13/12/2016 11:49 SAST | Updated 14/12/2016 10:38 SAST

All We Know, Four Years Later, Is That Another Marikana Is Inevitable

The logic that produced the deadly labour conflict continues uninterrupted in South Africa.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
A protester sings as police officers stand guard to prevent marchers from proceeding, in Rustenburg, South Africa's North West Province 16 September 2012.


In colonial wars, the occupying power invariably reaches a point where it has to acknowledge that its true enemy is not a minority — devil worshipers, communists, fanatics or terrorists — subject to external and evil manipulation, but the people as a whole. Once this point is reached every colonised person is taken as a potential combatant and the neighbourhood and the home are cast as legitimate sites of combat. — Richard Pithouse

It is a mistake to characterise the Marikana massacre as a failure of policing alone. This was just one of the failures that led to the deaths of 44 people in August 2012, 34 of whom were killed by police on August 12. But there were myriad factors that remain unexamined, and unchanged. On Sunday, the office of the presidency issued an update on the implementation of the Farlam Commission's report and recommendations. Much of the subsequent commentary and coverage has focused on the settlements to be made by the police to the families of the victims, and the new public order policing and specialised equipment protocols. Much has been made of the senior police officials who are being investigated, given that the only fall person for a long time was Mangwashi Riah Phiyega. But the lesson from Marikana cannot just be that the police were too gun-happy on the day.

Even comparisons to Sharpeville are off the mark. Speaking at a Human Rights Day event earlier in the year, a well-meaning Mmusi Maimane said: "We stand here because none of us ever thought that what we saw in Sharpeville would be repeated in Marikana, where the government we thought we democratically elected mowed down our own people."

Maimane is wrong. Marikana is in keeping with certain types of democratic governments. It is in keeping with oligarchies run by a small band of elites, who use state violence to repress the poor and working class. And it is certainly in keeping with South Africa, the postcolony.

The real comparison to the 2012 massacre is the Ludlow massacre that happened in Colorado in 1914. Members of the Colorado National Guard and guards from the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company attacked a camp of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families. The estimates of the dead range from 24 to 36. It still remains one of the bloodiest labour disputes in the history of the United States. The owner of the mine, one John D. Rockefeller, was heavily criticised for how the dispute was handled.

MPI/Getty Images
A group of people examining the ruins of the Ludlow colony in Colorado. Built as a temporary shelter for striking coal miners and their families, it was attacked by militiamen and company detectives who shot and burned to death eighteen people including eleven children, the youngest of whom was only three months old.

The incident, though catastrophic for the families and people involved, awakened a new class consciousness in the U.S. for years afterward, leading to sweeping labour reforms, such as the introduction of new child labour regulation, and the implementation of the eight-hour working day.

Seen properly, the Marikana wildcat strikes were never about public order, or "rioting", no matter how many images of scary black men holding sticks were beamed into homes across the nation. It was principally a labour dispute. The workers were no longer willing to work for nothing. As the evidence given at the Farlam Commission revealed, instead of negotiating, the company called in the police to compel the workers to report to the mine shafts for duty.

Speaking on behalf of the injured and arrested miners before the commission, the advocate Dali Mpofu said: "We're going to argue that the Lonmin policy of refusing to speak to the workers was responsible for 41 of those 44 deaths and that the toxic collusion between SAPS [South African Police Service] and Lonmin was responsible for over 39 of the deaths."

This is the same toxic collusion between corporate power and state power that led to the Ludlow massacre.

Cosatu announced that it was backing Cyril Ramaphosa for ANC president at the 2017 elective conference. It apparently still believes, against all the historical evidence available, that it can elect a neoliberal to power, and them magically pivot him to the left once he's ensconced in Mahlamba Ndlopfu.

So what have we done since then?

Well, Lonmin has rebuilt some houses for the workers. But the presidency has directed the department of mineral resources to apply more pressure to the British mining company for a lack of urgency in implementing its housing plan. "A compliant housing plan will be requested from Lonmin, failing which immediate action in the form of suspension or cancellation of the mining right will be taken," the presidency announced.

The police have been ordered to look at how they manage public order and labour situations.

However, the toxic collusion between government and corporations remains. The most grotesque failure in this regard is that of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and its parent organisation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), ostensible champions of the working class, but ultimately its betrayers.

The mineworker union had allowed itself to be bought off with fat salaries for its leadership paid for by the very corporates they were supposed to be protecting their workforce from. When it became increasingly evident that the union was no longer working for them, the workers abandoned it for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Today, the NUM is a mere shell of its former self, no longer the largest and most powerful Cosatu-aligned union.

Earlier in the year, Cosatu announced that it was backing former Lonmin director Cyril Ramaphosa (he of the "concomitant action" emails sent just before the massacre) for ANC president at the 2017 elective conference. NUM had lobbied the congress hard. It apparently still believes, against all the historical evidence available, that it can elect a neoliberal to power, hoping he'll pivot left once he's ensconced in Mahlamba Ndlopfu.

The chances of a working class revival — from within the congress — remains very poor indeed. (The re-emergence of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa outside of the Cosatu umbrella remains a faint hope in this regard.)

No amount of corporate giveouts, no number of CEOs sleeping outside, and no amount of feeling bad for the families of the Marikana slain will change anything without real structural change to our economy that will benefit everyone.

The use of brute state power to "correct" undesirable social imbalances is creeping up all over the place. It started off with the repression of landless and unemployed people's movements in the townships. Nobody batted an eyelid. It was shocking when these tactics were applied to the working class at Marikana, but it seems we've gotten used to the thought now. These tactics are now being used against protesting students, who are ultimately aiming their ire at a recalcitrant and mean state. (Was it surprising that Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib defended the presence of a brutal police force on his campus, in spite of court judgments expressing just how damaging this has been?)

South Africa faces truly terrifying economic problems. With the economy failing to grow anywhere near the rates required to adequately address the triple threat of poverty, unemployment and inequality, a ruling elite that is distracted with its own internal problems, South Africa is far more vulnerable to the global economic shocks (upon which we exercise no control) than we realise. As they say, a sneeze in London or New York is the Black Death in Johannesburg.

For the majority of South Africans, there is no good story to tell, and we need to start being honest about the fact that the postcolony won't be a good story to tell for the foreseeable future. There is no way out of the wage stagnation that has killed working class advancement globally since the 1970s. The one effective tool of achieving working class goals, the trade union, has been decimated locally and globally. It is becoming increasingly difficult to elect and maintain workerist governments. Just ask Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, who has just suffered a coup (in everything but the name) at the hands of a fantastically corrupt right-wing junta. Instead, we reify the logic of economic insiders and outsiders. From #BlackLivesMatter, to the townships of Durban, ruling elites are increasingly happy to turn to the police on popular protest of any kind. Labour disputes and class agitation now becomes rioting, or disturbances to the peace, to be met with "concomitant action".

People must either accept a slave wage, or face the wrath of police bullets. Given enough time, the danger of the second option outweighs the agonising, slow death of the first. No amount of corporate giveouts, no number of CEOs sleeping outside, and no amount of feeling bad for the families of the Marikana slain will change anything without real structural change to our economy that will benefit everyone. As long as the logic of economic insiders and outsider persists, another Marikana looms.