‘It’s better to die than to work for that shit’: interview on the Marikana strike and Massacre

Mutiny Zine recently interviewed Jonathan, international secretary of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF), about the police massacre of workers who were on strike at the Lonmin company’s mines in Marikana in South Africa. For information about ZACF, see https://zabalaza.net/

Marikana workers strike

Mutiny: Can you give us some background to the strike at Marikana – how long has it been going on for, what are the strikers’ demands, what are the conditions like in the mines? Is this all related to the state of the mining industry in South Africa as a whole?

Jonathan: The Marikana strike began on 10 August 2012 when 3 000 rock drillers initiated a wildcat strike to demand a pay increase from in the region of R4 000 to R12 500 a month (the top three managers at Lonmin earned R44.6 million in one year). This, however, should not be seen as an isolated incident – strikes, often wildcat ones, in pursuit of higher salaries and better conditions have been ongoing across South Africa’s platinum belt.

Conditions on the mines are so bad that even the Minister of Trade and Industry has described them as “appalling”. Not only are workers subjected to extreme exploitation, but they often also suffer oppression and domination at the hands of mine management, foremen, supervisors and security. This is particularly true for black mine workers. High levels of security at the mines mean that workers are constantly under surveillance by security guards and CCTV cameras, are subjected to iris scans on entering the premises and humiliating body searches on leaving.

In addition to the oppression and domination that mineworkers routinely face, working conditions on the mines are very dangerous and unhealthy. The heavy equipment operated by mineworkers hundreds of metres underground, in hot and cramped conditions, results in many workers’ hearing being permanently damaged. Workers also often suffer from skin problems caused by the industrial water, sometimes from reduction works,  used for cooling and many mineworkers develop silicosis from inhaling rock dust caused by drilling. In order to supplement their basic incomes, many mineworkers are compelled to take risks, which often lead to accidents, such as working unsafely and extremely long hours in order to try and get production bonuses – which make up an important part of many mineworkers’ incomes.

So, as these conditions of exploitation, oppression and domination, coupled with the extremely hazardous working conditions miners face are typical across the sector, I think it would be safe to say that the Marikana Lonmin strike is “related to the state of the mining industry in South Africa as a whole”, although we must remember that the strike itself arose around specific demands by the rock drillers for pay increases, and was not linked to struggles at other mines – although miners from Marikana did later seek to establish links of solidarity with workers at neighbouring mines.

In addition to their basic salaries of about R4 000 a month, some miners also receive a housing allowance. These allowances are part of an attempt by management to push workers out of the hostels, thus into the nearby townships and shanty towns and this could probably be seen as an attempt to reduce costs in order to recoup profits. One of the main ways in which bosses attempt to recoup or increase profits, however, is by reducing wage bills through considerable use of labour brokering and outsourcing (30% of workers employed at Lonmin’s Marikana mine are outsourced), as workers employed in this way often earn far lower salaries than their permanently employed colleagues and do not have access to benefits such as housing allowances and healthcare.

Mutiny: From reading reports of what happened, there seems to be evidence that the massacre was actually premeditated to some degree by people a fair way up the police chain of command; as the cops weren’t just armed with live ammunition but had also erected a razor-wire fence in such a way that it forced strikers to move towards police lines when they had to retreat from water cannons and tear gas. Is it likely that at least some level of violence was planned in advance? Beyond the police, what was the role of the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, in the bloodshed? The statement on the massacre at the Zabalaza website (https://zabalaza.net/2012/08/19/anc-throws-off-its-mask-workers-murdered/#more-3180) also condemns the ANC youth league and figures like Julius Malema (the former ANC youth league president, now expelled from the ANC) who have publically criticised the police – can you elaborate on this?

Jonathan: The South African Police Service (SAPS) is generally regarded as being ill-trained when it comes to crowd control, but this cannot account for the August 16th massacre of 34 striking mineworkers – some of whom, it later transpired, were shot in the back while trying to flee, others hunted down and executed as they took refuge in a nearby boulder field.

Given that the police had stated on the day of the massacre that it was “D-day” for the strike, and that the SAPS’ elite Special Task Force was deployed, I think it seems fairly clear that a decision had been taken to break the strike and to protect the bosses’ economic interests and private property using any means necessary. On the 13th of August a delegation of workers from Marikana were sent to Lonmin’s neighbouring operation at Karee mine to try and convince workers there to come out on strike as well. On their return the delegation was shot at by the police, leaving two workers dead. The workers attempted to defend themselves, resulting in the death of two policemen. Whether or not the level of violence was planned in advance, or was simply a reaction by the police to the killing of their colleagues days earlier, police certainly did not dither in using excessive force, and showed no remorse afterwards.

A number of high-ranking ANC officials and ANC linked families, such as the Mandelas, Thambos, Zumas etc., also have extensive economic interests in platinum mining companies. Cyril Ramaphosa (a former NUM leader), for example, not only sits on the board and owns shares in Lonmin, but has interests in a number of other companies to which various functions at Marikana are outsourced. Given this, and the climate of ongoing wildcat strikes and sit-ins across the sector over recent years, it doesn’t seem implausible that a decision may have been taken to make an example of the striking Marikana mineworkers in order to intimidate workers and deter them from taking future actions in order to protect the economic interests of an ANC elite.

The ANCYL and Julius Malema, for their part, have opportunistically used the incident to publicly criticise the police and current ANC leadership in order to garner support among workers, try to oust Jacob Zuma from the presidency and have Malema reinstated, as well as to build support for their demand to have the mines nationalised; supposedly so that mineworkers and communities surrounding the mines can have a fairer share in the wealth produced by the mines, but more honestly as a way to amass their own wealth and power through the positions they desire for themselves in the state.

Mutiny: A few of the mainstream media reports I’ve read have emphasised the clash between two unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), as a cause of violence. Has this been an important factor or is it mostly a media beat-up to deflect attention from the violence of the South African state? Have the unions, especially the NUM, been guilty of collaboration with the bosses – if so can you explain how this has been happening? Are the AMCU much better?

Jonathan: Across the sector in general, many of the workers that have undertaken wildcat strikes and sit-ins have been contract workers, or those hired through labour brokers – who sometimes fall outside NUM, which focuses on permanently employed and generally skilled workers – who have felt that their interests have not been properly represented by the deals struck by NUM officials. As such, NUM has been losing membership to AMCU and so it is possible that at least some of the initial violence was fuelled by recruitment related rivalry; in the events leading up to the massacre it was reported that three workers were shot dead by men wearing NUM t-shirts, although it is not clear whether the gunmen were actually NUM members or just hired to do the job in order to incite union rivalry and divide workers. It should be noted, however, that the strike at Marikana was largely self-organised and involved non-unionised workers as well as both NUM and AMCU members.

The focus on union rivalry and clashes between workers has largely been used to deflect attention both from the very real and legitimate demands of the workers and the fact that the strike was largely self-managed, falling outside of the control of officials from both unions, as well perhaps as to reinforce the image of the police as “upholders of the peace” instead of violent defenders of property and profit.

Given the corporatist nature of the NUM – and Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions – eds) generally – since 1994, the very existence and maintenance of a bureaucratic layer of officials lies in collaborating with the bosses. The long-term agreements NUM officials typically negotiate tie workers to fixed wages for long periods, leaving dissatisfied workers little recourse but to illegal wildcat strikes and sit-ins. NUM officials have also criticised workers involved in wildcat strikes, which fall outside of the legal framework and formalised collective bargaining – where the officials’ interests lie – and have gone as far as calling for striking workers to return to work, be fired or arrested.

I would like to stress though that we do not see the NUM itself as the problem and stand with it against the bosses. The NUM has won massive victories for workers over the years, playing a decisive role in breaking the classical apartheid mining system. Without the NUM conditions would be far, far worse. Yet we also realise NUM is increasingly under the control of highly paid officials, very few of whom still work as miners. So, we also stress the need for NUM members to enforce workers’ control over the union, and to pull the union back in line with the interests of the workers – which necessarily includes questioning the Alliance with the ANC, which is openly allied to the mining bosses.

AMCU might be a bit better than NUM, given that it is independent of the ANC and SACP, but it certainly isn’t a rank-and-file worker controlled union, and union legality and the interests of its own bureaucracy prevent it from supporting self-managed direct action by workers in the form of wildcat strikes and sit-ins.

Mutiny: What are the most recent developments in the strike? I’ve read that the police have been torturing strikers they have arrested? On August 20 the Mail and Guardian newspaper quoted a miner saying ‘It’s better to die than to work for that shit … I am not going to stop striking. We are going to protest until we get what we want. They have said nothing to us. Police can try and kill us but we won’t move.” Is this type of attitude widespread or have many workers been intimidated? Has there been much solidarity from other social movements in South Africa?

Jonathan: Striking miners at Marikana accepted a management pay rise offer of up to 22% – a partial victory, although this is still topped up with productivity bonuses – and went back to work on Thursday the 20th of August; but unrest and industrial action has spread across the mining sector since rock drillers initiated the wildcat strike at Marikana six weeks ago. 190 of the 260 mineworkers arrested at Marikana were reportedly tortured and it is possible that this, coupled with the difficulty of sustaining a strike without strike funds, while living in poverty-level conditions, contributed to the workers accepting an offer less than their original demand.

Similar attitudes to that above are now being expressed by strikers at other mines, but it remains to be seen as to whether or not they will be able to hold out and sustain their struggles until victory.

Since the massacre there have been a number of pickets and solidarity demonstrations around the country. The Marikana Solidarity Campaign (http://marikana.info) was initiated and a solidarity fund has been established. Due to limited capacity and our own strategic focus we in ZACF, however, have not participated actively in this campaign, and I therefore cannot comment accurately as to the composition and orientation thereof.

Mutiny:  Could you tell us about other examples of state violence against labour and social movements in South Africa? Is there a danger of treating the massacre as an extreme, isolated incident and ignoring these other instances of state violence, as well as the broader reality of capitalism in South Africa?

Jonathan: Police in post-apartheid South Africa routinely use rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, armoured vehicles and helicopters against striking workers and community protestors. Before Marikana, at least 25 striking workers, protestors and children were killed by state and private forces of repression in South Africa. One of the most well-known cases, simply because it was dramatically caught on video and broadcast nationwide, was that of  33-year-old Andries Tatane; beaten and then shot by police during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg in 2011. In 2009 five striking South African Municipal Workers Union members were shot and injured and, also in 2009, at least three people were killed during a widespread strike in the platinum sector, with another three more killed on the 1st of August 2012, and 20 wounded at the Aquarius Kroondal Mine.

Although Marikana has been the most lethal use of force against civilians by the force of repression in South African since the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and the end of apartheid, it is by no means an isolated incident and it would be very dangerous to view it as such. Although many rightfully recognise the role the police and state play in defending the economic interests of investors in the mining and other sectors, the position commonly held – including by many on the left – that the state is a neutral entity, and that police violence is a result of poor training and incorrect leadership is entirely ruinous to the cause of workers’ and popular emancipation. This view fails to recognise the central role the state and its armed wings play in maintaining capitalism and defending private property and the economic interests of the ruling elite; the alternative posed thus usually being state-centric and centred on the notion that the capture of state power by a workers’ party or revolutionary vanguard – or simply the replacement of a few rotten apples at the top – can remould the state into an institution that can be used to serve the interests of the popular classes, and even as a tool in their struggle for emancipation. This, of course, reinforces dependency and expectations of salvation from above, instead of encouraging independence and working class self-confidence to achieve its own liberation.

Mutiny: Do you have any final comments?

Jonathan: Not really – just to thank Mutiny for the opportunity to air our views and to direct readers interested in a more in-depth analysis of Marikana and struggles in the platinum sector to the ZACF’s Shawn Hattingh’s article “What the Marikana Massacre tells us” (https://zabalaza.net/2012/09/11/what-the-marikana-massacre-tells-us/), from which the response to this interview has drawn heavily.

This interview first appeared on the Mutiny Zine blog.