On 16 August, above the mines of Marikana, north west of Johannesburg, 34 people were killed by the bullets of the South African police, who also wounded 78 others. Immediately, the unbearable images of these summary executions went around the world. But, as always, the bourgeoisie and its media tried to distort the class character of this strike, reducing it to a sordid war between the two main unions in the mining sector, and bringing up the ghosts of apartheid.
South Africa is not being spared by the world crisis
Despite investments of several hundred billion euros in the economy, growth is weak and unemployment is massive. The country’s wealth is partly based on the export of mining products like platinum, chrome, gold and diamonds. But this sector, which represents nearly 10% of GNP and 15% of the country’s exports, and employs over 800,000 workers, went through a major recession in 2011. The price of platinum, of which South Africa possesses 80% of world reserves, has been falling since the beginning of the year.
The living and working conditions of the miners, already particularly grim, have now got worse: paid miserable wages, housed in shacks, often working more than 9 hours a day in stifling, choking mines, they are now facing lay-offs and unemployment. South Africa has recently seen a large number of strikes. In February, the world’s biggest platinum mine, owned by Impala Platinum, had already been paralysed for six months by a strike.
The Marikana massacre, a trap set by the unions
It was in this context that on 10 August, 3000 miners from Marikana decided to stop work and demand decent wages: “We are exploited, neither the government nor the unions have come to help us...The mining companies make money thanks to our work and they pay us practically nothing. We are not offered a decent life. We live like animals because of our poverty wages”. The miners launched a wildcat strike and the two unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) jumped on the bandwagon, violently clashing to defend their own interests and trapping workers in a dead-end confrontation with the police.
The NUM is a completely corrupt union which is an integral part of the state run by the president Jacob Zuma. Its open support for the governing party, the ANC, has ended up discrediting it among many workers. This has resulted in the created of a more radical sounding union, the AMCU, a split from the NUM. But like the NUM, the AMCU is not at all concerned for the workers. After a very aggressive recruitment campaign, the new union took advantage of the strike to pit its goons against the NUM’s muscle. The result: 10 miners dead and a number of wounded. But this turf war between the unions led directly to the strike being violently repressed by the state, which used this as a way of blocking the dynamic of the workers’ struggle.
After several days of clashes, Frans Baleni, the secretary general of the NUM, called in the army: “We urgently call on the special forces or the South African armed forces before the situation gets out of control”...and why not call for an aerial attack on the mine, Mister Baleni? But the trap had already been set. The next day, the government sent in thousands of police officers, equipped with armoured cars and two helicopters, to ‘restore order’. Bourgeois order, of course.
According to several testimonies which, knowing the reputation of South Africa’s forces of repression, are probably authentic, the police proceeded to provoke the miners by firing flash-balls, water-cannon, and tear gas at them, on the lying pretext that the strikers had firearms.
On 16 August, it appears, given the exhaustion of the workers and the excitement stirred up by the ‘union representatives’ – who, by chance, suddenly disappeared - a group of miners had the nerve to ‘charge’ the police armed with sticks. What? This vile mob charging the forces of order? What insolence! And what could these several thousand police, with their guns, their riot shields, their armoured cars, their water-cannon, their grenades and their helicopters do faced with a horde of savages ‘charging ‘ at them with sticks? Obviously they had to shoot to “protect their lives”.
And this led to the absolutely disgusting, monstrous images which we all now know. But while the working class can only express its indignation in the face of such barbarity, it also needs to understand that the dissemination of these images also had an aim – that of spreading the mystification that the workers in the ‘truly democratic’ countries are lucky to be able to march freely behind their union banners. This was also a warning to all those who are tempted to rise up against the misery engendered by this system.
The bourgeoisie tries to distort the movement
Immediately after the massacre, voices all around the world were heard denouncing ‘the demon of apartheid’. The bourgeoisie wants to distort the meaning of this movement by pushing it towards ethnic and nationalist issues. Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC in April, took himself off to Marikana to denounce the foreign companies, demanding the nationalisation of the mines and the expulsion of the ‘big white landowners’.
Exhibiting the crassest form of hypocrisy, Jacob Zuma declared to the press: “We must bring out the truth about what happened here. This is why I have decided to set up a commission of inquiry to find out the real causes of this incident”. The truth is this: the bourgeoisie is trying to dupe the working class by disguising the class struggle as a racial struggle. But the trick is a bit obvious: wasn’t it a ‘black’ government that responded to the appeal of a ‘black’ trade union to send in the police? Isn’t it a ‘black’ government which has done all it can to maintain the miners in the most wretched living conditions? Isn’t it a ‘black’ government which is using a police force trained in the apartheid era and which has voted in ‘shoot to kill’ laws? And this ‘black’ government, isn’t it run by the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, celebrated all over the world as the champion of democracy and tolerance?
The strike spreads
In the night of 19/20 August, trying to take advantage of the situation, the directors of Lonmin, the firm which exploits the mine, ordered “the 3000 employees on illegal strike to return to work on Monday 20 August, or face possible redundancy”. But the anger of the miners was such that they defied this threat: “Are they going to sack those who are in the hospital and the morgue? In any case, it’s better to get the sack because we are suffering here. Our lives aren’t going to change. Lonmin doesn’t care about our welfare. Up till now they have refused to talk to us. They have sent in the police to kill us”. Lonmin had to retreat, and meanwhile on 22 August the strike spread, with workers in several other mines, owned by Royal Bafokeng Platinum and Amplats, coming out for the same demands.
At the time of writing, after four weeks of the strike, the ANC has signed a deal to return to work, but the AMCU have said they will confront anyone reporting for duty. After the massacre 270 miners were charged with ‘public violence’ which was then changed to murder based on case law from the apartheid era. Eventually the charges were dropped, but 150 miners said they had been beaten while in custody. There have been a number of demonstrations, and a week’s strike at KCD East gold mine. Police fired on pickets, wounding four miners, in a wildcat strike at Modder East gold mine.
Julius Malema has continued to make a name for himself, but his demand for widespread nationalisation is effectively for more control by the capitalist state dominated by the ANC.
But what the Marikana massacre has shown most clearly is the violence of the democratic state. Black or white, all states are ready to carry out massacres against the working class.
El Generico 22/8/12 (additions 8/6/12)
. The official unemployment rate was 35.4% at the end of 2011
. Quoted in Le Monde, 16/8/12
. NUM communiqué, 13.8.12
. Declaration by the police after the massacre. The police spokesman had the nerve to claim: “The police were attacked in a cowardly way by a group using various weapons, including firearms....The police officers, to protect their lives and in a situation of legitimate self-defence, were obliged to respond with force”
. Lonmin declaration 19.8.12