The Spirit of Marikana

The mineworkers were active agents who sought to control their own destinies in the midst of plutocratic mine-owners and their “pocket trade union’s.”

Marikana miners. Image via Government of South Africa Flickr.

The Marikana Massacre on August 16th, 2012 witnessed the killing of thirty-four black mineworkers by South African police. This was the most potent episode of state violence inflicted upon civilians since the Soweto Uprising of June 1976 – like Soweto, Marikana has been referred to as a turning point in the history of the country.

As we argue in our new book, this time it was not a major township in the country, Soweto, which had erupted but South Africa’s platinum belt which holds more than 80% of the world’s platinum. Platinum mineworkers were on a militant strike, demanding more than double their salaries at Lonmin, the third largest platinum mine in the world. The dominant story in mainstream media as well as scholarship has understandably tended to focus on this single event, the Marikana Massacre, painting a sad story of black mineworkers who were objects of police brutality. In our research, we aim to provide an alternative perspective, one that first and foremost describes the mineworkers as active agents who sought to control their own destinies in the midst of plutocratic mine-owners and their “pocket trade union’s” (the National Union of Mineworkers) opposition.

While undertaking research for the book, we created long-term relationships with mineworkers who were at the forefront of their movement. In order to write heroic figures back into the history of working class organizing and militancy in South Africa and beyond, we used mineworkers’ actual names in the book so that generations from now, readers and the public may know that these were real people, with real dreams and hopes who risked their lives for basic dignity and economic freedom. Siphiwe Mbatha, a socialist civic organizer turned ethnographer, and I had arrived two days after the massacre to begin to uncover the origins and historical development of the movement. While at first it was only possible to learn about the massacre itself (given the urgency), over the next two years we were able to trace the now infamous “living wage” demand of R12,500 (equivalent to approximately USD$1000 at the time) per month back to a discussion between two workers in the changing rooms at one mine (in one specific shaft at Lonmin called Karee) in June 2012, to the moment of the massacre, and the culmination of the longest strike in South African mining history in 2014. We show how the massacre had the counter-intuitive effect of uniting rather than silencing the new found resistance.

Within the approximately two-year period that the book deals with, we also provide one of the first detailed histories of the then upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) which workers continued to join en mass from 2012 until 2013 when the union gained official recognition at South Africa’s major platinum mines. The book looks at the formation of independent worker committees which were elected by mineworkers at each of the platinum mines and highlights that the most strident “organic intellectuals” among these refused to simply be absorbed into AMCU’s trade union bureaucracy. The radical democratic culture of the worker committees were, for a time, carried forward into, and forced upon, AMCU.

The first detailed ethnography of this movement also offers broader insight into South Africa’s contemporary political scene. It tells the hidden story of the context in which Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party was formed and the ways in which it fueled the fire against ANC President Jacob Zuma and the ruling party itself. It offers a lens through which to understand the continued decline of the ANC, which still has blood on its hands from the Marikana massacre – with some arguing that the massacre can be traced back to Zuma himself. As we highlight in the book, Zuma lambasted the strikes in the platinum belt, and at different points in time publicly blamed the strikers for the deaths of thirty-four of their fellows on August 16th.

As the protests continue to unfold across the country, it is important to note that the idea of #ZumaMustFall in fact emerged most forcefully amongst platinum mineworkers who blamed the ANC and its leaders (especially Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa) for the brutal assault that was inflicted upon them. The history of the social movement also brings to light that having good negotiators, government leaders or members in parliament did not bring a victory to the working class. Our research is not about the ways in which gifts are bestowed by elites or leaders upon the oppressed. Instead, it is about how ordinary people took control over their lives. In the process of self-emancipation they became makers of their own history and shapers of the South African political landscape.

Further Reading

The house of exile

Edward Said once said of the usefulness of exile for intellectual work: it involves adopting “a spirit of opposition, rather than accommodation.” James Baldwin and Sisonke Msimang took it to heart.