The media and the workers of Marikana

The anniversary of Marikana just passed us. Media coverage of the massacre is an important part of its legacy.

Photo by Marc St on Unsplash

On August 16, 2012, South African police opened fire on striking mineworkers at the Lonmin Platinum Mine at Marikana near Rustenburg in the North West province of South Africa, killing 34 workers. Eight years later, as the anniversary of Marikana just passed us, it is important to look back on how the events of those days were represented and how it is has informed our understanding about the massacre and about politics in South Africa.

The mineworkers were shot after they had occupied a mountain near the mine and embarked on a “wildcat strike” for a living wage of R12,500 (about US $1,474 at the time). Early media reports presented the strike as inter-union rivalry between the relative newcomer, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), and the older government-aligned National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Yet journalists and academics later found that the mineworkers had organized themselves and most were still members of the NUM at the time. On the mountain, the mineworkers elected their own representatives, the “five madoda” and communed together, demanding their bosses come to hear their grievances and rejected the representation of their trade union.

In the days and weeks following the massacre, the media took up the conversation at the Farlam commission with fervor. They focused on the traditional weapons the mineworkers used, the blankets they wrapped themselves in, and the fact that they used muthi which, it was argued, made them “aggressive.” There were hardly any reports where journalists spoke directly to the mineworkers. The message seemed to be that these were just violent muthi–crazed rural traditionalists, who were trying to ruin “hard won” collective bargaining structures and the NUM. Only a few journalists, mostly outside mainstream media platforms took workers voices seriously, and it was these journalists who discovered the second killing site at Marikana. The media behavior, as Jane Duncan has argued, amounted to pack journalism.

The mainstream media reprinted, uncritically, what was being foregrounded in the commission proceedings. At the commission these features of the strike, foregrounded in the media, would be used to portray mineworkers as rural traditionalists who created the violent situation at Marikana, where police were “forced” to intervene. The commission was used to explain police violence as “unfortunate” but “necessary.” In doing so, it subverted the political demand of the mineworkers. By refusing to hear them, Lonmin, the NUM and the government reinforced the idea, well established in the public sphere today, that political demands will only be taken seriously if presented through a recognized institutional representative body. That the NUM was intent to frame the strikes as part of a “third force” in the form of AMCU to steal members from the NUM, shows how the idea that the workers could organize themselves, efficiently, without the aid of a representational body like a union, was not even considered.  By using these so-called “rural” features as justification, the government revealed to us, as citizens, who is killable and what can be used as justification for violence.

In academia, many sympathetic writers saw the strikes at Marikana as a new hope for socialism, and a new trade union insurgency. The events at Marikana were “cleaned up.” If the media had become obsessed with the “rural” and “backward” features of the strike, the academics were intent to foreground how “urban” and “progressive” they were. The workers appear, in these writings, to be without culture, without history, without aesthetics that signify anything particular or political. Instead, the strikers are abstracted into the figure of the “universal worker” that continues to stimulate some Marxist imaginations. Whatever the intention, they too re-inscribed the idea that only trade unions and institutional bodies could be an appropriate vehicle for political demands.

Yet, if we look closely at these features, not as excessive, dangerous or menacing but as markers of difference, we will be forced to reckon with what that difference signified. For example, as members of NUM, surely all the men on the mountain must have had union t-shirts, they could have chosen a variety of ways to present themselves, why did they choose to appear as they did? If we take seriously workers self-presentation it may lead us to echoes of other historical events, organizations, and struggles that don’t fit neatly within nationalist or socialist imaginations.

Comparisons with Marikana could be made to the Soweto Uprising, the Sharpeville Massacre and other urban struggles. Yet, the Marikana strikes bore resemblance to other historical events. One example is the Mpondo Revolts of the 1960s, in which rural dwellers revolted against corrupt chiefs, met on mountains and organized alternative networks of governance that came to be called mountain committees or iKhongo. Their revolts too led to a massacre at Ngquza Mountain in 1960. The mountain was seen not only as a space of refuge and a good vantage and look-out point, but also as a sacred and religious space, exclusively for men, to communicate with the ancestors and gods and perform prayers sometimes involving muthi, especially during times of war.

Whilst the strikes at Marikana were about a living wage, these markers of difference lead us not only to other political forms but also to other political demands. One of them has been that Lonmin is on land owned by the Tswana Traditional Authority. Whenever mineworkers and their families who now live in Nkaneng, the shack-settlement below the mountain, approach the mine and local authority for proper housing, they are told that the land is not for them and that they have land in the Eastern Cape. In other words, ethnic difference and the idea that Xhosa people actually “belong” in the Eastern Cape, and are merely temporary laborers at the mine, continues to deny them a space at Marikana, regardless of how long they have lived and worked there.

Marikana shows us how far we have yet to go in our decolonization process, not merely to dismantle corrupt forms of governance and ownership, but also to expand our definitions of politics and the forms in which it should appear.  In a country where popular protests happen every day and are seen by many in the state and society to be irrational outbursts of violence, or where Helen Zille calls residents of shack settlements in Cape Town refugees from the Eastern Cape, we have to think seriously about who is seen as citizen, and how we are able to make political demands.

This article is drawn from the Chapter, “The Politics of Representation in Marikana.” in Babel Unbound: Rage, reason and rethinking public life. Edited by Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton. Published by Wits University Press (2020)

About the Author

Camalita Naicker is a lecturer in Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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