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South Africa: Miners’ revolt rocks ANC
“You have the employer, the government, the police and even the trade union working together. They’re supposed to look after you, but they are against the people—that’s apartheid,” Katiso Mosebetsane: a 22-year-old who had come to Marikana to search for the body of his father, a miner killed in the August 16 massacre. 

The massacre of striking mine workers by police has laid bare the reality of contemporary South Africa. While political violence is not uncommon in the country, the killing of thirty four people and the injuring of dozens more at the Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg is the worst example of deadly state force being used against protesters in recent years. Parallels have drawn between Marikana and earlier massacres such as Sharpeville in the 1960s’ and Soweto in the 70s. However, what makes Marikana more shocking is that it occurs many years after the formal ending of apartheid and the achievement of “democracy”. 

That such barbarism continues in the “liberated” South Africa highlights the severe limitations of the political settlement that brought the end of apartheid and the establishment of black majority rule. For while the 1994 settlement did end formal racial discrimination in South Africa the economic structure that underpinned apartheid remained largely in place. In broad terms black South Africans, who were overwhelmingly represented by the ANC, took over state political power, while whites retained the economic levers of power. However, to speak of “white capitalists” is a bit misleading because the capitalist class in South Africa is defined more by its international orientation than its racial composition. While this was always been the case it has become much clearer since the ending of apartheid and the subsequent relocation of the corporate headquarters and stock market listings of many large South African companies to the City of London. The South African economy can therefore be characterised as one that is dominated by foreign capital. 

The acceptance of the economic status quo by the ANC ensured that there was never going to be any uplift for the mass of the population. Its promise of “a better life for all” rings very hollow when set against the extreme poverty and inequalities that persist in South Africa. However, this does not mean that Africans as a whole have been denied the privileges associated with wealth and power. A section of the ANC’s membership has benefitted from access to political power - whether that is direct employment in the state apparatus or through the control of state revenues and a system of patronage. Under the banner of “black empowerment” there has also been the emergence of an African business caste whose prominent members are closely associated with the ANC. Some (referred to as the “tenderpreneurs”) have built up businesses on the back of government contracts while others have been effectively sponsored by foreign capital through joint ventures. By appointing Africans to boards of directors multi-national companies can deflect claims of racism. However, this African business class is a very thin layer indeed. It is wholly dependent on the state and foreign capital and will never be in a position to offer any “national development” alternative. 

That this collection of bureaucrats and grasping capitalists has been able to continue for so long without challenge owes much to the continued support for ANC from the trade union movement and the South African Communist Party. They have maintained the cross class Tripartite Alliance in the post-apartheid period on the basis that the “national democratic revolution” it was leading was advancing the cause of labour and laying the basis for a transition to socialism. This is the Stalinist ideology which throughout history has subordinated workers to the leadership of hostile class forces and resulted in catastrophic defeats. But it is not just ideology that has lead trade unions and the SACP to this position. An equally important factor is the incorporation of many of many leading cadres into the structures of state. This has provided a material foundation for their politics and the broader political settlement which makes events such as the Marikana massacre inevitable. The ANC and its allies have committed themselves to defend the rule of capital and if that means shooting down strikers that is what they will do. 

If we look at the background to the strike at the Marikana platinum mine we see that the violence against workers was planned and deliberate and not some tragic accident. There was a strike over pay and conditions at a mine owned by a City of London based multinational (Lonmin) which was organised by “upstart” union that had broken away from the ANC affiliated National Union of Miners (NUM). This was very serious for the ANC on a number of counts. Firstly, there is the role of foreign capital in the ownership of the mine. Secondly, there is the strategic importance of platinum mining not only to South Africa but also to the world economy. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the existence of a group of militant workers beyond the control of the official trade union movement. The ANC and its allies decided to meet this challenge with violence. 

On the morning of the massacre the local police chief announced that they were going to disperse striking mine workers using force. Later that day a plan was executed that saw workers surrounded and herded towards lines of police with machine guns. A reporter for Johannesburg’s Daily Star, wrote the following day that, “It was a well-planned attack that turned a protest into a kill zone.” It is inconceivable that such action would have been taken without the approval of political leaders. Even more telling were statements made by trade union officials in the days leading up to the massacre which appeared to prepare the ground for violence. For example, NUM general secretary Frans Baleni appealed “to all workers to go back to work and for the law enforcement agencies to crack down the culprits of the violence and murders”. He also sought to justify the massacre in its immediate aftermath declaring, “You have opportunists who are abusing ignorant workers. We saw the results yesterday.” Some of the most inflammatory statements came from the SACP, with one of its local officials saying that “the police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to” and that “We should be happy.” The SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande declared that his party “fully supports the government’s crackdown” and that “the ring-leaders must be dealt with and separated from the mass of misled strikers.” Such statements should surely dispel any doubts about what side of the class divide the ANC and its allies are on. 

If the Marikana massacre exposes the brutality of the South Africa state it also demonstrates the bravery and resilience of workers who continued with their strike despite the deaths and injuries. It is clear that strike and the repression it faced had a wider impact across the country with industrial action spreading and many people questioning their loyalty to the ANC. In the face of this revolt the ANC adopted a more conciliatory tone, calling for a period of mourning and abandoning attempts to use apartheid era “common purpose” laws to prosecute miners for the murder of their colleagues. However, given the enforcer role that the ANC is playing in South Africa, further repression is very likely. This has already been indicted by South African Minister of Mining Susan Shabangu who reassured a gathering of mining executives that President Jacob Zuma was “determined to isolate bad elements in our society.” 

The political figure who has seized the moment most effectively in the wake of the Marikana massacre has been Julius Malema. The populist firebrand, who was expelled from the ANC last year, has struck a chord with workers with his denunciations of the Government and calls for the nationalisation of the mining industry. However, he does not represent a break with the ANC, and his intervention has more to do with factional struggles within the Alliance than the creation of a real opposition movement. Such an opposition can only be based on socialist politics and the independent organisation of the working class. And while forces of authentic socialism are weak in South Africa, as is the case in many parts of the world, the creation of independent working class organisations is already underway. The Marikana massacre and its aftermath both confirm and accelerate this process. That is why it has the potential to be a political turning point in South Africa which will have repercussions throughout the world.


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