By Francis Njubi Nesbitt
South Africa has managed, once again, to shock the world with a brutal crackdown on workers. In a series of events eerily reminiscent of apartheid, police killed 34 striking miners and then charged the miners themselves with murdering their colleagues.
The killing happened at a Marikana platinum mine owned and operated by Lonmin, a London-based company that has been subject to wildcat strikes and labor disputes for years.
Commentators in the South African media immediately dubbed the killing the “Marikana massacre,” referencing apartheid-era massacres such as those in Sharpeville, Bulhoek, and Uitenhage.
The saga began when about 3,000 workers went on strike on August 10 demanding a base pay increase from $500 to $1,500 a month. The striking workers were rock drill operators who perform some of the most dangerous and arduous tasks miles below the surface.
The mine’s management claimed that the strike was an illegal wildcat strike although it was supported by members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) —a breakaway faction of the union of record, the National Union of Miners (NUM). Although the NUM is the more established union, it has been losing ground to the AMCU because it is seen as too close to management.
Tensions between the striking workers and NUM members led to three deaths on the first day of the strike. On August 13, 9 more people were killed, including two police officers.
Then, on August 16, police fired into a crowd of protesting workers, killing 34 and wounding 78 others. The police said they were responding to an imminent threat, accusing the workers of charging toward them armed with machetes.
Police then arrested 270 workers and initially charged them with creating a disturbance. On August 30, however, prosecutors announced that they were adding charges of murder. They claim that the workers incited police to fire into the crowd and are thus responsible for the carnage. The charges were brought under an apartheid-era law that allowed for the prosecution of groups of protesters using the “common purpose” doctrine.
“This is under common law, where people are charged with common purpose in a situation where there are suspects with guns or any weapons and they confront or attack the police,” National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesman Frank Lesenyego told the BBC.
After massive protests at home and abroad, however, the NPA announced that prosecutors were “provisionally” dropping the murder charges. However, the NPA’s acting director, Nomgcobo Jiba, said that “Final charges will only be made once all investigations have been completed.” The miners, therefore, could still be charged with murder at a later date.
This “common purpose” law was used by the white minority regime to prosecute activists during the apartheid years. Ironically, some of those activists are now in power and are using the same law to persecute workers. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) actually campaigned against the very law that is now being used to suppress organized labor.
The official response from the ANC was to pass the buck and dissemble. ANC President Jacob Zuma appointed a commission of inquiry and asked South Africans not to jump to conclusion about what took place. “Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing, or recrimination,” he said while appointing the commission.
Despite the president’s admonition, the NPA went ahead and charged the miners with murder. Zuma’s justice minister, Jeff Redebe, asked the NPA to explain the murder charges. This was the extent of the official response to the worst case of police violence since apartheid.
“The policemen who killed those people are not in custody, not even one of them. This is madness,” Julius Malema, a former ANC youth leader who is a frequent critic of the president, told protesters on August 30. Malema has called on the president to take responsibility for the fiasco and resign.
The president of the South African Council of Churches, Bishop Jo Seoka, has also spoken out in support of the workers’ demands. The BBC reports that Bishop Soeka, “who has some sympathy” for the miners, has been involved in meetings between the striking workers and Lonmin’s management. He said that living conditions for some of the miners were as bad as those in the apartheid era.
The Marikana mine has a troubled history of labor strife. The Bench Mark Foundation, a research organization that monitors corporate social responsibility, released a report on platinum mining in 2011 that traced labor strife at the mine to the unacceptably high number of fatalities each year, low pay, and very poor living conditions for workers. The report notes that fatalities at the mine had doubled since January 2011. Lonmin’s mines employ 23,915 workers, most of them at Marikana.
According to Bench Mark, almost a third of Lonmin’s workforce was made up of sub-contracted labor from outside the region. Researchers found that “sub-contracted labor is usually poorly paid, poorly trained and educated, and poorly accommodated.” These workers are also highly mobile and thus lack “long-term familiarity with the work environment and culture,” thus compromising the health and safety of other workers.
This influx of migrant laborers has led to tension, protests, and unrest as local communities have demanded employment. In May 2011, production at the mine was halted altogether by such protests. Accordingly, the authors of the Bench Mark report wrote that they were “not surprised that violent protest broke out in Marikana directed against Lonmin with the major demand being employment for local people.”
In 1994, South Africa chose a neoliberal path during the transition from apartheid. There was to be no redistribution of resources, no reparations, and no compensation for those dispossessed of their lands. The white minority still controls the 80 percent of the best agricultural land and owns the country’s mines. Reports indicate that racial inequality has grown since 1994.
In August 2005, religious and civic groups joined the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to form a coalition to challenge the ANC government’s economic policies. Although still part of the ANC’s electoral coalition, COSATU has opposed the ANC’s focus on building a black professional and business class at the expense of the working class. The federation has campaigned for a broad-based redistribution of resources.
The bottom line is that the 99 percent of black South Africans have not tasted the fruits of democracy and freedom. Only a tiny minority—the politically connected—reaped the rewards of black rule and the ANC’s Black Economic Empowerment program. This tiny minority has become obscenely wealthy in a country where the unemployment rate has remained at 25.5 percent since 2000. Youth unemployment remains at 50 percent. Fifteen million South Africans depend on social welfare.
Given the reality of pervasive poverty in a country blessed with massive wealth in natural resources, it is not surprising that the poor and dispossessed have turned to violence. They have lost confidence in the leaders who abandoned them to become overseers for the same corporate forces that benefitted from apartheid.
“In the absence of strong, legitimate political organization, communities see violence as the only language leaders will listen to,” argues Jay Naidoo, the founding general-secretary of COSATU and a minister for development under Nelson Mandela.
The lesson of the Marikana tragedy is that the new political ruling class will not hesitate to use the power of the state, including the police force and the legal system, to enforce corporate interests at the expense of the working class. This narrow and selfish approach does not bode well for the future.
South Africa is at a crossroads. If it does not seek a new social contract that gives the black majority a stake in the system, it will continue down the path of inequality and violence.
Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions and has published numerous book chapters and articles in academic journals.