South Africa: One year after the Marikana massacre

Both capitalists and working class prepare for unforeseen turmoil

On August 16, 2012, at Marikana, a bloody line was drawn in South Africa’s political sand when police in cold blood shot dead 34 workers and wounded 78. The few seconds of the massacre that were shown on TV tore down decades of carefully nurtured illusions about the ANC government and the capitalist state. The state’s resort to the most brutal form of reaction against the striking Lonmin workers set in motion a new period of revolution and counterrevolution in South Africa. A year later, a mining bosses’ offensive against jobs and worker rights is gathering pace. With the lessons of Marikana imprinted on the consciousness of millions of workers and youth, the scene it set for further mighty upheavals centred on the mining industry.

Remembering Marikana

The massacre on August 16, 2012, was a carefully orchestrated operation calculated to crush the Lonmin workers’ deadly challenge to the government and the capitalist order. Provoked by days (and years) of repression, the thousands of workers gathered on the hill, ‘the mountain, outside Marikana were fenced in with razor wire, attacked from behind and from the air with water bombs, and automatic gunfire. Chased towards the five-meter opening in the fence, in front of TV cameras, a first group was shot down. The majority of those killed and wounded were hunted down, out of sight of the cameras, among the rocks and bushes at another small hill. Many were shot at close range, in the back or with their arms stretched up to surrender. Police deliberately destroyed the faces of the dead by running over their skulls with armoured vehicles. Less well-planned, perhaps, was the police ‘investigation’ of the scene which has been revealed as a clumsy cover-up attempt.

The true story of Marikana was forced out in the open by the Lonmin workers’ defiant continuation of the struggle after the massacre and the industry-wide strike that followed. In the days immediately before and after the massacre, the public was washed over by a virtual flood of vicious propaganda against the Lonmin workers and their struggle. The workers who had been left, by the National Union of Mineworkers’(NUM’s) betrayal, with no choice but to take the fight for a decent wage into their own hands and for this crime were subjected to brutal repression were painted out variously as bloodthirsty criminals and murderers, muthi-possessed savages or hapless victims of manipulation by a ‘third force’. Jeremy Cronin of the South African ‘Communist’ Party (SACP) took the prize by publicly condemning the strikers a ‘Pondoloand vigilante mafia’. While the state and its appendices continue to hammer the refrain of police ‘self-defence’ at the Farlam Commission, this just shows how detached from reality this farcical show trial is since in the rest of society, these initial ‘truths’ were long overturned by the workers’ struggle.

Bloody repression of working class struggles in general, and mineworkers’ struggles in particular, of course did not begin at Marikana. Just two weeks earlier, on August 1, 2012, for example, five protesting workers were shot dead by police at the Aquarius K5 shaft outside Rustenburg. Their murders warranted no more than a paragraph on the business pages. The scale and publicity of the violence meted out on the Lonmin workers, which shook SA and the world, were no accidents. This was the calculated response to the, up until then, most serious challenge to the foundations of the African National Congress’ (ANC’s) rule – a mineworkers’ uprising against the NUM, which throughout the democratic era has been the key to control the mineworkers and thereby the mining industry, the backbone of the SA economy; by so doing also becoming a bearing pillar of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the ANC-led Alliance. The threat was not just to NUM’s authority but to the ANC’s ability to maintain the capitalist ruling class’ confidence in its ability to ‘control the black working class’ (as a recent Business Day editorial so helpfully defined the ANC’s reason for being). ‘Concomitant action’, the expression used by ANC leader and Lonmin shareholder Cyril Ramaphosa to urge the crack-down, therefore had to mean asserting the state’s power through the barrels of automatic rifles.

‘This is not our government’

The attempt to drown the worker-led strike in blood, instead of shoring up these relationships, exposed them to millions with blinding and instant clarity. One of the key lessons of Marxism – that any state at its core consists of ‘armed bodies of men and women’ defending the ruling class, while also relying on ‘softer’ institutions (such as parliament as a means to reinforce illusions in the system on regular basis) and extended arms such as the trade unions, political parties and the media to justify the oppression of the many by the few – was suddenly understood way beyond the reach of committed socialists. Marikana spelled out that the ANC government is a party that exists to defend the interests of the capitalist bosses, that the NUM is the main tool to carry out this task, and that the supposedly neutral police, courts and media are in fact little more than the private securities and praise singers of big business.

Flowing immediately from these conclusions is the search for a working class alternative. Mineworkers, first in the Rustenburg platinum belt and then throughout the country’s mines, immediately followed the Lonmin workers’ example of setting up independent strike committees. The NUM fulltime shop stewards, often earning ten times the wage of ordinary workers, were chased out of the union offices. Through the spreading, unification and coordination of the strikes the mining houses and the government were forced to instead recognise the workers’ committees. In the minds of the striking workers this was right from the start linked to the need to also take the government bosses out of their Union Building offices, and put in place a workers’ government. As workers regained the confidence in the ability to organise, fight and win, the idea of building a new party, a working class alternative to the ANC and all the established parties, took root as an urgent necessity. The development of the strike committees into the National Strike Committee by October 2012 and the formation of the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) by December 2012 came out of these realisations.

New battles on the mining front

Marikana registered a new level of class consciousness within the SA working class, which is forced to fight on several fronts – in the workplace, in the community – on daily basis. When battles are now escalating again this is against the backdrop of the recognition that things cannot continue as before – both within the working class and the capitalist class. Again, SA’s political and economic contradictions come to their most concentrated expression in the mining industry. While the R15bn in lost sales as a result of the strike wave August-December 2012 is certainly an irritant to the bosses, this is not the cause of the looming onslaught on jobs. It is the relentless downturn in the world economy which have seen prices of e.g. platinum and gold plummet and eaten into the profits and room to manoeuvre of the mining multinationals. Their major objectives are to cut the ‘over-supply’ of minerals such as platinum and gold to restore profitability and to shoot down the workers’ newfound confidence in struggle.

Already before Marikana, the mining houses were testing the waters for reducing over-production by attempting the closure of some shafts around Rustenburg. Having been forced to retreat by the strike movement, they resumed the offensive immediately after the strikes were over, starting with the lock-out and eviction of 6000 workers at Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu shaft in Carletonville on New Year’s Day 2013. Amplats, the world’s biggest platinum producer, followed two weeks later announcing the so-called moth-balling (closure with the possibility of re-opening later) of four shafts in Rustenburg, the closure of one mine and the retrenchment of 14 000 workers. Under pressure from government and the continued combativitiy of the mineworkers, the numbers have been reduced to three shafts and 6000 workers, for now. While the AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) is still busy with the company’s ‘consultation on this ‘strategic review’, the bosses are already acting on the plan and count on its finalisation within the second half of 2013. Anglo Gold Ashanti has announced a 300 000oz cut out of its total 920 000oz global production – in just one year, most likely concentrated to SA.

Like Amplats, Glencore Xstrata is a pilot case for the ruling class. They too understand the working class truth that an injury to one is an injury to all. Throughout 2013, brief spontaneous worker-led strikes have continued to break out throughout the mining industry. At Glencore-Xstrata’s Eastern Chrome mine in Tubatse, Limpopo, 2000 workers struck in May in protest against the company’s protection of a white supervisor who had racially assaulted a black worker. The company acted immediately by having the strike declared illegal and dismissed the 2000 workers. Backed by SA mining bosses and international speculators united, the Glencore Xstrata bosses are hell-bent on consolidating a defeat for the workers, who are fighting for their reinstatement supported by the Workers and Socialist Party and the Democratic Socialist Movement. Bourgeois analysts speak of a possible cut of 200 000 mining jobs in the next five years (or three?). At the same time, the falling Rand, falling GDP growth rate, falling tax revenue and rising inflation, unemployment and government debt has the SA economy overall balancing close to a ‘tipping point’ which pro-capitalist commentators fear may trigger an all-out social crisis.

Peace without justice?

In addition to the attacks on mining jobs, the ruling class is responding by pushing for the rolling back of the collective bargaining system and for the cementation of the repression to which they resorted in Marikana. A series of ‘peace accords’, under various labels, have been branded about in the aftermath of the massacre. The latest is the ‘Framework Agreement for a Sustainable Mining Industry’, developed in talks government-industry-union talks led by deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe (a former NUM GS). Just previous, completely ineffectual agreements, it contains vague promises to improve the standard of living in mining communities and more concrete undertakings to enforce law and order, e.g. through the permanent stationing of police and ‘other security forces’ at all mining operations. Workers and unions are made to take responsibility for maintaining ‘peace’ while the bosses are preparing for war. Meanwhile, threats and assassinations against worker leaders associated with AMCU have continued, often provoking bloody retaliation.

The ‘Framework’ is part of the ANC government attempts to assure the mining capitalists and the ruling class as a whole that it can re-establish the grip on the situation after Marikana. It is of course no accident that it was drafted just at the start of wage negotiations in gold and platinum which are the most polarised in decades – e.g. a 120% increase demand versus a 5% offer in the gold industry – and the onset of the possible mass retrenchments. The attack on the Democratic Socialist Movement, attempting to scapegoat DSM EC member Liv Shange for so-called anarchy in the mining industry and effectively deport her from SA, also forms part of the efforts to undermine the fighting capacity of the mineworkers.

Despite the ANC’s efforts, its ongoing internal rifts are evidence that its big business handlers are yet to be convinced that ‘the centre can hold’. While the Zuma-faction appears all-powerful for the moment, its paranoia indicates a recognition that others, e.g. around deputy ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, may be biding their time. Increasingly however, the ruling class is shopping around for political ‘Plan Bs’ outside of the ANC. The formation of Agang-SA, a new political party led by former mining magnate and World Bank director Mampela Ramphele, is one such experiment. The right-wing opposition Democratic Alliance is aggressively attempting to swallow other parties into a ‘super-opposition’.

Expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema is now the ‘commander-in-chief’ of the Economic Freedom Fighters hoping to capitalise on the new situation with a programme of radical demands. The ANC is widely expected to suffer big losses in next year’s elections to national and provincial parliament.

A year after Marikana, on the threshold of turmoil that could shake SA to its core, the SA working class has only just begun the reconstruction of its class-independent organisations. AMCU, the union which took over the Rustenburg platinum belt and cut out a large chunk of NUM membership also in the gold industry in the wake of the strikes is yet to show how it will fare in the test that is already beginning with dismissals and retrenchments. So far, the lack of any apparent fight-back strategy is a great cause of concern. Cosatu, the trade union federation to which NUM belongs, appears unable to recover from its historical capitulation to the bosses at Marikana. Since the Cosatu leaders effectively condoned the massacre, and went on to endorse the directly responsible ANC leaders for re-election, the federation has not displayed any effective organising or campaigning work. Instead it stoops to new lows in bitter infighting on weekly basis.

It is high time for workers, the unemployed, youth and students to act on the key lesson of Marikana – that there is no more powerful force than the working class independently organised and united in action. Izwi labasebenzi/ the Democratic Socialist Movement calls for the mineworkers National Workers Committee to work for a joint fight-back plan, coordinated across the different mining sectors and trade unions, to stop the mass retrenchments and fight for living wages and jobs. We also call for a national day of action against the job cuts, for the nationalisation of the mines, banks and big and big business under democratic control and management by workers and communities, for jobs and decent living conditions such as housing and education for all. Izwi labasebenzi/ the DSM campaigns for working class unity and urges all genuine working class fighter to come together in the building of the Workers and Socialist Party. The best honour we can pay to those comrades who were mowed down at Marikana is to craft the political weapon we will need to defeat their murderers once and for all – a mass workers party armed with a socialist programme.

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August 2013