The death in South Africa of 34 platinum miners at the hands of the police, and the injury of another 78, has forced to the surface a growing contradiction – that between the completion of the national-democratic revolution and the continuing neo-colonial activity of monopoly capitalism.
Concretely, it is the contradiction between (a) the road of national independence and development, down which it has been the historical task of the ANC to lead the masses, and (b) the intensifying superexploitation of those same masses by multinationals like the London-listed Lonmin, who loot the country’s mineral resources and expatriate the lion’s share of the profits to the metropolitan centres of imperialism.
In neighbouring Zimbabwe, progress towards completing the national-democratic phase of the struggle was greatly accelerated when the period of concessions to the IMF was superseded by the most ambitious land redistribution within a capitalist economy witnessed since the French revolution. In the teeth of an international campaign of severe economic sanctions and slander against the leadership of Comrade Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF, the settler monopoly on the best of the country’s land was broken for good.
Yet in South Africa, whose mass struggle to overcome apartheid inspired the whole continent (and beyond), the national-democratic struggle has effectively stalled. The liberation agenda laid down in the Freedom Charter in 1955 insists that the land and all the mineral wealth stored therein should belong to the people, yet South Africa remains a playground for the multinationals, and now, tragically, a killing ground for workers too.
Tragedy at Marikana
Marikana, where the massacre unfolded, is in the Bojanala district of the North West province, home of the richest platinum deposits in the world. The mine owners at Marikana, Lonmin, are just one of a number of huge multinationals making vast profits on the back of exploited labour and looted resources.
A recent report from the Bench Marks Foundation found that miners in Marikana lived in appalling conditions and suffered high levels of fatalities, a state of affairs it attributed in part to the company’s heavy reliance upon cheap and badly-trained contract labour. The strikers at Marikana include casual workers brought in from outside the area. Multinationals like Lonmin deliberately adopt such tactics in an effort to divide the workforce and place obstacles in the path of efforts to unionise.
South Africa and, indeed, the world was stunned by the scenes on 16 August when police fired on striking workers at the mine. To many, the events were reminiscent of the old apartheid regime, and outrage further increased at the news that a number of the dead had been shot in the back, undermining the police’s claims to have acted only in self-defence.
Immediately following the killings, the striking workers were visited by President Jacob Zuma, who abandoned a visit to Mozambique where he was attending a regional summit and who promised to set up an inquiry into the affair. Many of the workers declared that they would not go back to work without the substantial pay increase they had been demanding. They also made stinging criticisms not just of the police and their employer but of Zuma and his government. Despite 18 years of ANC government, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on earth, and there is now rising anger at government corruption.
Within days of the massacre, South African police prosecutors outrageously announced that 270 strikers arrested at Marikana would be charged with the murder of their 34 colleagues, even though there is no dispute that they were killed by the police, under a legal doctrine known as ‘common purpose’. This discredited doctrine was frequently used in the waning days of apartheid to charge members of protesting crowds or mass movements with serious offences committed by a few individuals, or occurring in the midst of popular protest.
Many in the South African government strongly protested this legal move. Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said that the decision had “induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public”, and demanded an explanation from prosecutors.
This pressure forced the National Prosecuting Authority to climb down, stating that it would await the outcome of further investigations into the shootings. But, ominously, it did not rule out bringing murder charges at a later date.
Despite this, the release on bail of the arrested miners was subject to further delays and the City Press newspaper also reported that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) was looking into allegations that the arrested miners had been abused by police while in custody. In all, 194 cases of assault and attempted murder had been opened and the IPID have launched investigations into alleged brutality at five police stations.
Rising militancy in South Africa’s mines
The dispute between the striking miners and Lonmin, the world’s third-largest platinum producer, began 10 weeks before the police shootings, while in the lead-up to the massacre ten further people, including shop stewards from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and two policemen, were also killed, allegedly at the hands of some striking miners and/or their supporters.
Cosatu, the main trade-union federation linked to the ANC, maintains that the union which led the strike at Marikana, AMCU, has been acting as a pawn in a game to try and undermine the collective bargaining power of the NUM, and has wantonly precipitated violence, with tragic consequences. Others suggest that the NUM itself has transformed from an earlier membership of poorly-paid coal-face miners to a membership of predominantly better-off white-collar workers, and has neglected the task of organising the lower depths of the proletariat.
All that is clear at present is that it is the failure to deal with the question of land, and the failure to nationalise the mineral resources that lie beneath it, that has trapped the ANC government into first using lethal force against the workers and then, albeit briefly, collectively charging hundreds of workers with the crime of murder.
Whatever the motivations of AMCU’s leaders, it is clear that, in the face of the failure of the ANC-affiliated NUM to adequately defend the interests of mineworkers and stand up for their rights, the new union is gathering support throughout the industry, as workers’ anger at their conditions grows.
Meanwhile, Lonmin has been forced to make substantial concessions to the Marikana miners, finally conceding a 22 percent pay rise, along with a one-off bonus equivalent to around £149. As a result, some 75 percent of the Marikana workers returned to work on 20 September.
However, the magnificent example of the Marikana strike, capped as it was with success in achieving a significant pay rise, is adding impetus to other major strikes in the mining areas, which continue to attract state repression. A further two people have been killed – one run down by a police vehicle and the other shot with a rubber bullet – since the mass shooting at Marikana.
A group of workers at Anglo-American Platinum, the industry leader with about 45 percent of global supply, also bypassed their unions in August, putting forward a broad range of demands, including on pay, and these workers have now gone on strike too. Ben Martin reported that: “Anglo American Platinum, which is majority owned by London-listed Anglo American, said less than 20 percent of workers had turned up at its Rustenburg mines.” (‘Anglo-American shares slip as unrest continues’, Daily Telegraph, 22 September 2012)
At the Gold Fields mine near Johannesburg, another 15,000 miners have downed tools. Miners at Royal Bafonkeng Platinum, a black-owned, mid-tier company, are also demanding pay increases and mounting pickets to block others from going to work.
Emma Rowley of the Daily Telegraph cites one Loane Sharpe, a labour analyst at Adcorp Holdings, who told Bloomberg “The lesson that workers have learnt is that violence and intimidation lead employers to capitulate … It sets a very dangerous precedent.” In other words, the South African working class has been learning the lesson that you don’t get anything just by asking nicely and saying please. It ill behoves people who like to think of themselves as progressive to be joining with local South African bourgeois and imperialist multinationals alike to condemn the miners for ‘violence and intimidation’.
The ANC and its allies in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the trade-union federation Cosatu now face a major challenge to make good on their promises to deliver economic as well as political freedom. The wildfire spread of strikes across the mining industry has made it clear that the masses are now on the move and are not to be fobbed off.
Let the ANC hearken to the voices of many within its own organisation who call for the mines to be nationalised, the land to be redistributed and the national-democratic struggle taken forward. Only by moving along this road, a road already embarked upon by Zimbabwe, will today’s ANC prove itself worthy of the continuing mass support its revolutionary history has previously secured.