massacres committed during the apartheid era, reports Eric Ruder.

POLICE IN Marikana, South Africa, killed at least 34 striking miners and injured 75 more on August 16, sparking outrage across South Africa and around the world. The workers had staged a wildcat strike a few days earlier and were protesting outside the mine when police opened fire with live ammunition in the first massacre of the post-apartheid era.

Mining has long been a crucial battlefield in the struggle between workers and capitalists in South Africa, yet last week's police shooting was nevertheless shocking for the scale of the bloodshed. At least 10 more people died in other clashes in the region in the days leading up to the massacre.

The massacre also exposed the class inequality that still sharply divides post-apartheid South Africa. In the words of an editorial published by the anti-capitalist magazine Amandla!:

No event since the end of apartheid sums up the shallowness of the transformation in this country like the Marikana massacre. What occurred will be debated for years. It is already clear the mineworkers will be blamed for being violent. The mineworkers will be painted as savages. Yet, the fact is that heavily armed police with live ammunition brutally shot and killed over 35 mineworkers...

This was not the action of rogue cops. This massacre was a result of decisions taken at the top of the police structures. The police had promised to respond with force and came armed with live ammunition. They behaved no better than the apartheid police when facing the Sharpeville, 1976 Soweto uprisings and 1980s protests where many of our people were killed.

Miners and their families protest the police massacre that killed 34
Miners and their families protest the police massacre that killed 34

Just days after the massacre, the Lonmin platinum mine resumed operations with what it claimed was 30 percent of its workforce of 28,000 and issued an ultimatum that workers must return to work by August 21 (the original deadline was August 20) or face termination.

But media coverage suggests that most workers will continue to stay away from the mines. "People have died already so we have nothing more to lose," miner Kaizer Madiba told a reporter. "We are going to continue fighting for what we believe is a legitimate fight for living wages. We would rather die like our comrades than back down."

An anonymous drill operator told Africa's Mail & Guardian, "It's better to die than to work for that shit...I am not going to stop striking. We are going to protest until we get what we want. They have said nothing to us. Police can try and kill us but we won't move."

Meanwhile, hundreds of women gathered outside a courthouse in Marikana anxiously searching for husbands, sons and brothers missing since last week's massacre. The protesters are hoping to find their loved ones among 259 miners detained at the courthouse while awaiting trial for "public violence."

SOUTH AFRICA is home to roughly 80 percent of the world's platinum reserves, but falling commodity prices have put pressure on the enormous profits once enjoyed by the major mining corporations, thus pitting them against tens of thousands of workers facing desperate poverty as well as dirty, dangerous and difficult work in the darkness beneath the earth's surface.

The struggle at the Lonmin platinum mine began when 3,000 rock-drill operators, backed by an upstart union, went on strike for higher wages despite opposition to the strike by the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The miners currently make between $485 and $600 a month and are demanding an increase to about $1,200.

Though the NUM was a stalwart of the anti-apartheid movement, the union's leadership, with its close ties to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government, now finds itself on the conservative wing of the labor movement, advocating "patience" and collaborating with police and government officials in the hopes of staving off a challenge from the more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Speaking on the morning of the massacre, NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni issued a statement calling on "all workers to go back to work and for the law enforcement agencies to crack down on the culprits of the violence and murders." Baleni went so far as to assert that NUM members were prepared to return to work if police opened up a way through the strikers.

Then, after the massacre, NUM spokesperson Lesib Seshoka said that the union condemned the "violence" but that it was grateful that police had dealt with "criminal elements provoking violent behavior at the mine."

Without a doubt, the mining bosses are overjoyed at the sharpening discord between different wings of South Africa's labor movement. And at times, AMCU leaders have been drawn into maneuvers that exacerbate the divisiveness that the mine bosses have hoped to foment. Nevertheless, AMCU can't be described as a company union, as apologists for the NUM have attempted to portray it.

The AMCU got its start in 1998 in response to the NUM's growing collaboration with management, and many of its leading members are themselves former NUM activists. Its growth has been fueled by frustration at miserable working conditions and paltry wages that the NUM has shown itself either unwilling or unable to challenge directly.

Indeed, Baleni has recently come under fire for giving himself a raise that puts his monthly wage above $8,000, making the NUM's opposition to strikers asking for an increase of their $600 monthly wage an insult at best.

What's more, former NUM leader Cyril Ramaphosa, long considered a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, essentially withdrew from the labor movement after the fall of apartheid and became a major player in South African business circles. He is now one of the wealthiest men in South Africa, heads the Shanduka investor group and is on the board of Coca-Cola. Shanduka owns a significant proportion of Lonmin's shares.

But none of this has stopped the regional leadership of the South African Communist Party, a backer of the ANC government and ally of the NUM, from calling for the arrest of ACMU leaders, whom they accuse of "fomenting violence."

Meanwhile, South African President Jacob Zuma has called for a week of mourning and appointed a committee to hold a full inquiry into the massacre. Speculation is rife that the use of live ammunition by the heavily armed police would have been authorized at the highest levels of government, perhaps even by Zuma himself, raising questions about whether the inquiry will truly investigate the role played by leading government officials.

The stakes are high for all sides--for the ANC government and its cozy relationship with the mining corporations, for the NUM and ACMU unions and for the workers themselves. As a result, the conflict between South Africa's mining bosses and mineworkers will likely continue to sharpen in the coming days and weeks.

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