This Labor Day, we honor the 34 South African platinum miners so recently killed in cold blood by police while fighting for decent wages and safe working conditions. They were among 3,000 rock drill operators at the Lonmin-owned mine in Marikana who went out on a wildcat strike under the banner of an independent union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), on Aug. 10. Lonmin, a multinational corporation headquartered in London, is the world’s third-largest platinum producer and is valued at between $1 billion and $2 billion.
At first it looked like this David versus Goliath struggle was unwinnable. The killings changed that, however, as the strike spread to other platinum mines and focused international attention on the increasing poverty of South African workers, their betrayal by official union leaders, and government corruption. The Marikana massacre is a tragedy, but it is also a warning to those who think it is possible to contain class struggle forever.
The killing fields
On Aug. 16, the striking miners, armed with sticks, spears and machetes, gathered on a hill close to the Marikana mine, refusing to disperse until their demands were met. Forced into an area enclosed with razor wire, they were trying to escape when armored police vehicles boxed them in. As the men ran, police began shooting at close range. A devastating volley of bullets shattered the air. Only repeated orders to “Hold your fire!” ended the lethal barrage.
This first killing spree was captured on video; murders that followed were not. For a half hour after the initial volley, shots could still be heard as police in helicopters and on horseback gunned down fleeing miners. Others were crushed by armored vehicles. Most were shot in the back. It was an hour before ambulances arrived.
The horror did not end there for 78 wounded men who will be arrested once the hospital releases them and another 259 who were arrested the day of the massacre. Among those already in custody, 200 have alleged police torture. This prompted the opposition party’s unofficial minister of police to denounce what she called “police brutality on a massive scale” and demand that the police involved be suspended immediately.
However, with no charges having been brought against police, prosecutors have now filed a petition to seek possible murder charges against 270 miners for the deaths of their 34 comrades shot by police – on the grounds that they were arrested at the scene of the massacre with weapons.
A tragedy born of a cross-class alliance
The Marikana slaughter was not a case of panicky police. It was a case of deliberate state terror used against men doing dangerous work for a pittance – 18 years after the end of apartheid. Orders to crush the strike came from the top: the top of the state, the top of the corporate world, the top of the labor bureaucracy.
That’s why the massacre at the Marikana mine, 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg, has touched off a political storm in South Africa. It is being compared to the apartheid-era massacre at Sharpeville, where 60 Black demonstrators were shot by the white police force of the segregationist regime. This time, however, the mass murder was the result of hatred for the anguished poor and a desire to protect the corporate bottom line and the stability of the profit system, under which leaders of the governing African National Congress (ANC) have gotten rich and complacent. The National Union of Mineworkers, the only officially recognized labor union representing miners, is closely allied with the ANC, and it has played the role of strike-breaker in the strike.
The alliance of South African trade unions with the ruling state party is at the heart of the Marikana tragedy. Upon coming to power, the ANC threw out racial segregation, but kept in place an economic system based on inequity and exploitation. In doing this, the ANC, which billed itself as revolutionary, was following the Stalinist concept of two-stage revolution put forward by the South African Communist Party: apartheid is overthrown first and later, possibly much later, it’s capitalism’s turn. But the failure of this approach can be seen by its fruits in South Africa, where the divide between wealth and poverty, far from being eliminated, has grown more extreme, whipped on by neoliberalism and the deepening international crisis of the profit system.
In power, ANC leaders turned their backs on high ideals and accepted lucrative seats on corporate boards. They became a small Black bourgeoisie aligned with white capital because of shared class interest. Today the Black elite includes former mine union leaders who have become mine bosses. One of them, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a founder of NUM and former ANC general secretary. At present he is a director of Lonmin and owns shares in the company through a Black Economic Empowerment business called Incwala Resources.
No justice, no peace
The Marikana strike continues, with miners across the country joining the walkout. As of this writing, 92 percent of Lonmin’s 28,000 workers in South Africa are out. On Aug. 29, representatives of Lonmin, NUM, the militant AMCU, and non-union workers opened negotiations to end the strike. Mine management wants an immediate peace accord guaranteeing that those who cross the strike lines will not be intimidated. The workers say they will not sign anything until they have assurances that their demand of a pay raise, from $438 a month to $1,490, is met.
With the current economic crisis shaking capitalism to its core and unhinging longstanding deals between rulers and the ruled, more wildcat strikes will take place, and more independent unions will come forward with the courage and the determination to fight for workers’ rights and survival. The “peace” between capital and labor is sure to be shattered everywhere by the sharpened tensions of the current crisis, even in the privileged sanctuaries of imperialism. And when the world labor movement rises to its feet, workers around the globe will remember the Lonmin miners and will draw inspiration from their ultimate sacrifice in the cause of working-class emancipation.