This time last year, platinum workers (all black) at a mine in South Africa’s North West Province, went on an illegal strike against workplace racism, bad conditions, low wages and their ineffective trade union. The standoff started around August 10th, and by August 16th, they had shut down all production. Government Ministers hardly showed their faces. Most of the South African and “global” media made the workers out to be irrational, emboldened by “magic potions.” The main trade union abandoned them as the police, the mining company (the dubious Lonhro) and the state (which ruling party most of them still voted for in large numbers) conspired to send in the police to mow them down in broad daylight. At the time, Dan Magaziner and I suggested (in a post for The Atlantic) that South African politics was no longer an exceptional and that it might help to read Marikana against the backdrop of what workers worldwide are facing. It’s one year later. What are the lasting legacies of those events, politically, economically, socially. Since no one piece of writing, film or audio file, can capture the impact of those events, below we’ve collected a few references (we also excerpted some choice parts from these):
Labor journalist Terry Bell on what it means for next year’s general elections, the country’s 5th since independence:
[Marikana] triggered the biggest upheaval the modern labour movement has faced as thousands of miners deserted the once dominant National Union of mineworkers (NUM). It is the veritable collapse, certainly on the platinum belt, of the NUM, that has been the most obvious, immediate, change wrought. But it is the involvement of political groups and parties that may have as big, if not bigger, an impact in the longer term.
The major beneficiary of the desertions from the NUM has been the Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu) that, so far, remains determinedly non-aligned politically. However, Amcu is affiliated to the politically non-aligned National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) that is headed by general secretary Narious Moloto who currently doubles as the general secretary of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
Moloto says he has no political ambitions and has “stepped in on a temporary basis” to help the PAC get back on its feet. But just as the large-scale influx of members to Amcu boosted the flagging fortunes of Nactu, there are obvious hopes within the PAC that it will have a similar impact on their party.
In publicity terms, however, it is Julius Malema who has had more impact. Not only by quickly intervening after August 16 and organising legal representation for mineworkers, but also by being barred from the area by police.
Malema and his newly launched Economic Freedom Fighters clearly hope to win electoral support on the platinum belt. So too does the also recently formed Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) that has — in the form of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) — had a presence for some time in the Rustenburg area.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe provided a considerable boost to the DSM and Wasp with his allegation that Wasp member Liv Shange was solely responsible for the “anarchy” in the mining sector. But the DSM is only one of several groups that have seized the opportunity to try to win support and members among the disillusioned miners. Elements of the Democratic Left Front, an umbrella group that contains a number of small Left groups, has also been active.
However, a political party that has had little public exposure but which may have the greatest impact is the United Democratic Movement (UDM), headed by former Transkei leader, Bantubonke Holomisa. His main electoral base is the Eastern Cape, home to most of the migrant miners of Marikana and to their extended families. These families, in their turn, have familial links to the Western Cape.
Some indication of who might be the beneficiaries and who the losers — and the level of impact the Marikana watershed has had may become clearer after next year’s elections.
Left activist (and former Communist Party spokesperson) Mazibuko Jara:
The strike at the Lonmin mine in Marikana has deep systemic roots in the conditions of workers in that mine. For several years now that mine has increasingly used labor from labor brokers. So they would hire a company to bring workers on a part-time basis to work the mines, particularly underground. That group of workers who were brought in through labor brokers did not have full benefits and were paid very low wages. So that’s quite significant, because many of these mine workers need to support two families: one in the mining area, and one in their rural homes in far-flung provinces or in nearby countries. But also, another factor is that the mining system has taken away the subsidy for accommodations that it used to provide to workers. It is true that these accommodations in the mining compounds were horrible. But now, the mining companies charge the workers for these accommodations in the mining compounds. So many of the mine workers have opted to stay in the informal settlements that emerged around the mining areas. That was a further squeeze. Apart from that, there have been very problematic attempts by management to increase salaries for certain parts of the workforce, but not for the entire workforce. And by the union’s own calculation, that was meant to reward those more critical in the production process. But you can imagine the kind of unhappiness that this would generate, given that very few workers were getting any kind of fair wage.
But also: the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM), the largest union representing mine workers in South Africa, had increasingly become removed from the conditions, the grievances, and the demands of the lowest rank of the workers, the most exploited — particularly those who drill the rocks. Because those who drill the rocks must be physically strong, since they work the hardest and work the longest, and they were not getting increased wage rates at all. The NUM had increasingly been led by a layer of quite streetwise, English speaking, white-collar workers. Most of them had been working above the ground, as mining clerks or other officers in the system. So this combination of factors meant that there was no outlet, there was no forum, to hear and address the grievances of underground workers. In this combination of circumstances what then emerged was very significant anger, very significant agitation, which led to what is called an unprotected strike from the end of July or the beginning of August at Marikana when workers demanded a way out of their squeeze: they demanded a living wage, a wage that would make it possible for them to meet their expenses and live decently. This strike was basically an initiative of the workers themselves. Of course, the NUM was facing some competition from a smaller breakaway union called AMCU (Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union). However, to view the strike as NUM vs. AMCU is not helpful, because it ignores the real, concrete conditions that workers were unhappy about. NUM vs. AMCU is a dynamic that is part of the strike, but it is not the main dynamic. And anyway, as it turned out, that strike saw workers wanting to negotiate with the management on their own. That logic of workers wanting to feel their own power was also present in other strikes triggered by Marikana.