South African Political Economy After Marikana


When a ruling party in any African country sinks to the depths of allowing its police force to serve white-dominated multinational capital by killing dozens of black workers so as to end a brief strike, as happened in South Africa in August, it represents not just human-rights and labour-relations travesties. The incident offers the potential for a deep political rethink. But that can only happen if the society openly confronts the chilling lessons learned in the process about the moral degeneration of a liberation movement that the world had supported for decades. Support was near universal from progressives of all political hues, because that movement, the African National Congress (ANC), promised to rid this land not only of formal apartheid but of all unfair racial inequality and indeed class and gender exploitation as well. And now the ANC seems to be making many things worse. 


There are five immediate considerations about what happened at Marikana, 100km northwest of Johannesburg, beginning around 4pm on August 16:


·         South African police ordered several thousand striking platinum mineworkers – rock drill operators – off a hill where they had gathered as usual over the prior four days, surrounding the workers with barbed wire;

·         the hill was more than a kilometer away from Lonmin property, the mineworkers were not blocking mining operations or any other facility, and although they were on an ‘unprotected’ wildcat strike, the workers had a constitutional right to gather;

·         as they left the hill, 34 were killed and 78 others suffered bullet-wound injuries, all at the hands of police weapons, leaving some crippled for life, with 10 of the 34 shot dead while moving through a small gap in the fencing, and the other two dozen murdered – some apparently by police shooting from helicopters – in a field and on a smaller hill nearby, as they fled;

·         no police were hurt in the operation;

·         270 mine workers were arrested that day, followed by a weekend during which state prosecutors charged the men with the ‘murder’ of their colleagues (under an obscure apartheid-era doctrine of collective responsibility), followed by an embarrassed climb down by the national prosecutor apparently under pressure from the minister of justice, as well as by most of the rest of South African society.


The details about how the massacre unfolded were not initially obvious, for mainstream media embedded behind police lines (unaware at the time of the ‘killing kopje’) and official police statements together generated a ‘fog of war’, former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils remarked. The effect was to stigmatize the mineworkers. It was only a few days later that observers – the September Imbizo Commission, University of Johannesburg researcher Peter Alexander and his research team, and Daily Maverick reporter Greg Marinovich – uncovered the other shootings. The Daily Maverick stood out for subsequently getting to the scene of the crime most often and with the most insightful reporters. Most journalists relied on official sources, especially the police and National Prosecuting Authority, even when they were discredited by persistent fibbery.


Media bias allowed the impression to emerge in conventional wisdom that police were ‘under attack’ by irrational, drugged and potentially murderous men from rural areas in the Eastern Cape’s Pondoland, Lesotho and Mozambique, who used ‘muti’ (traditional medicine) to ward off bullets. Plenty of press reports and even the SA Communist Party’s (SACP’s) official statement refer to the workers’ pre-capitalist spiritual sensibilities, to try to explain why they might charge towards the police, through the five-meter gap in the barbed wire, with their primitive spears and wooden sticks.


It is actually far more likely that as the men came through the gap, they began edging alongside the fence, rather than running directly at the line of heavily armed police. Reports that a mineworker fired the first shot have not been confirmed. The police claim six handguns were recovered from dead, wounded and arrested mineworkers, but this also awaits verification. Although on August 17, President Jacob Zuma left a regional leadership summit a day early, he took a week to see how the dust would settle, and then called for an official commission of enquiry to hold hearings, which was begun six weeks later though without sufficient preparation to ensure the victims’ families were in attendance.

There is, of course, much more context to add, both short- and long-term. The next layer of complexity relates to the prior murders of six workers, two security guards and two cops close by, starting when a march on August 11 by striking workers against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was met with gunfire, allegedly from NUM officials. Tension in the area mounted quickly, and when security guards and police were killed, apparently by some of the Marikana mineworkers, this generated a sensibility of vindication; gruesome footage of the murdered cops had circulated amongst the police who were on duty on August 16. The assassination of NUM shopstewards increased in pace, as well. 

But it must be recalled that this was not brand new conflict, for strike-related violence over the prior year at Lonmin and other major platinum mining operations killed many other workers, and just six months earlier, 17 000 mineworkers were temporarily fired nearby at the world’s second-largest platinum firm, Implats, before gaining wage concessions, leaving more than 50 dead. Still, none of this labour-capital conflict would have flared into such an explosive situation at Marikana, many believe, were it not for the obsequious state, ruling party and trade union relationships that developed over the prior two decades with the major mining houses. These cozy relations, even with companies with very low morals and engaged in labour broking, apparently incensed the workers, raising their staying power to such high levels.


The official investigation


The massacre was so violent an assault on the society’s sensibilities that Zuma had to sound some notes of regret. On August 17, he announced a judicial commission of inquiry’s terms of reference. Along with hints that as punishment, Lonmin’s mining licenses might be revoked, Zuma went slightly beyond the tight focus that many expected, i.e., who shot whom on whose orders under what psychological conditions. Marikana is such an all-consuming disaster that Zuma may even go beyond the usual superficial and inconsequential tut-tutting, and impose sharp punishment on Lonmin so as to redirect the heat his own government is justifiably feeling. Zuma has asked the three judges (none of whom have a high public profile or obvious biases) several questions which the society is screaming out to be answered:

·         How did Lonmin try to resolve disputes with labour and between unions, and react to violence at the mine prior to the August 16 shootings? The brief is to ‘also examine Lonmin policies generally, including the procedure, practices and conduct relating to its employees and organised labour.’ While notably absent is an explicit mandate to look at the broader impact of Lonmin as a Resource-Cursing company – including apparently having local police in the company’s pocket to do its very dirty strike-busting work – the three commissioners can nevertheless broaden out to ‘investigate whether by act or omission, the company directly or indirectly caused loss of life or damage to persons or property.’ That could be a long leash, if the judges feel like a longer run (SA judges normally don’t).

·         Why did the SA Police Service use ‘force and whether this was reasonable and justifiable’?

·         What about ‘the conduct of the National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union’, and was there ‘effective control over membership… in ensuring that their conduct was lawful’?;

·         Did the Department of Mineral Resources or any other government department act appropriately?

·         What of ‘the conduct of individuals and loose groupings in fomenting and/or promoting a situation of conflict and confrontation’? 

The society’s cleavages are so deep and wide that the commission’s work, no matter the quality of its immediate answers, cannot band-aid vast differences of opinion or establish the basis for appropriate political mobilization. Cosatu recognized that further structural factors should be considered, and like the SA Human Rights Commission and independent progressive investigators including Bench Marks Foundation, will issue major reports in coming weeks.



Corporate-state-labour sweethearts 

Lonmin was long ruled by Tiny Rowland, a man so venal that his London and Rhodesia Company was named ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’ by British prime minister Edward Heath in 1973 after just one episode of his bribery and bullying was unveiled. Rowland died in 1998, after losing control of the company five years earlier due to his ties to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Lonmin rebranded – its ‘Integrity, Honesty & Trust’ slogan adorns billboards at Marikana – and by 2010 the firm’s ‘Sustainable Development Report’ was ranked ‘excellent’ by Ernst and Young. Lonmin is even featured on the World Bank’s website as the leading example of International Finance Corporation (IFC) ‘strategic community investment,’ worthy of a 2007 Bank commitment of $150 million in equity investment and credit. (Exactly two weeks after the massacre, the new Bank president Jim Yong Kim came to Pretoria and Johannesburg for a visit. Tellingly, he neglected to check on his Lonmin investment in nearby Marikana, and instead gave a high-profile endorsement to an IFC deal with a small junk-mail printing/posting firm that is prospering from state tenders.) 

Lonmin must also have been confident that with the World Bank backing its community investment gimmickry, it could mainly ignore the nearby Nkaneng shack-settlement’s degradation. The lack of clean running water, sanitation, storm-water drainage, electricity, schools, clinics and any other amenities make Nkaneng as inhospitable a residential site to reproduce labour power as any other in South Africa, yet Lonmin’s approach to the community’s troubles was tokenistic. Instead of building decent company housing for migrant workers, for example, it paid an inadequate ‘living out allowance’ to support rental payments in shacks, a sum of around $200 per month, which was in many cases just added to wages for remittance to the home region, leaving Nkaneng nearly uninhabitable.  

Lonmin’s successful public relations onslaught probably gave its executives confidence that long-standing abuse of low-paid migrant labour could continue. The primary trade union serving black workers, NUM, becoming so coopted that shop stewards are reportedly paid three times more than ordinary workers, and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni earns $160 000 per year. Baleni had even advised Lonmin to fire 9000 mineworkers at nearby Karee mine in late 2011, because they went on a wildcat strike. As Baleni’s former deputy, Archie Palane put it, ‘It’s absolutely shocking – completely unheard of that a union advises an employer to fire workers. No matter what your differences or what they did, this should simply not happen. It gives the impression that you just don’t care. How can you ever expect those workers to trust you to represent them in any negotiations?’ Of the 9000, 7000 were rehired but they quit NUM and joined the rival Association of Mining and Construction Union (AMCU). One result, at nearby Implats, was that of the 28 000 workers, 70 percent were NUM members in late 2011, but by September 2012 the ratio was down to 13 percent. 

On the ecological front, the entire platinum belt contributes to the toxicity and overall pollution that means South Africa’s ‘Environmental Performance Index’ has slipped to 5th worst of 133 countries surveyed by Columbia and Yale University researchers this year. The Mineral Energy Complex’s prolific contribution to pollution is mainly to blame, including coal mining that generates coal-fired power used in electricity-intensive mining operations. In this context, Lonmin might have considered its ongoing destruction of the platinum belt’s water, air, agricultural and other eco-systems of little importance, within a setting in which pollution is ubiquitous.  

Moreover, the North West provincial and Rustenburg municipal governments are apparently rife with corruption. Emblematic was the 2009 assassination of a well-known ANC whistleblower, Moss Phakoe, which a judge found was arranged by Rustenburg mayor Matthew Wolmarans. Again, in this context, Lonmin and the other big mining houses in the platinum belt might have considered South Africa just one more Third World site worthy of the designation Resource Cursed. The phrase is usually applied to sites where dictatorial and familial patronage relations allow multinational capital in the extractive industries to get away with murder. (Around two dozen anti-corruption whisteblowers like Phakoe have been killed in recent years.)  

Family enterprise suits the Zumas, who have a reported 220 businesses. It is not surprising to learn that Zuma’s son Duduzane is co-owner of JIC, the platinum belt region’s largest firm specializing in short-term labour outsourcing (sometimes called ‘labour broking’, though JIC denies this, and NUM has a recognition agreement with the firm). Nor is it a secret that the president’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma plays a destructive role in nearby gold-mining territory as Aurora co-owner, along with Nelson Mandela’s grandson and Zuma’s lawyer. That mining house has perhaps the single most extreme record of ecological destructiveness and labour conflict in the post-apartheid era, reflecting how white-owned mining houses gave used-up mines with vast Acid Mine Drainage liabilities to new black owners, who are ill equipped to deal with the inevitable crises. 

This is all part of the deracialisation of apartheid capitalism. As Business Day editor Peter Bruce wrote in 2003, ‘The government is utterly seduced by big business, and cannot see beyond its immediate interests.’ Those interests were to facilitate capital accumulation – ‘we must strive to create and strengthen a black capitalist class’, said Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki, upon taking over from Mandela in 1999 – within the ANC’s leading political power blocs, along with power of patronage to ensure voting majorities

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