It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. -Marx, “Alienated Labor”
It’s better to die than to work for that shit. People are coming back here tomorrow. 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. -Thandubuntu Simelane, Lonmin miner.
Sometimes an event occurs that lifts the veil on a society and exposes its naked reality for all to see. Such was the case on Thursday, August 16, at Marikana near Rustenberg in the North West Province when heavily armed police opened fire on striking platinum miners, killing 34 workers and injuring 78 others who were on strike. Though there have been an increasing number of police murders and stories of cover-ups, of brutality and corruption over the past 18 years, nothing like this had happened since the African National Congress (ANC) took power in South Africa. It was a national shock. A tragedy that will not be assuaged by the crocodile tears and homilies from the political leaders.
The strike was led by rock drill operators who work a grueling job that drains the life out of you. They earn 4,000 Rand a month ($500) and demanded a three-fold wage increase. The strike was borne of anger and frustration against Lonmin, a privately owned London-based company, and the union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which seemed increasingly remote and disconnected to many rank-and-file workers. The strike began as a wildcat, only later to be supported by a smaller union and rival to the NUM, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).(1)
The majority of the world’s platinum comes from South African mines and the Lonmin Marikana mine is one of its largest. It makes huge profits and pays its workers a pittance. As in Marx’s description above, the workers create riches and beauty for the rich and poverty for themselves. They produce palaces, but live in shacks next to the mine.
South Africa was built on mining, specifically on cheap African labor. This was true for the colonial period and the apartheid period and it remains true today; in other words, the ANC is the party of big capital (and some of its big names Cyril Ramaphosa, Khulubuse Zuma and Zondwa Mandela, are directly connected with the industry).(2) Today, just as they did in those earlier periods, the mining companies rely on subcontracted and migrant labor and recruit along ethnic lines to keep costs down and divisions among the workforce up. But a key element in post-apartheid labor management has been the NUM.
The NUM had been one of the most important and militant unions in the 1980s. During the late apartheid period, it frightened mine owners and multinational capital. But like other successful unions, it has become increasingly bureaucratic, exchanging connections to the everyday working-class reality of miners’ lives access to management. The union is changing. It is losing members like the rock drillers to another more militant union.
While the politicians and union leaders are shedding crocodile tears for the dead miners, the striking miners are being criminalized and blamed for instigating the massacre. Over two hundred and fifty miners have been arrested and sickeningly charged by the national prosecuting authority with the murder of the 34 miners.(3) The miners are being blamed for starting the gun battle, while the authorities know full well that the miners were desperately trying to escape from rubber bullets and tear gas.(4)
Blaming the victims and criminalizing the miners is absolutely essential to dividing the incipient movement and an important tactic to dissipate support. Pundits have begun to talk about the culture of violence among the miners and moved into the realm of the old colonial trope of irrational tribal rituals, witchcraft and sorcery. Images of Africans with machetes and sticks are paraded as the justification for the police barrage, but also to recreate the idea of the miners as a backward and dangerous “other.” Occasionally, a report details the relentless rural poverty in the former Bophuthatswana Bantustan and focuses on industrial deaths, disease and the squalid living conditions which are the daily reality of a miners’ life. But it is the massacre which has brought this life into national consciousness.
Writing in the Mail and Guardian(5) Jay Naidoo, the former leader of COSATU, begins, “When I think of Marikana, I am reminded of Fanon.” I was expecting Naidoo to speak of postcolonial violence and the cynicism of the nationalist bourgeoisie, but instead he quotes from the conclusion to “The Wretched of the Earth”: “Come, then comrades; it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways.” It is a moral plea to his old comrades which, in the context of what he calls “spatial apartheid,” “brazen corruption,” “broken promises,” “criminal tenderpreneurs” and gross inequality, seems more than simply “a failure of leadership.” Naidoo has set down a challenge to many of his old comrades in the NUM, ANC, SACP and COSATU, who quickly accepted the police version of events, criticized the workers and even called for the arrest of AMCU leaders.(6) Is it not time to look elsewhere for leadership?
Historical Turning Points(7)
Now celebrated as public holidays, the Sharpeville demonstrations in 1960 and the Soweto revolt in 1976, that led to brutal massacres by the apartheid regime, were not led by (or even supported by) the ANC, but they introduced something quite new and militant into political consciousness. Likewise, the ANC was hostile to the historic Durban strikes of 1973 which were labeled “unofficial,” but heralded a new workers’ movement. These strikes were also part of the “Durban Moment” in South Africa with philosophical/practical discussions between the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko and the philosopher/activist Rick Turner about what is meant to be radical.(8) The discussions gestured to the etymology of the word radical as “the root,” to which the young Marx had added, the root of “man” is the human being.(9) For Biko, the critique of European humanism – in the South African garb of white liberalism which ontologized the “white man” as normative – went hand in hand with a critique of black collaboration in apartheid’s Bantustans. For Turner, the idea of European humanism in South Africa as expressed in white liberalism (as a paternalist superiority toward others) and was an “ethical void” based on “material privilege.” To become full human beings, he added, whites had to give up those privileges and thus he called on students to work with the emergent union movement.
To a large degree, the ethical void still exists in South Africa because the structure of capitalism, based on land and mining, remains remarkably intact. Indeed, change since 1994 has simply been layered on top of this structure. Thus, Biko’s reflection on the choice facing South Africa, still echoes today: Either “an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behavior set up by and maintained by whites” taken as given notions of progress and development, or the “free participation by all members of a society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people.”
That South Africa traveled down the first path of integration is not simply expressed by the two worlds of rich and poor, but also by how the poor are ontologized (as criminal, irrational, lazy and so on). Seen as the threat to material privilege, they must be kept in their place (by violence when necessary). And thus, the utter bankruptcy of the former party of liberation is masked by an increasing fetish of control and reliance on security technology. The truth is, as the writer Njabulo Ndebele put it in an article on the massacre, “the tragedy at Marikana reflects the loss of the vision of liberation and the onset of repression.”(10) Historical turning points, in other words, are not always progressive.
Even during its liberation period, the ANC was never an openly democratic organization. It is Machiavellian, but also Manichean. As it incorporates and divides, it demonizes and demobilizes any opposition. The privileged politicians and the mass of people live in two different realities and the politician’s fear of politics is manifested in The Protection of State Information Bill (the “secrecy Bill”) and the draft General Intelligence Amendment Bill, which are designed to “block the free flow of information, protect the corrupt and monitor citizens” as, Hennie Van Vuuren, the director of the Institute for security studies in Cape Town office puts it. The state – having inherited all apartheid’s apparatuses – is becoming increasing sophisticated and authoritarian against opponents, real or imagined:
“In the shadows, formal and informal security networks are settling scores and doing the dirty work of those in power. Collusion between the people who have the guns and the people who have the money is infecting our politics … What is certain is that a climate of fear grips politics in South Africa and it is driven by the securocrats.”
The Naked Truth?
The terrible truth of South African democracy is the politically sanctioned police murder of 38 South Africans. From the early 1990s on, the ANC made clear that it would support, defend and patronize multinational mining. In 2012, it has reiterated the class and race truth of its position. The cynicism of the ex-ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, to call for the nationalization of mines, did not mask his own interests, nor did it negate the simple truth, as Fanon warned, that if nationalism did not develop into a new humanism – into a program of social and economic transformation that puts people’s needs first – it would lead in a reactionary and authoritarian direction. This is the route that South Africa has taken.
The ethical void is seen in the utterly thoughtless and bankrupt reaction by the government and its opportunist critics, like Malema. It is seen in every step South Africa takes toward becoming a more authoritarian nation and in every police reaction taken toward the people’s growing anger and frustration.
Official channels are like old toy telephones.(12) Democracy is for the rich minority, not for the poor majority whose daily protests have become a normal part of everyday life. “There is an uncomfortable truth,” opined Business Day, “that there is a power building in this land over which they [the NUM, COSATU and the ANC] have little or no influence and which itself has little or no respect for the powers that be.”(13)
Many of these revolts are spontaneous outbreaks of anger, but others have become organized and planned.(14) The wildcat strike at Lonmin was one example of incipient organization. Other grassroots organizations like the shack dweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, have emerged over the past seven years. They have helped organize solidarity events and memorials and sent delegates to Marikana to speak directly with the miners.(15)
But the times are dark. The outrage and the public support for the miners is heartening and contrasts directly with actions and rhetoric of the government. South Africans are not quiescent, its population remains politicized and one often hears a phrase from the past, newly repeated among young and militant South Africans: la luta continua.
1. Lonmin recognized the worker’s right to join the AMCU, but had not allowed it to become part of the official wage-bargaining structure. That privilege was left with the NUM. This alone caused inter-union rivalry, which left ten people dead the day before the massacre. As a Business Day editorial lamented, “the new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union is slowly taking apart the venerable NUM in the platinum industry mine after mine.”
2. The connections between the families of the ruling elites and mining capital are myriad. For example, Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane is linked with a company that brokers contract labor on the mines. See here.
4. Evidence now shows that the majority of miners killed and wounded were shot in the back. See here.
5. See here.
6. See, for example, Independent online “Violent patterns at AMCU need probe.”
7. It should be noted that miners’ strikes have also become signal moments in South African politics. The state’s reactions to them have shaped the future and brought into being increasingly sophisticated and oppressive forms of governance. The 1922 white miners’ presaged a new politics of segregation, and the 1946 African miners’ strike a new politics of apartheid.
8. See Turner’s defense of Black Consciousness in “Black Consciousness and White Liberals.”
9. Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Introduction.
10. See here.
13. See here.
14. Increasing every year since 2004/05, the police estimate that there have been 11, 000 “crowd management” incidents in 2011/12, with those requiring “direct intervention” (such as the use of force) up by over 75 percent since 2004/05. See here.