Marikana miners: The massacre of our illusions

Published on Red Pepper, by Leonard Gentle, August 2012.

The struggle of miners at the Lonmin mine in South Africa is a turning point in organised workers’ relationship with the now thoroughly neoliberal ANC argues Leonard Gentle, setting the strike in historical and political context. 

The story of Marikana has so far been painted shallowly as an inter-union spat. In the first few days after the fateful Thursday and the shock and horror of watching people being massacred on TV there have correctly been howls of anger and grief. Of course no one wants to take responsibility because to do so would be to acknowledge blame. Some pundits have even gone the way of warning at anyone ‘pointing figures’ or ‘stoking anger’. That buffoon Julius Malema stepped forward as if scripted and promptly lent credibility to those warnings. So President Zuma’s setting up of an Inquiry and his call for a week of mourning for the deceased and their families could come across as ‘statesmanlike’.

But this is not just a story of hardship, violence and grief. To speak in those terms only would be to add the same insult to injury perpetrated by the police on the striking workers as many commentators have done – that of seeing the striking miners as mere victims and not as agents of their own future and, even more importantly, as a source of a new movement in the making … //

… Neoliberalism has not only been about privatisation and global speculation. It has also been about restructuring work and home. Today casualisation, outsourcing, homework, labour brokers and other forms of informalisation or externalisation have become the dominant form of work (when work is available at all) and homelessness and shackdwelling the mode of existence of the working class. The latter is in indirect proportion to the withdrawal of the state from providing housing and the services associated with formal housing.

Twenty years ago the underground workers of Lonmin would have lived in a compound provided by and policed by the company. Today the rock drill workers live in a shanty town nearby the mine.

Mining itself has also changed. Much of the serious hard work underground is now done by workers sourced from labour brokers. These are the most exploited and insecure workers who work the longest hours and most flexible arrangements. It is even possible today to own a mine and not work it yourself but to contract engineering firms like Murray and Roberts to do the mining for you. Into the mix are so-called ‘illegal miners’ who literally mine with spades and their own dynamite and then sell on to middle men who themselves have links to big businesses.

Lonmin has exploited these divisions, exacerbated by the old mining industry strategy of recruiting along tribal and regional divisions (the drill workers at Lonmin were known as Xhosas railed in from the Eastern Cape into an area which is largely Tswana-speaking) to heighten exploitation at the coalface of drill workers while making cosy deals with the more skilled and white collar NUM members.

Add to this the toxic mix of mine security, barbed-wire enclosures and informal housing, identified by researchers such as Benchmarks and a picture of institutionalised violence emerges.

By way of contrast the dominant trade unions in South Africa have largely moved towards white collar workers and away from this majority. Today the large COSATU affiliates are public sector white collar workers – the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) and the unions amongst white collar workers in the parastatals – Telkom and Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and Transnet and SATAWU. The lower level blue collar workers are now in labour brokers and in services that have been completely outsourced – like cleaning, security etc, so they do not fall within the bargaining units of the Public Sector Bargaining Council … //

… In normal times trade unions can be as much a huge bureaucratic machine as a corporation or a state department with negotiations conducted by small teams of no more that a dozen or so far from the thousands of rank-and-file members. Strikes change all that. Suddenly unions are forced to be conduits of their members’ aspirations. Whatever the merits of AMCU as a democratic union or as one with any vision of transformation; whatever the involvement of the Themba Godi’s and whoever else, the workers of Marikana made their choices – to become members of AMCU and risk everything – including their lives – for a better future. For that we owe them more than just pious sympathy. There is a job of mobilisation and movement building to be done.

Almost 40 years ago – in 1973 – workers from companies like the Frame Group in Durban came out in a series of wildcat – then really illegal – strikes. Now this event as celebrated by everyone as part of the revival of the anti-Apartheid mass movement and the birth of a new phase of radical trade unionism – which culminated in the formation of COSATU in 1985.

But in 1973 the media highlighted the threat of violence and called for the restoration of law and order. The apartheid state could not respond with the kind of killings that happened at Marikana because the strikes were in industrial areas around Durban, but they invoked the same idea of ignorant misled workers (then they were seen as ignorant Zulus) and had homeland leader Mangosutho Buthelezi send his emissary, Barney Dladla, to talk to the workers.

While in exile the SACP questioned the bona fides of the strikes, invoking the involvement of Buthelezi to perpetuate the fiction of ‘ignorant Zulus’, because they were not called for or led by the official liberation aligned union body – SACTU. Some in SACTU – SACP circles (like Blade Nzimande today) raised the spectre of liberals and CIA involvement in the new worker formations with an agenda to ‘sideline the liberation movement’. This separation of the ANC and its allies from the early labour movement was to lead to the divisions between the ‘workerist unions’ (independent) and the ‘populist unions’ in the labour movement and was to continue within COSATU until the period of the political negotiations when there was more-or-less an agreement that the ANC would take centre-stage.

How easily people forget when workers forge new movements today. For a long time now the ongoing service delivery revolts throughout the country have failed to register on the lap tops and blackberries of the chattering classes. This is because of the social – and even geographic distance – of the middle classes to the new working classes and the poor.

Now the sight of the police shooting striking workers on TV has brought the real world of current struggles right into the lounges and bedrooms of public opinion. According to statistics supplied by Wits University’s Peter Alexander:

‘In 2010/11 there was a record number of crowd management incidents … During the last three years, 2009-12, there has been an average of 2.9 unrest incidents per day. This is an increase of 40 percent over the average of 2.1 unrest incidents per day recorded for 2004-09. The statistics show that what has been called the Rebellion of the Poor has intensified over the past three years.’

This kind of ‘spontaneous’ revolt is now also extending to the industrial sphere – witness the unprotected strikes in the platinum mines at AngloPlat, Implats and now Lonmin.

So far the strikers have stood firm not only against the police, and Lonmin, threatening dismissal, but also against the media labelling their strike illegal (strikes are not illegal in South Africa, they are only protected or unprotected) and NUM and COSATU rallying behind their ally, the ANC, to stigmatise the strikers and their union as paid by BHP Billiton and/or the Chamber of Mines (why either of these would pay to form a striking, volatile union rather than a sweetheart union like NUM who sits in all their bargaining chambers and acts to respect agreements, makes no sense. But some people choose to believe this nonsense). The SACP even goes on to call on Zuma’s Commission of Enquiry to investigate AMCU and the possibility that it is being financed by business interests to break NUM (that vanguard of the working class) – this from the SACP cabinet minister, Blade Nzimande, who wines and dines with big business every day of his life.

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 kind of 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 to grow.
(full long text).

Links:

Thousands join peaceful protest in Bahrain, on AlJazeera, August 31, 2012;

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