Marikana: A Point of Rupture?

A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity) and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts…form the terrain of the “conjunctural” and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise.[1]

Gramsci’s oft-cited formulation offers an entry point for an understanding of South Africa—the ‘miracle’ country as of the year of 2012. South Africa, despite 18 years of majority rule, continues to be one of the most unequal societies on an increasingly unequal planet and is in crisis. Around half the population, mostly black Africans, live below the poverty line.[2] Almost half of all black African households earned below R1670 a month in 2005–06, while only 2 percent of white households fell in that income bracket.[3] South Africa, as of 2011, ranked as the second most unequal country in the world after Namibia—according to the Gini measure.[4] Unemployment consistently hovers unofficially at around 40 percent, and among 18–25 year olds, it is now over 60 percent.[5] Millions of households, despite some improvements still lack access to basic services; the education system still equips most blacks for little other than a future as unskilled labor. This is despite the existence of the much lauded “progressive constitution” with a bill of rights which supposedly insures access to basic socio-economic rights.[6] Essentially South Africa is fucking unequal and black African working class and unemployed Africans continue to be the worst off.

This is normality. The unemployment rate in Greece after four years of economic depression and the EU’s austerity project has just reached over 25 percent, but South Africa’s unofficial unemployment rate is over 40 percent, while 25 percent has been the officially stated figure for almost a decade. What the Marikana massacre marks is the most visible display of the failure of the ruling ANC’s hegemonic project and the inability of the forces struggling to conserve the “existing structure” to contain multiple forces emerging from the on-going crisis in South Africa. The ANC, despite its seemingly unchallengeable political supremacy and its political alliance with the 1.8 million strong trade union federation COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the politically, spiritually and morally, but not financially, bankrupt SACP (South African Communist Party), has been unable to forge a viable social compact with local capital capable of benefiting the majority of South Africa. They’ve been unable to either create sufficient jobs to combat mass unemployment (over 40 percent) or bring down levels of inequality—which have increased since the the end of the bitter struggle that brought about the demise of apartheid.

The ANC adopted a twofold economic strategy in which policies would be introduced to create a black “national bourgeoisie”[7] to counter the hegemony of white capital both in South African and worldwide and a subsequent “development” program which would be based on attracting foreign capital investment through capital intensive projects, creating favorable business conditions and unleashing domestic capital from the chains of apartheid-era sanctions and regulations. What in fact happened was that the still fetishized foreign investors failed to materialize and domestic capital was free to relocate to the favorable climates of the North. Many of South Africa’s largest firms, such as Anglo-American, relocated to the UK while South African capital was freed to pillage the rest of the continent previously closed to it. On the local front, South Africa effectively introduced a self-imposed structural adjustment package under the auspices of the ironically named “GEAR” (Growth Employment and Redistribution) policy introduced in 1996, which saw the privatization of basic services (which the government is constitutionally obliged to provide), rapid cuts in the public sector and the privatization of state owned entities.

Over a million jobs were lost as the much-vaunted foreign capital failed to materialize and domestic capital either moved to the North or reinvested their profits throughout the rest of Africa, while the South African manufacturing sector declined dramatically due to the relaxation of trade tariffs, leading to local industries being forced to compete with India, China and Indonesia, etc., …leading to further job losses. Production in South Africa has been largely overshadowed by the rise of the financial sector and the traditional economic base of “extraction”.[8]

The structural crisis, which reached its height in the 1980s,[9] forced white capital to abandon apartheid as it was perceived to no longer be the most efficient vehicle for capital accumulation. This process began with covert meetings between the captains of South African industry and the ANC leadership in exile and ended in the high drama of CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa).

Those that have benefited most from this transition were white South Africans and white capitalists who saw their international pariah status revoked and the new system slanted to their benefit. A new black middle class and a small black bourgeoisie have also benefited. While the media is flush with lewd reports of their perceived lavish lifestyles, many of those dubbed “black diamonds” by the media rely primarily on their access to credit and white capital’s need to display a black superstructure to disguise the continued base of white ownership. Much of this emergent black bourgeoisie has relied on political connections and access to the state as a vehicle for accumulation. A select few, the likes of Patrice Motsepe, have amassed vast fortunes and others, such as the once militant ex-chairperson of NUM Cyril Ramaphosa, have made the seamless transition to billionaire status through amassing shares and board positions in London Mining (Lonmin) and, of course, the franchise owner of McDonalds South Africa. Members of both the Zuma and Mandela families have seen a similar change in fortune over the last few years as well.[10].

As structural unemployment persists and those who are lucky enough to find work find their income unable to keep up with the steep increases in cost of living and large swathes of the country lack access to basic services, a recipe for militant protest arises. South Africa has been described as the protest capital of the world. In the last three years, there has been an average of 2.9 “gatherings” per day resulting in 12,654 “gathering” incidents during 2010–11,[11] although such statistics say little about the actual political character of these protests and it shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign of the rise of a new counter-hegemonic bloc in the country. Indeed to refer back to Gramsci’s formulation, these protests rather indicate the forces emerging in relation to the continuing crisis, which the political forces seeking to preserve the existing structure are unable to overcome. What in effect these political forces stand for, as a whole, remains an open question and the crisis is expressed in the “vocabularies of the local”.

What is clear though is that there is a deep social unrest which has been escalating over the last few years as the government has been either unwilling or unable to craft a program capable of reducing poverty and inequality or cajole white capital into some sort of sustainable social compact à la the East Asian developmental state often promoted as a model for South Africa to emulate. Less has been said about the nature of proletarian insurgency at the work place—violent and militant strikes are a regular feature of South African labor relations, due to a high level of militant consciousness and unionization among the black South African working-class. With union leadership increasingly being co-opted into ANC politicking and forming “working relationships” with capital, workers have been embarking on wildcat strikes to reach their demands—particularly in the mining sector. The rise of independent unions such as AMCU (Association of Mining and Construction workers Union) is a direct response to the inability of established trade unions within COSATU to represent workers interests.

The existing set of labor relations in South Africa has seen the continuation of the apartheid-era two tier model of skilled, mostly white middle and upper income work for a select few, while the majority of blacks find themselves competing over the few jobs available to “low wage” and “unskilled labor,” such as those working at Marikana. The persistence of these labor structures and high unemployment has meant that those with work often have to support large and extended families on their low wages, restricting both the growth of an internal market in South Africa and ensuring that most black employed South Africans still live in appalling conditions. This is not a “challenge,” as described by ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe at a recent COSATU conference—this is a crisis, one which has been building for decades.

In the first major industrial action of the year, platinum miners at the Implats mine won a 5,000 rand increase, in the face of state repression and violence. But the last few months have seen the most sustained and militant victorious proletarian struggle since the fragile birth of “liberal democracy” in 1994, following the brutal massacre of 34 workers by police at the Marikana mine owned by the British company Lonmin on the 16th of August. The massacre of these workers occurred in the midst of a wildcat strike brought about by the perceived failure of the dominant mining union NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) to protect the interests of workers. Miners still operate in the same hyper-exploitative extractive sector and within the two-tier labor market which has been both the primary source of South Africa’s riches and tragedy for over a 100 years. Men plucked from the former bantustans go up North, far removed from their friends and family, to work for as long as 12 hours a day for an average wage, after deductions, of around 4,500 rand a month (around $550). To put this in perspective, Frans Baleni, the chairperson of NUM, earns around 1.4 million rand ($165,000) a year. This is what drove the miners to strike, demanding 12,500 rand a month ($1,512). They downed their tools and embarked on a 6 week strike in which they faced down the power of state and capital.

Reports on the 18th of September suggested a deal had been reached between the miners and Lonmin for a 22 percent salary increase across the board and a 2,000 rand bonus for returning to work. Despite the fact that the miners didn’t win their 12,500 rand, this is still a historic victory. The miners, with little or no support from “civil society” or the “left” and a hostile media, managed to face down a state prepared to kill to defend the interests of capital and wrangle a demand still deemed “irrational” by a morally decrepit bunch of hacks and economists (still mostly lily white) who style themselves as the voices of reason in this country. To give an indication of how little this is, rock drillers working at platinum mines in Canada, performing exactly the same job, get paid around $130,000 a year—earning more in a month than a South African miners earns in a year. Reports from miners have suggested the company has been lying about the nature of the increase and is still skiving off money from the workers and, despite the increase, miners on the ground are still dissatisfied with their pay indicating that the saga of Marikana is far from over.[12]

The miners were forced to negotiate as the police had imposed an unofficial state of emergency in the area with the near-full support of the red-baiting, panicked corporate media. They still saw another three people murdered bringing the total death toll to 47. Workers reported that any man on the streets at night in the area was a target for the police and police forcibly dispersed and attacked any attempted gathering while patrolling the streets with armored cars and assault rifles (the same rifles used to shoot down the miners on the 16th of August).[13] Police also raided the hostels and homes of the miners in an attempt to intimidate them the weekend before the deal was reached. Reports indicated they shot several people including the local ANC (African National Congress) councilor who later died from her injuries.[14]

The deal reached at Marikana does not mark the end of the industrial unrest spreading across South Africa’s Platinum belt; rather it marks the beginning of what is surely an intensification of proletarian struggle in the mining sector. I say this for reasons other than the continuation of the appalling living conditions present in the communities located in this area.[15] and the low remuneration for miners. What Marikana has shown is the violence which the state is willing to unleash in defense of capital and its allies in the form of NUM. This, as I will discuss later, is part of pattern of increasing violence which has been deployed to break up community and social movement protests. Furthermore, it has shown that it is possible to take on the full force of the state and capital and win. It has inspired miners across the Platinum Belt to fight for a 12,500 minimum wage across the sector. Some reports have even suggested miners in Namibia are considering taking up a similar demand. Finally, it has shown that the established “representatives” of the working-class, in the form of NUM and COSATU, are incapable and unwilling to take up the demands of the workers and unable to provide either a straight condemnation of the massacre or any material aid to the workers. If anything, NUM has been shown to be an agent of both the interests of the ruling Zuma faction within the ANC and the mining industry.

The situation brings to mind Rosa Luxemburg’s remarks on the German printers’ union written in the heady days of 1907:

the classical embodiment of that trade-union policy which prefers peace to struggle, settlement with capitalism to conflict, political neutrality to open support for the Social-Democratic Party, and which, filled with scorn for revolutionary “fanaticism,” sees its ideal in the English type of trade union. It has taken a long time, but now the fruits of such a policy have become obvious to even the most short-sighted of persons.[16]

Gramsci suggests that, as “hegemony” or rule by consent breaks down, direct violence will increasingly be relied on to preserve the established structure. The South African government increased its repressive force and tactics over the last few years,[17] as the police have been militarized beginning with the World Cup. Slogans like “shoot-to-kill” have been taken up by police “generals.” Military ranks have been reintroduced and the number of police shootings rises ever year. Force has been used on a consistent basis to break up community protests and to target social movement activists.

Beginning with the torture of activists from the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), becoming more visible with the pogrom directed towards the shack-dwellers’ movement, Abhali Basemjondolo (ABM) at the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban in 2010,[18] and last year in the televised murder of Andreas Tatane by the police in Ficksburg. This suggests that the violence which occurred in Marikana was not an isolated incident; rather it fits in with the character of “political violence” which has become an increasingly visible presence in South Africa.[19] The ANC under Zuma has thrown off much of its socialist and “progressive” trappings despite the craven unconditional backing of this faction by the SACP and elements of COSATU. A masculinist discourse of patriarchal tradition has become the dominant feature of Zuma’s attempt to anchor the ANC in something resembling a coherent ideology.[20] While the ANC attempts to make up for its failures through the employment of outright repression, this repression is partially condoned by the anti-working class and reactionary media, as well as fully condoned by the center-right opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA)—whose support base and political character is largely formed by ex-National Party (NP) voters, despite the DA’s liberal pretensions.

Where does that leave the independent South African left? Mostly in a position of increased isolation from working-class struggles. The South African Left has, to an extent, been pursuing what I consider to be a contradictory strategy in relation to COSATU and the SACP—which I will suggest, in effect, are organs of the state in subordination to the ruling party. The independent left has been very careful to not sever its ties with COSATU and elements of the SACP, the reason being the assumption that these organizations form the potential of a revolutionary base which will eventually abandon the ANC due to the ANC’s continued support of anti working-class neo-liberal policies. These organizations would then turn to the independent left and a new mass workers party could emerge capable of challenging the hegemony of the ANC. At the same time much of the independent left has attempted to win over social movements and communities to a socialist project. The problems within this strategy are multiple and I will, for the interests of brevity, not delve into all of them. I will instead indentify a few key flaws.

The first and most obvious flaw is that these goals lead to a contradiction in terms of prioritizing struggles. A key problem is that the SACP in particular,[21] and elements of COSATU adopt a paranoid authoritarian stance towards protest and politics located outside of the ruling alliance and are often complicit as evidenced by Marikana in state repression often directed towards movements and communities which the left is trying to “win over”. This contradiction is not trivial and has often resulted in the left being held in deep suspicion by the so-called left within the ruling alliance and popular struggles on the ground.  Simple logic dictates that the left either has to prioritize supporting local struggles and movements or maintaining their ties, unofficial or official, with “the ANC-aligned Left.” Often some of the most vocal “left” critics of the ANC maintain cozy relationships with the likes of the odious Blade Ndzimande, Jeremy Cronin and others or even consult for the state. This further hampers the ability of the left to build working and sustainable connections with communities in struggle and has resulted in a tendency to attempt to channel local struggles towards the “real” enemies of neo-liberalism and the World Bank at the expense of the local contradictions which gave rise to these struggles in the first place. In response to Marikana, elements of the left have expressed support for the striking workers but, at the same time, limited their actual material support so as not to alienate COSATU, which has adopted a shameful and cowardly position towards the massacre and who has increasingly prioritized factional politics within the ANC over the material interests of workers.[22]

This contradictory policy has alienated much of the independent left from local struggles and has further hampered the ability of the independent left to establish zones of counter-power and powerful movements capable of challenging the hegemony of the ANC. The origins of this problematic position lie in both the age-old left tradition of fetishizing the state as the source of all progressive change. The state is treated as an instrument which, if only the right people were in charge, would be capable of bringing about transformative change. The result is a general immobility of the left if the conditions are not right for the revolution or the seizure of state power, this leads to inertia and is one of the primary reasons for what has been an observable decline in the power and ideas of the left following 1994. This is closely linked to the demobilization of the mass movements and grassroots locales of counter-power which emerged in the 1980s for a variety of reasons including a widespread faith in the ANC’s ability to bring about transformative change in South Africa and the ANC leadership’s attempt, upon returning from exile, to monopolize their power within the wider democratic movement at the expense of the leaders which emerged from domestic mass struggles.

The second problem with the left’s position is in the changing character of the South African black proletariat and their relation to COSATU. Marikana marks a point of departure or rupture if you like within these relations. It is fair to assert that leadership of COSATU has been incorporated into the ANC. Many have made the transition between union leadership positions and government posts. COSATU as an organization intervened directly in internal ANC politics to help Zuma unseat the then president Mbeki and bring Zuma to power. Since then, COSATU has found itself prioritizing ANC politics at the expense of the interests of workers. This reality is combined with the precarious state of the mining industry in South Africa. The South African gold industry is in its last days, as gold reserves, historically the foundation of the South African economy, decline. And platinum prices continue to drop. This is the real reason for the intensification of extractive mining practices, without workers being compensated for the added risk with any rise in wages. The wave of wildcat strikes has since moved into the gold sector and has seen 40 percent of gold production in the country shut down[23] as workers, inspired by Marikana, have taken up the 12,500 minimum wage demand[24]; this demand might even have been taken up by workers in the neighbouring country of Namibia and workers in the transport sector which has seen 20,000 workers go on strike.

Unions like NUM have responded to this by forming close relationships to the companies such as Lonmin and Anglo-American, in which NUM has agreed to keep a check on workers’ demands and negotiate gradual increases in return for favourable treatment and business links between ex-NUM leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa and Marcel Golding; furthermore NUM’s investment wing (standing at R 2 billion) has even invested in the mining sector. This, combined with unions’ continued attachment to the ANC which has pursued, as indicated earlier, a rather orthodox neo-liberal line since coming to power, has in effect resulted in an antagonism displayed most clearly at Marikana between a union leadership increasingly removed from the shop floor unable and unwilling to represent the interests of workers.

This antagonism has led to the wave of wildcat strikes coming to its first point of rupture at Marikana; workers here are in effect forced to become an autonomous force in order to secure their interests,[25], through unsanctioned militant action. As unions and the ANC continue to fail to support workers in their demands for a living wage, working-class action will continue to take on such autonomous character united in hostility both to capital and organs of state power in the form of unions such as NUM and local ANC branches.[26] As the state is unable to provide some sort of solution to the organic crisis present in South Africa, repression will be relied on to contain industrial action and community protest. Marikana has shown that in order for workers achieve their demands, they need to operate autonomously from their union representatives. Marikana has inspired a wave of other wildcat strikes in the mining sector which don’t seem to be fading out. In this, class conciousness on the shop floor appears to be emerging, despite the SACP’s pathetic attempts to claim that the actions at Marikana were led by some sort of third middle class force,[27] which doped up the miners on muti and was aligned to the forces of imperialism and the bogeyman of expelled ANCYL (African National Congress Youth League) president Julius Malema.[28] They also absurdly charged that these strikes were a result of a “lack of class consciousness.”[29]

It is from this recognition of the increasingly autonomous nature of the South African proletariat that any sort of left strategy should emerge from Marikana. I can’t claim to have all the answers but two things stand out. First, there is a need for the left to abandon the COSATU leadership as working partners[30] and instead attempt to build working relations and provide material aid to workers at the shop floor. The second lesson is for the need to build fortresses of counter-power at a distance from the state; instead of NGOs, legalistic tactics and insular debate, we need to create zones which show the possibility of challenging the hegemony of the ANC. We need to invest in culture, in alternate radio stations, in new publications, in communities in drawing on South African’s history of grassroots militancy and civic organizations. An insurgent movement, capable of challenging the structure of a country in crisis, needs to abandon the politics of mediating the masses’ interests and instead focus on building zones in which a revolutionary future can be glimpsed. Now is not the time to talk about the “armed seizure of state power,” but that does not mean we can sit back and wait.

  1. [1] Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks, New York: International Press (1971), p. 178.
  2. [2] Hein Marais, Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change, Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press (2011), p. 203.
  3. [3] Marais, ibid.
  4. [4] World Bank, 2011.
  5. [5] Youth unemployment: South Africa’s ticking bomb.
  6. [6] Constitution of South Africa.
  7. [7] See Fanon’s prescient condemnation and critique of the “national bourgeoisie” in The Wretched of the Earth.
  8. [8] I base this account on Marais’s outstanding Pushed to the Limit.
  9. [9] See Gelb, “Making Sense of the Crisis,” Transformations (1987), p. 5.
  10. [10]Aurora’s Zuma must be held to account for mine debacle,” Times Live, January 13, 2012.
  11. [11] Protests and Police Statistics in South Africa: Some Commentary.
  12. [12] Lonmin miners crack under pressure.
  13. [13] Lonmin miners crack under pressure.
  14. [14] Marikana’s theatre of the absurd claims another life.
  15. [15] Unsafe House, Unsafe Job? The foul truth about living conditions at Marikana.
  16. [16] The Two Methods of Trade-Union Policy.
  17. [17] The South African Police Service and the Public Order War
  18. [18] See Kerry Chance, The Work of Violence: A timeline of Armed Attacks at Kennedy Road (2010).
  19. [19] See Jane Duncan, Dissent Under Jacob Zuma (2011), unpublished.
  20. [20] Facing Reality.
  21. [21] See Dale T. McKinley.
  22. [22] See Cosatu Congress: Vavi’s time of reckoning, and the elusive “Lula moment” and Cosatu Congress: Allies talk about Marikana and the enemies of the struggle
  23. [23] Strike contagion shuts down 40% of SA gold.
  24. [24] First poll results known.
  25. [25] I take this understanding of the autonomy of the working class loosely from the Italian autonomia theoretical tradition, although the theoretical tendency emerged in a vastly different socio-political context with its description of the emergence of the “mass worker” in the Keynesian Planner states within the 1960s and 1970s. I find it provides a useful starting point in Negri’s ‘concept of the “self-valorization of the working-class (see “Worker’s Party Against Work,” in Books for Burning, London: Verso (1973, 2005), pp. 74–77) referring to the working class’s ability to define itself as a class outside of the logic of the state and capital.
  26. [26] It remains to be seen whether workers will abandon the ANC in the absence of any realistic alternatives either in the form of the parliamentary opposition or the extra-parliamentary left.
  27. [27] Cosatu Congress: Allies talk about Marikana and the enemies of the struggle.
  28. [28] Malema has perhaps been the only prominent political actor in the country to display any sort of support for the miners in the form of both his unique brand of rhetoric—think Hugo Chavez meets Kanye West and the form material and legal aid. Malema has been accused rightly of using Marikana to hit back at his nemesis, President Zuma, and has faced both death threats and threats of arrest from reactionary white formations and the state. Despite his opportunism, he has shown up the cowardice of the ruling alliance in their response to Marikana.
  29. [29] Politicsweb.
  30. [30] Mangaung Versus Marikana: COSATU Chooses Sides.

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