Ten years after the Marikana massacre in South Africa

Updated on Sep 12, 2022 01:27 PM IST

The article has been authored by Samir Bhattacharya, research associate, Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

This August 2022, South Africa commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Marikana massacre. Located 90 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, Marikana is one of the richest mineral belts in the world. In fact, South Africa and Russia meet 90% of the global demands for platinum, and most of the South African platinum comes from this belt.(Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP)(AFP)
This August 2022, South Africa commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Marikana massacre. Located 90 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, Marikana is one of the richest mineral belts in the world. In fact, South Africa and Russia meet 90% of the global demands for platinum, and most of the South African platinum comes from this belt.(Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP)(AFP)
ByHindustan Times

This August 2022, South Africa commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Marikana massacre. On August 16, 2012, South African police shot labourers at the Marikana platinum mine, resulting in 34 deaths and 78 injuries. Located 90 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, Marikana is one of the richest mineral belts in the world. In fact, South Africa and Russia meet 90% of the global demands for platinum, and most of the South African platinum comes from this belt. The United Kingdom (UK)-based Lonmin Group owns the mine.

The event was the culmination of protracted protest over a week. About 3,000 black miners at Marikana had been on strike for a week, protesting against their living and working conditions, poor wages, and other issues. Workers from different other industries, such as iron ore, chrome, and agriculture, joined the protest over time. Despite the lack of support from the National Union for Workers (NUM), these miners continued their wildcat strike. A wildcat strike is an unofficial industrial action where union members choose to go on strike without the union leadership's authorisation, support, or approval of the union leadership.

The already tense situation was exacerbated by this unusual rift between the miners and their union. On one side, the miners and their families were valiantly trying to have their voices heard and their needs met. Both NUM and Lonmin representatives, however, paid no attention to the miners. And the protestors became more hostile due to the deaths of two protesting fellow miners.

By August 16, there had already been multiple acts of strike-related violence that resulted in the deaths of six miners, two police officers, and two security guards. In fact, during altercations with the workers, some police officers and security guards were hacked to death. There was an intra-worker component to the violence as well as those between the employees and the police. Four miners were slain by their co-workers on the issue of breaking the strike. In altercations with the police, two other employees were killed. In total, the circumstances leading up to the massacre claimed over 50 lives.

On August 14, the Lonmin administration officially announced the mine's production suspension. As response, the miners set up a protest camp on a hill close to the Lonmin mine, called Wonderkop. The miners remained persistent in their strike until August 16, when a direct attack was launched against them. The police defended themselves by stating that the demonstration had already descended into violence before their arrival. The miners were carrying arms, mostly spear-like assegais and machetes. As the crowd marched toward them, yelling war chants, the police used force to disperse the crowd and save their own lives. However, killing 34 people within three minutes underpins the police's unpreparedness to manage the protest.

The horror of the police shooting in Marikana, which resulted in the immediate death of 34 people, will always remain one of the most violent atrocities in contemporary South African and global history. However, the South African history of violence against the labour and the working class is fairly exhaustive. The Marikana massacre and the politics that resulted from protests are merely one more enactment of police brutality against the protesting poor.

The instances of horrific labourer killings brought on by political unrest and discontent are endless. The Rand Revolt among gold miners in 1922, which occurred during the early years of industrial capitalism in South Africa, resulted in at least 500 injuries and over 150 deaths. Again in 1946, a black mineworkers' strike leading to a violent altercation with State security left more than 12 workers dead and 1,200 injured. At least six workers were killed during a strike at South African Railways in 1987.

Most of these killings occurred at the height of the apartheid era. Thus, they have been primarily attributed to apartheid against the blacks. A few observers who attempted to analyse the events going beyond the racial discrimination narrative blamed inadequate comprehensive institutionalisation of industrial relations for black workers. Yet, in 2006, much after apartheid was formally over, security guards went on a violent and protracted national strike, and over 60 workers were killed in a series of deadly clashes. This was the most violent and fatal spate of strikes post the democratic transition. In recent times, there have been many other violent conflicts concerning labour strikes, such as the 2007 public sector strike, 2009 municipality, police, military, 2014 post office strike, construction and many more.

Concerning the cause of the Marikana massacre, opinions diverge. While the narrative of racial discrimination prevailed, it would be wrong to characterise the episodes of Marikana solely as a racial outbreak even if the miners who died were all black. During the apartheid, South Africa was a white supremacist nation that also practised a brutal form of capitalism with scant labour rights. Since the past two decades post-apartheid, there has hardly been any modification to labour rules or rights. In fact, some of the aftereffects of the apartheid regime include the neoliberal economic policy, the domination of multinationals, privatisation, and the weakening of labour rights. This was evident when the Lonmin leadership sent their miners back to work within a few days after the massacre without even considering their demand for higher wages.

From that perspective, Marikana was much more than a conflict between blacks and whites. It was a struggle between the State and the wealthy versus the underclass. It was merely a continuance of a toxic apartheid legacy rather than the revival of apartheid. Thus, the massacre effectively marked the end of South African exceptionalism. The incident also exposed the rainbow nation's chimaera and the limitations of the 1994 political agreement.

The following year of the massacre, spawned by the event, Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF) was launched as a champion of the poor. Today EEF is an important stakeholder in African politics and, to a large extent challenging the incumbent ANC. The Fees Must Fall, and Rhodes Must Fall campaigns were also among the protest movements inspired by the massacre. Additionally, it revealed the hollowness of the African National Congress (ANC).

An honest evaluation of the last decade since Marikana reveals that South Africa hasn't addressed the fallout from the killing. The ANC’s ascended to power in 1994 on a wave of popular support and continued to win elections by substantial margins. However, the win obscures the gradual erosion of many people's faith in the government's ability to fulfil its promises. Former president Zuma appointed an enquiry commission led by retired judge Ian Farlam. Even though this investigation commission spent R153 million and met for 300 days over two years, no one has been held responsible for the killings. So far, 34 families of those killed at Marikana received more than R70 million from the State as compensation for their loss. However, there is no response regarding their general and constitutional damages requests. Additionally, the injured miners have not received any compensation from the State.

The struggle at Marikana is comparable to the widespread strikes and protests being held today by the working class in South Africa. People's dissatisfaction with the government has increased due to inadequate service delivery in housing, water, energy, land, and public infrastructure, as well as low wages and unfavourable working conditions at places of employment.

The labourers' deaths were caused by more than just their skin colour. It was the outcome of a deeply ingrained social issue. And even though apartheid was abolished two decades ago, no political figure cared to make amends. The Marikana mine massacre was caused by the failure of a trade union to take up the causes of its members and police incompetence. It's a story that also highlights systemic problems in South Africa. Poverty, inequality, and unemployment are the underlying causes of shootings. Therefore, Marikana was not an aberration even in post-apartheid South Africa.

The article has been authored by Samir Bhattacharya, research associate, Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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