Marikana: Massacre of our illusions


Leonard Gentle discusses the Marikana Massacre in light of the changes within the union movement and the working class and argues that a new movement and the working class and argues that the new movement is emerging

The story of Marikana has so far been painted shallowly as an inter-union spat. Yet, the broader platinum belt has been home to new upsurges of struggles over the last five years. It was from the working class community activists of Merafong and Khutsong,that the then African National Congress (ANC) chairperson, Terror Lekota, was driven out, to the strikes by workers from Angloplat, Implat and now Lonmin. These struggles, including the nationwide service delivery revolts, are signs that a new movement is being forged, despite the state violence that killed Andries Tatane and massacred the Lonmin workers. Accumulation based on violence Marikana now joins the ranks of the Sharpeville and Boipatong massacres in the odious history of a method of capital accumulation based on violence. The ANC’s moral legitimacy as the leading force in the struggle for democracy has now been irrevocably squandered and the struggle for social justice has now passed on to a whole new working class – including the workers at Lonmin who went on strike – who are outside the Tripartite Alliance and its constituent parts.

In this sense, after Marikana, things will never be the same again. Firstly, the killings mark the end of the illusion of a moral high ground occupied by the ANC and the completion of its transformation into the governing party of big capital. In light of this, the ANC steps squarely into the shoes of its predecessors – Apartheid’s Nationalist Party and Smuts’ South African Party – acting to secure the profits of mining capital through violence. Successive governments have always done what was necessary to ensure a cheap, divided and compliant labour force for the mines.

Secondly, the strike and the massacre mark a turning point in the liberation alliance around the ANC – particularly the Congress of South African Trade Unions

(COSATU). The community and youth wings of the Mass Democratic Movement of the 1980s and 1990s – specifically SANCO and SAYCO became disgraced by their association with corrupt councillors and eclipsed by the service delivery revolts. The ANCYL became a home for the tenderpreneurs and COSATU’s moral authority was enhanced after 1994. Within civil society, COSATU continued to be a moral voice. So, anyone with a campaign whether challenging the limitations on media freedom or fighting for renewable energy – sought out COSATU   as a partner. This moral authority came because COSATU was simply the most organised voice amongst the working class.


Today, COSATU’s link with the working class is very tenuous. The neoliberal phase of capitalism, implemented since the 1980s, has begun to change even this. Neliberalism has not only been about privatization and global speculation, but restructuring work and home.

Today casualisation, outsourcing, homework, labour brokers and other forms of informalisation have become the dominant forms of work when work is available.

Homelessness and shack dwelling have become the mode of existence of the working class. The is also as the state withdraws from providing housing and the services associated with formal housing.

In contrast, the dominant trade unions in South Africa have largely moved up, towards white collar workers, and away from the working-class majority. Today the large COSATU affiliates are public sector white collar workers: the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) and the

National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU). The unions amongst white-collar workers in the parastatals include the (Telkom) Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and (Transnet) South African

Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU). The lower level blue-collar workers are largely organised by labour brokers and work in services that have been outsourced, like cleaning and security. These workers do not fall within the bargaining units of the Public Sector Bargaining Council.

The mining trade journal Miningmix published the following in a story in 2009:

“One such issue was an agreement signed between the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] and Implats in 2007, which stipulated a 50% plus one member threshold for recognition – practically making Implats a closed shop where minority unions have no rights.”

That removed any competition and gave the NUM a monopoly in South Africa’s largest single mining complex. Secondly, a gradual change has taken place in the NUM membership over the last 15 years. The NUM was originally born out of the lowest job categories of South African mineworkers, mainly       from the gold mines. More than 60% of its members were foreigners, mostly illiterate migrant labourers.

“Nowadays that number has dropped to below 40%.

On the other hand, an increasing portion of the NUM’s membership comes from what can be described as white-collar mining staff, who had previously been represented exclusively by Solidarity and UASA [United Association Of South Africa].”

The local NUM structures in Rustenburg, like the branch office bearers and the shop stewards, are dominated by these skilled, higher level workers. They are literate, well spoken and wealthy compared to the general workers and machine operators underground. For instance, there are two NUM branches at Implats, North and South, and the chairpersons of both branches were beneficiaries of the 18% bonus that sparked the strike.

During wage negotiations in September 2011, Implats wanted to give rock-drill operators a higher increase than the rest of the workforce, but a committee of NUM shop stewards demanded that the money be split among the whole workforce. Needless to say, there wasn’t a single rock-drill operator on the shop stewards’ committee.”

While the NUM remains the largest COSATU affiliate, it is moving on from the union of coal-face workers to a union of white collar above-ground technicians. It is these developments within NUM that led to the formation of the breakaway union, AMCU, whose emergence is a direct challenge to the hegemony of NUM and COSATU. As such, the federation has embarked on a disgraceful campaign of slandering the striking workers and their union.

In this, COSATU has been joined by the media. In addition to only quoting NUM sources for information on the strike, or focusing on Malema’s opportunism, there has been no attempt to dig beneath the idea of manipulated workers and inter-union rivalry.

For a long time, the ongoing service delivery revolts throughout the country have failed to register on the laptops and BlackBerries of the chattering classes. This is because of the social and geographic distance of the middle classes from the working classes and the poor.

Now, the sight of the police shooting striking workers on TV has brought the real world of struggles into the lounges and bedrooms of public opinion. This kind of “spontaneous” revolt is extending to the industrial sphere and the unprotected strikes in the platinum mines at Angloplat, Implats and now Lonmin.

New movement

In the midst of our outrage at this brutality, let us acknowledge that a new movement is emerging. Such early signs do not, as yet, indicate something grand and well organised. Movements are notoriously messy and difficult to assign to some predetermined ideological box. We do not know what ups and downs people will go through, but, when the seeds of a new movement are being planted, it is time to ask what the rest of us can do to help it grow.

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