For those South Africans who do not simply want to exploit the Marikana massacre for immediate and petty political goals, it’s advisable to try to understand what happened.
This desire, however, is tempered by a terrible sense of powerlessness. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The rich right-wing whites who shelter their privileges behind the 1996 Constitution assure us that the Constitution prevents this from happening. We voted for the ANC so that this would never happen again. Those who were fooled into supporting Jacob Zuma never dreamed that his presidential candidacy would lead to workers being gunned down by police officers under ANC orders. Now that the impossible has happened, what is to be done? When 21 people were massacred at Langa outside Uitenhage on the 21st of March 1985, we knew that we had to work harder to support the Charterist cause and thus struggle against the apartheid regime. But no such options are available as of now.
The massacre happened at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana, to a group of striking mine workers who supported the Associated Mine and Construction Union, AMCU. Mining and construction is an odd combination; it makes sense because the Charterist union in the field, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), organised itself a subsidiary role providing labour to build the 2010 World Cup stadiums. So, AMCU appears a weapon aimed at the NUM. Indeed, it has marching songs praising the murder of NUM members.
It is interesting that AMCU scarcely exists, organisationally — it has no fixed offices and is not a registered union. However, it has received very favourable coverage in South African mining industry journals, and also in the Mail and Guardian newspaper. Such right-wing journals do not normally give favourable coverage to trade unions of any kind. Is there something behind the scenes?
AMCU began organising at Marikana in early 2012. As elsewhere, it accomplished essentially nothing for the workers. However, rather suddenly in July-August, AMCU became intensely significant; suddenly, its members, armed with sharpened reinforcing-rods and machetes, began violently enforcing an illegal strike (the union was not recognised by Lonmin or anyone else involved) in pursuit of a preposterous 200% wage increase. It is interesting that Lonmin, which has historically been a violently anti-union mining company even by South African standards, took no action against the workers involved in this strike, even when they began killing NUM members and Lonmin security guards.
Marikana is a platinum mine. Platinum mining is a highly profitable activity; however, with the fall in the global price of platinum, platinum mining companies in South Africa, all of which are multinationals, have been looking for ways to cut costs. One cost-cutting measure has been to restrict investment; another has been to close down the least productive mines. Another alternative, of course, is to restrain wages.
In South Africa, wages are already low, because of the country’s stratospheric unemployment. To counteract this, unionised workers enjoy some protection under the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. However, mine workers are hard to protect, because mines tend (now as ever) to hire workers from far away, on short-term contracts, easily fired and hard to unionise. As a result, organising unions in the mining sector is hard work — as compared with organising unions in the public sector. Therefore, the NUM has become the poor relation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, unlike more successful unions like the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union.
It is possible to organise effectively under tough conditions — witness the National Union of Metal Workers, whose leader Irwin Jim is one of the few outspokenly radical unionists within COSATU. However, people like Jim are frowned on by the ANC. If you want to get along under ANC President Zuma, you have to go along with business, and the NUM has apparently agreed not to upset the mining corporations who are Zuma’s most important financial backers in South Africa. This makes them vulnerable to accusations of being chummy with the owners. Which makes it relatively easy for AMCU to get a foothold, especially among inexperienced, isolated workers from far away.
Why should Lonmin want AMCU to have a foothold? Two unions are not better than one; two unions are infinitely worse than one, because you can play them off against each other. Divide and rule has always been the colonialist way. In South Africa the regime encourages strife between the traditional and the modern — with the maRashea gang whom the police used against the ANC on the Witwatersrand in the 1950s, or the “Fathers” whom the police used against rebellious school students of Soweto in the 1970s, or the “Witdoeke” whom the police used against the United Democratic Front in the Western and Eastern Cape in the 1980s. There was also a trade union — UWUSA, set up by the Security Police and the Inkatha movement in 1986 as a tool intended to break up COSATU. The goal of AMCU seems very much like that of UWUSA — to cripple or undermine a trade union which big business does not like. (South African big business hates virtually all trade unions with a passion.)
However, we still have to ask why, on the 16th of August, the South African Police Service’s Pretoria Public Order Policing Unit fired into a crowd of AMCU members causing the biggest single police massacre since the 1970s.
It’s clear that Lonmin wouldn’t want this to happen, if only because the consequences were completely unpredictable. It’s also very unlikely that the NUM wanted it to happen, if only because the consequences might easily have been an AMCU pogrom against NUM members. (The NUM has essentially zero influence over the SAPS — by their account, they couldn’t even prevent Lonmin from bailing out the AMCU people whom the police had earlier arrested.)
The obvious figure with the power to organise such a thing would be the Police Minister, Nathi Mthethwa, or President Zuma himself. However, the public is extraordinarily, and completely understandably, sensitive about police massacres. When the police were filmed murdering a protest leader named Andreas Tatane in Ficksburg in 2011, the footage went viral within hours, the public were up in arms, and the policemen on the videos are today facing murder charges. The whole militarised, “shoot to kill” police system which Mthethwa and Zuma had introduced (copying the apartheid-era rank structure and some of the brutal doctrines which had been abandoned under the Mandela/Mbeki governments) was briefly called into question. It was, in short, obvious that a police massacre would be a public relations catastrophe.
But a public relations catastrophe is something Zuma definitely doesn’t want. He’s up for re-election at the Mangaung ANC Conference this coming December. Several provinces, as well as the influential ANC Youth League, are calling for his replacement. A massacre like this would only confirm the widespread widespread hostility to Zuma among many ANC rank and file members. It could possibly have been made less harmful if Zuma had been prepared for it — if he had steamed into Marikana with a huge political bandwagon, rounded up the offending cops and sent them packing, thrown his weight behind AMCU (no doubt with a quiet backhander to the NUM) and generally appeared politically in control. Instead he sneaked into town late, with a huge police escort, gave a vapid press conference and then scuttled away — leaving it to his archnemesis Julius Malema to exploit Zuma’s cowardly performance. It’s obvious he was wholly unprepared for what happened — even though his policies made it almost inevitable.
But didn’t the cops know that they were going to get into trouble if they gunned down a bunch of mineworkers? No doubt they did, but they were exasperated. It’s very difficult to bring a highly motivated and armed group under control; such highly skilled policing hardly exists under Mthethwa’s ministerial leadership, especially under a series of Police Commissioners dismissed for corruption. (Incidentally, the current Minister of Minerals, Susan Shabangu, used to be Deputy Minister of Police, and was famous for her slogan “Shoot the bastards!”.)
It seems that the cops wanted to disarm the strikers — which was clearly a good idea. Unfortunately, two days earlier the strikers had murdered two police officers, stolen their weapons and torched their vehicle. Hence, the cops wanted to prove their toughness, while AMCU saw the cops as easy targets. Somehow, the cops had to persuade the strikers that very bad things would happen to them if they didn’t surrender — but AMCU persuaded the strikers that the cops were on the NUM’s side, and therefore surrendering their weapons would be equivalent to surrendering to the NUM. Meanwhile, they were told, the cops wouldn’t dare shoot. And if they did, their bullets would turn to water. (Did the strikers really believe that last bit? Who knows? They were desperate.)
So the cops sealed off the hilltop where the strikers assembled, canalised them into their march towards the informal settlement where many of them were staying — and this meant that the strikers had to pass through the cops to get home. Most likely the cops thought that stun grenades, water cannons and rubber pellets fired from shotguns (smaller than the old-style baton rounds, but still capable of killing Tatane when fired at point-blank range) would disperse them. There were several TV crews and a host of journalists there to watch the police defeat the strikers — it’s inconceivable that a police unit would allow itself to be filmed premeditatedly murdering people.
But it was; the strikers didn’t run, they advanced with all their weapons to within striking range, at which point the police opened fire with maximum force — not just shotguns, but R-5s, the short-barrel version of the Israeli Galil automatic rifle. So, completely unnecessarily, 34 people died, and within hours, everybody in South Africa was watching the bloodbath.
And now, what to do? Can we condemn AMCU? What’s the point? The workers didn’t know that their leaders were stooges — they still wouldn’t believe it if you told them. Can we condemn NUM? None of this was their fault — the worst you can say is that they didn’t dominate the mine enough.
Better, perhaps, condemn Lonmin, for their utterly irresponsible stoking of violence in pursuit of profit which led directly to the massacre. However, that’s all going to be covered up, as usually happens in South African “judicial enquiries”. You can be sure that Lonmin’s management (who, as COSATU leader Tony Ehrenreich pointed out, earn approximately 240 times as much as the strikers do) are never going to appear in any South African dock. As usual, the big crooks will get away.
Can we condemn the police? Of course. But better to condemn the police management who allowed the training and equipping of the POP unit in the country’s capital Pretoria to degenerate into inept, unskilled thuggery. Better to condemn the politicians who have assured the police that blazing guns represent best practice — and that’s not only the ANC politicians, but also the opposition DA who continually call for the Army to be used against criminals.
Most of all, we should condemn the top brass of the ANC, who have been in cahoots with the mining industry for decades. They recently came up with a “National Plan” under which ten percent of GDP will be devoted, for a decade, to enabling the mining industry to ship South Africa’s natural resources overseas. But there’s absolutely nothing we can do to stop them. The most we can hope for is that someone slightly less bad than Zuma might replace him at Mangaung next December. Apart from that, the looting of the country’s resources and the steady decline in worker rights and social wages will go on.
And so, very probably, will the shooting.