Massacre of the miners: the ANC’s Sharpeville

Why is there reluctance to discuss the killing of 34 miners in South Africa? Because it explodes the myth of a post-Apartheid ‘rainbow nation’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Around the world, there’s a palpable queasiness about discussing the South African police’s massacre of 34 striking miners at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana.

In Western newspapers, thundering editorials have been notable by their absence. No world leaders have issued withering condemnations of the government in South Africa, as they would have done in a flash if something like this had happened in Russia or China. Amnesty made a half-hearted statement (‘a judge must oversee an investigation into the deaths’) and then went back to organising global protests for the release of Pussy Riot. Even in South Africa itself, there is reluctance to talk frankly about the killings. In the words of one SA observer, ‘The most striking thing about the reaction is the lack of it’. Many people refer to the massacre as a ‘tragedy’, as if it were an accident at a mine rather than an act of state terror at a mine, or simply as an ‘incident’, that catch-all word that can cover everything from a scuffle on a bus to, it seems, the killing in three minutes flat of 34 people.

Why the caginess about discussing this major event? It is because the massacre did not only kill 34 miners – it also killed, or rather threatens to kill, the myth of a post-Apartheid ‘rainbow nation’. The massacre throws into sharp relief the nature of post-Apartheid South Africa and the bald, uncomfortable fact that while it may have done away with the overt racism of the old regime, it has kept in place the economic system that the old regime nurtured and the extreme exploitation of black workers that it was underwritten by. Having held up the so-called ‘rainbow nation’ of post-Apartheid South Africa as a shining example of how only negotiated political settlements can bring peace and only multiculturalism can ensure justice, observers around the world are made supremely uncomfortable by these recent events.

To the extent that there has been public discussion of ‘the incident’, much of it has described the massacred miners in the most disgraceful way. Some commentary has tried to turn them into the villains of the piece, depicting them as stick-wielding savages (some of the miners had crude weapons) who got what they deserved. The 3,000 strikers are largely rock-drillers, those who do the hardest graft in the unforgiving environs of the underground mine in Marikana. They are members of a new upstart trade union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which is a disgruntled offshoot of the larger, more established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). AMCU argued that the rock drillers deserved to have their pay tripled, from the measly 4,000 Rand (£306) a month they currently receive to 12,500 Rand (£976) a month. The drillers agreed and an illegal wildcat strike started, leading to a tense stand-off with the authorities and, on 16 August, the police’s indiscriminate killing of 34 miners and injuring of another 78.

The massacre has been described by some as the fault of the workers themselves, including by many on the South African left. A leading member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) laid the blame at the feet of AMCU, accusing it of nurturing ‘chaos and anarchy’. Another SACP spokesman said: ‘The police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to. The people they shot didn’t look like workers to me.’ In an official statement, the SACP called upon the South African president, Jacob Zuma of the African National Congress (ANC), to hold an inquiry into ‘the incident’ – not into the police’s brutality but into the ‘pattern of violence associated with the pseudo-trade union AMCU’. In the more mainstream coverage, the massacre has been presented as the ugly end product of ‘inter-union rivalries’.

No doubt inter-union rivalries played their part in the pre-massacre events in Marikana; as one South African writer puts it, this is partly the story of an older union (the NUM) desperately trying to retain its influence over mineworkers and of another ‘upstart and populist new union [AMCU] exploiting real frustration to establish itself’. But beyond these inter-union clashes, or rather within them, something far more fundamental has taken place in Marikana – we have witnessed a black uprising against the new rulers of South Africa, against the ANC and its various loyal satellites, including the NUM. The wildcat strike is more than an instance of AMCU cockiness or rock-driller ‘greediness’ – it is a rebellion, albeit an unformed and crude one, against the new forms of authority that repress black workers in post-Apartheid South Africa.

To the striking miners at Marikana, the NUM represents more than a union that has forgotten to fight for their interests – it is seen as part of government machinery itself. It is remarkable how extensively the NUM has become part of officialdom in the New South Africa. Founded in 1982, and a key organiser of resistance to the labour laws of the Apartheid regime throughout the 1980s, in more recent years the NUM has become a central part of the ANC regime. It is the largest affiliate to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which, as one reporter puts it, is ‘a powerful ally of the ruling ANC’. It is a testament to the NUM’s increasingly cosy relationship with power that one of its key founding leaders, Cyril Ramaphosa, is now on the board of Lonmin, owners of the Marikana mine. The NUM has a close relationship with the official Chamber of Miners, leading to a situation where it nakedly prioritises the needs of business over the desires of workers: for example, it has recently ‘accepted wage settlements that tied workers into years of meagre increases’.

It was in response to these developments that AMCU, made up of expelled or irritated former members of the NUM, emerged, and that mineworkers at Marikana demanded, not a meagre wage rise, but a massive one. With the NUM becoming increasingly embroiled in petty leadership squabbles within the ANC, it was shedding members at the Marikana mine, where its membership declined from 66 per cent to 49 per cent. Many miners’ view of the NUM as simply a wing of authority has been confirmed by the fact that the NUM implicitly supports Lonmin’s threat to sack the remaining strikers if they do not return to work early this week. As one observer says, both the ANC and the NUM would ‘like to see Lonmin sack all 3,000 of the strikers and recruit a whole new labour force’.

But what the massacre of the miners brings to the fore is not simply the co-option of one miners’ union into officialdom’s camp, but rather the more historic, drawn-out process of the New South Africa’s cultivation of a new clique of black rulers to maintain the economic system that pertained under Apartheid. The massacre has made explicit what has hitherto remained largely hidden by the PC terms that abound in the New South Africa, from its description of itself as a ‘rainbow nation’ to its promotion of the values of ‘truth and reconciliation’ – which is that the ANC made a fatal compromise with the old regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, agreeing to call off its struggle in return for its coming to power in a ‘New South Africa’ in which Apartheid laws would be dismantled but the vast economic inequalities between whites and blacks would largely remain. The Marikana massacre demonstrates the extent to which the ANC has replaced the Apartheid rulers as the overseers of a system of privilege for some (not just whites but some blacks, too) and hardship for vastly more.

The end of Apartheid is held up as one of the great moments of the late twentieth century, and there is no doubt that South African blacks winning the right to vote and other rights in the early 1990s was truly momentous, something to celebrate. But behind this shift, deeply problematic compromises were taking place. Apartheid is frequently depicted as simply a product of Afrikaners’ warped prejudices, but in truth it was a system which allowed the rulers of South Africa to exploit, in an extreme fashion, black workers and to compete in the global economy. Recognising that, by the 1980s, the inevitable resistance nurtured by Apartheid was becoming a serious problem for them, the rulers of South Africa set about reforming the racist political system as a means of potentially stabilising the economic structures. One way they did this was by cultivating potential new black leaders, who, in the words of an early 1980s SA free-market think-tank, would have ‘Western-type materialistic needs and ambitions’. The release of then ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the bringing of the ANC in from the political cold was a key part of this transition from one form of political governance to another; as the then Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda put it explicitly in 1985, ‘[We need the] release of Mandela… to stem this black anger in the African masses’.

Fundamentally, what the New South Africa represents is the continuation of the extreme exploitation of black workers but without the naked racial suppression of their civil rights. This is why, as a Yale study pointed out a couple of years ago, in the New South Africa ‘income inequality has probably grown, and life expectancy has declined’. In Marikana, we witnessed the most explicit expression yet of the role played by the new black rulers of South Africa and how similar it sometimes is to the role played by the old rulers of the Apartheid regime. Marikana is the ANC’s Sharpeville. That is the name given to the Apartheid regime’s massacre of 69 protesters on 21 March 1960 in the township of Sharpeville in Transvaal. Just as that massacre brought to the fore what was at stake for black people in Apartheid-ruled South Africa, leading to an intensification of their struggle for liberation, so the Marikana massacre has the potential to highlight what is at stake in ANC-ruled South Africa – if, that is, there were a serious political movement that could offer a proper analysis of and resistance to this event.

And yet, many in the West remain silent, including those human-rights activists who were at the forefront of highlighting the brutality of the Apartheid regime in the past. Perhaps they think they have too much to lose by making a fuss of these killings. They have for too long held up the New South Africa as a success story of sedate political negotiations and public celebration of diversity to let that myth be mowed down by some ugly killings at a mine. In the past, the reason many Western governments were reluctant to condemn the Apartheid regime, and the reason they then started to demand polite reforms of it, is because they had vast economic investments in South Africa and thus desired stability above all else. Similarly, the reason some liberal observers in the West seem reluctant to condemn the Marikana massacre is because they have vast emotional investments in the New South Africa.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics World


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