Massacre at Marikana: Union leaders caught between a rock and a hard place

The koppie where mineworkers were gathered before they were massacred in 2012. Pic by Muzi Mzoyi

It has been five years since the Marikana Massacre which saw 34 miners dying at the hands of the South African Police Services after they went on a strike calling for a wage demand of R12,500 amongst other things. At the time of massacre Workers’ World Media Productions Director, Martin Jansen penned this piece and we thought we should re-publish it here since justice is still begging.

Rustenburg, North West, South Africa

The Lonmin miners’ strike in Marikana continues, despite the brutal attack by the ANC government’s police that mowed down workers with their elite unit, firing semi-automatic weapons, resulting in the death of 34 workers, 78 injured and 259 arrested. This massacre is likely to be a political turning point in the class struggle in South Africa, in the same vein as the massacres by Apartheid state forces at Sharpeville in 1960, the student uprisings of 1976 and Boipatong during June 1992.

South Africa’s Apartheid Legacy of Cheap Black Labour and Bloody Repression

Apartheid-capitalism and White minority rule rested firmly on the super-exploitation of black mineworkers and labour in general. This was essential to the South African economy and super profits of the mining capitalists – originating from Britain and America.

The entire Apartheid edifice of labour control, the compound system, the Bantustans and migrant black labour relied on severe oppression of black people. In order to preserve the system, any threat by workers to these arrangements was met by bloody brutality and deaths, meted out by the mine security, the police and even the army.

In 1922, 39 White mineworkers were killed (albeit striking for racist demands). In 1946, it was the black mineworkers strike that was put down with many workers killed (only 9 officially). Similarly in 1987, several mineworkers were killed and injured during the great NUM-led strike that was defeated after three weeks when the NUM for fear of violence weakened their own strike by sending striking workers home all over Southern Africa, dispersing them and seriously undermining their strike and bargaining power.

Former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and Secretary General of COSATU, Cyril Ramaphosa, in 1987 in the aftermath of the largest miners’ strike in Apartheid South Africa. Ramaphosa is now a businessman with interests in mining. Pic:

Now their blood has been spilt once more. This time it is in a ‘new democratic South Africa’, presided over by a black capitalist ANC government. On Thursday 16th August the state and its heavily armed police force, under pressure from the bosses and the NUM leadership, decided to smash the strike. It was D-day to break the strike, and once the workers refused the appeal by AMCU leader Joseph Mthunjwa to disperse, the police were given instructions to attack the workers.

At the heart of this strike are the rock-drillers, workers who do the hardest and most dangerous underground work and are at the lowest end of the wage scale. Many are migrant workers from Lesotho or the Eastern Cape. The poor residents of Marikana are almost entirely dependent for their income on the wages of the mineworkers. Already high unemployment levels have risen in the recent period as a result of retrenchments. People are poverty-stricken – their position eased only partially by small social grants.

Residents live in shacks in settlements or backyards or in poorly constructed RDP houses. They are forced to use the bucket system or self-built pits because the municipality has failed to provide a decent sewerage system. Blocked sewage flows into rivers now infected with bilharzia. There are no decent roads nor has the local municipality provided a waste collection service. Air pollution (dust and sulphur) and noise pollution caused by mining operations close by further threaten the health of the people.

Squalid living in the shadow of immense wealth – Marikana 16/08/2012. Pic from Benchmarks Foundation

Both the mining bosses and the ANC-led municipality have shown callous disregard for the unmet need for housing, services and facilities of the people of Marikana.

The 300% wage demand of the Lonmin strike is a measure of these desperate circumstances and barbaric conditions. Those who say this demand is ‘unrealistic’ should note that Frans Baleni, NUM General Secretary, received a 40% salary increase and now earns R105,000 a month. This is 25-times the R4,000 that the rock-drillers earn and eight-times what they are demanding!

The Lonmin bosses have flatly rejected the workers’ wage demand. Yet the platinum mining bosses, including Lonmin, have fared very well with a decade long boom in the platinum price and record profits in 2011. In May, Lonmin reported a “solid half year performance”. Its CEO earns a whopping salary of R7,4-million a year. Under pressure from the global capitalist crisis, including a significant drop in both the price of platinum and the company’s share price in the recent period, they were determined that the strike be broken.

Also read:  Radio documentary on the Marikana Massacre
The workers were demanding R12,500. Pic from Benchmarks

Moreover, mining bosses have directly benefited from the post-Apartheid ‘compounds’ dividend. Unlike previously where they took responsibility for housing workers in single-sex compounds, albeit in abhorrent conditions, it nevertheless formed part of the mining bosses expenses – paying for workers’ accommodation and controlling them through increasingly more costly security. Freeing up this system in post-apartheid South Africa with workers now allowed to live with their families near their place of work, has shifted the economic burden onto them for not only their own accommodation, but that of their families. Previously, workers’ families lived in the rural areas of the bantustans. This factor has effectively reduced the real wages of workers and makes their demand of “a living wage” of R12,500 per month realistic. This is necessary for their reality.

The mineworkers, unions and South Africa’s new political-economy

During the 1987 mineworkers’ strike, the then NUM general secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa stated, “I don’t know how one shares power with people who have shotguns in their hands, people who have teargas canisters and I really don’t know how one shares power with people who continue to pay starvation wages.” This was in response to the then Anglo Ashanti, Chief Executive Officer and leading negotiator for the mine bosses, Bobby Godsell’s statement about the need for liberal business to share power with the black workers.

The 1987 mineworkers’ strike lasted for 21 days, from the 9th of August (the same date as the start of the Lonmin strike 25 years later) involving over 300,000 mineworkers resulting in 50,000 of them being dismissed and ten workers losing their lives.

Now their blood has been spilt once more in the winter month of August and this time Cyril Ramaphosa and former NUM president who also led the 1987 strike, James Motlatsi, are mine bosses with major shares in Lonmin through their company, the Shanduka Group. They now preside over a mining company that denies workers a living wage and keeps them in wage slavery.

Over the years, under the initial leadership of Ramaphosa, the NUM has developed a very effective leadership cabal that became a conduit for a small powerful group within the new black elite who have traveled an upward social and political path, from mineworkers’ leaders to union fat cats to political and capitalist bosses. The treacherous role of the NUM leadership in the Lonmin strike is therefore not accidental. Cyril Ramaphosa, Kgalema Motlanthe, Gwede Mantashe all once held the position of General Secretary of NUM.

Past and current Secretary Generals of both ANC and NUM, Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe, at the funeral of Moses Kotane in 2015. Pic by the Department of Communication

They also personify the ANC’s shift from a radical petty-bourgeois nationalist liberation movement to a bourgeois nationalist ruling party that protects the interests of the black bourgeoisie that is tied up with the economically dominant White monopoly capitalists that are historically based in South Africa, Europe and North America, such as the very British-based company Lonmin with deep roots in the old White-ruled Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa.

Politically this new dispensation in South Africa is held up by the structure and political glue of the Tripartite Alliance between the ANC, SACP and COSATU and the National Democratic Revolution (NDR).

This government is emphatically pro-business. How do we explain why it uses tax-payers money to meddle in labour disputes in favour of the employer by literally smashing the Lonmin workers’ strike? When the workers were striking, special reaction units around the country were called in, including Unit 432 that committed the massacre.

Moments after the workers were shot by the police. Pic from

Now the ANC government is engaged in sickeningly hypocritical public relations activities to stem the potential tide of fallout and disaffectedness amongst the biggest section of its traditional voters, the impoverished black working class.

Also read:  Calls for unity and mobilisation to take the spirit of Marikana forward

The massacre of the Lonmin workers should also be seen as part of an increased conservatism and repressive approach by the ruling party over the last decade in relation to the ordinary masses, political opposition and even within its own ranks. In recent times, there have been several examples such as the brutal killing of protester, Andries Tatane.

With South Africa’s Black elite inextricably tied to and intertwined with White monopoly capital and the entire capitalist system that breeds ever expanding poverty and inequality, in the context of a global economic crisis – repression is their only realistic means for preserving this status quo. This is exactly what played out at the Lonmin strike with developments there culminating in the massacre of strikers.

The Role of the Union Leadership

Within the workers’ movement, the NUM labour bureaucracy must also be held responsible for the sequence of events that led to the bloody tragedy. Much of the tension among mineworkers has its roots in the discontent of rank-and-file workers about the NUM leadership and the emergence of a rival union, AMCU. The formation of AMCU and consequent inter-union rivalry has its roots in the conservative high-handedness of the leadership and lack of genuine rank and file democracy in the NUM.

In 1999, the current leader of the AMCU, Joseph Mathunjwa, then the chair of a local NUM branch, was dismissed by BHP Billiton but a two-week strike and an underground occupation by 3,000 workers led to his reinstatement. However, NUM proceeded with disciplinary action against him for allegedly bringing the union into disrepute. Two investigations dismissed the charges against Mathunjwa but he was later called to attend a hearing chaired by NUM General Secretary, Gwede Mantashe. He demanded another chairperson on the grounds that he had previously clashed politically with Mantashe. The hearing proceeded in his absence and Mantashe found him guilty and expelled him. Over 3,000 workers proceeded to resign from NUM in solidarity and they later formed AMCU in 2001. The union has since recruited tens of thousands of disgruntled NUM members.

AMCU President, Joseph Mathunjwa at the Marikana Solidarity march at UCT in 2015

Over many years NUM, especially since 1987, has failed to represent the real interests of their members and not fought vigorously to fundamentally improve the conditions of most mineworkers away from the Apartheid era. This is demonstrated by the reality of the Lonmin workers whose wage slavery and appalling living conditions have been the basis of super-profiteering by the mine bosses. Mineworkers continue to die and get injured regularly in the unsafe conditions of deep mines to feed company profits. The NUM and gradually several other trade unions in South Africa, have become corporatised with top officials earning salaries of company directors. Most of our trade unions are no longer genuine fighting organisations for impoverished workers, but instead serve as a useful buffer for the bosses, managing workers’ aspirations and demands and even policing them.

ANC Deputy President Ramaphosa with NUM President, Piet Mathosa, and former General Secretary Frans Baleni. Ramaphosa was addressing the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Congress in 2015. Pic by Kopano Tlape GCIS

The tragedy is that most of our trade unions were built on the heroism and sacrifices of millions of workers of previous generations. Divisions, splinter unions and corporatised unions only serve the capitalists and not the ordinary members who regularly pay their union subscriptions. It is high time that workers take control and reclaim their trade unions to ensure that they represent their interests and not that of the middle-class trade union bureaucracy and their employers.

The workers’ determination to achieve a living wage and the intransigence of the bosses at Lonmin are aggravated by the global economic crisis and is a scenario that most workers can expect in this period. It is therefore imperative that our trade unions must ensure that they revert to unwaveringly practising universal progressive trade union principles of unity, independence (both organisational and political) and internal democracy or “workers control”.


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