In a shocking massacre, reminiscent of the worst horrors of the apartheid era, 34 striking South African mineworkers employed in the British mining company Lonmin, were gunned down by police at Marikana, SA, on 16 August.
The striking miners had gathered on a hillock. They were encircled, chased and gunned down by the heavily armed police who mowed them down.
The mineworkers were armed with traditional weapons, and the police claims they were armed and dangerous. But there can be no comparison between the traditional weapons wielded by the workers, and the guns and firepower of the police. Moreover, the massacre was clearly not an act of self-defence, but a deliberate offensive on the workers, who had been gathered in the area for several days.
Lonmin is the new name of the colonial company Lonrho, which was set up in 1909 to plunder minerals in Rhodesia. In 1973, the British Tory PM Edward Heath had called the Lonrho boss “the unacceptable face of capitalism,” when the company stood accused of tax evasion, bribery, and breaking UN sanctions against the racist regime in Rhodesia.
In the apartheid era, several police massacres took place – in Sharpeville and Langa in 1960, Soweto in 1976, Boipatong and Bhisho in 1992. The Marikana massacre revived the memories of those terrible massacres. The Socialist Worker observes, “Apartheid was not simply an expression of evil racism. It was based on the way capitalism developed. After the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 1880s, the huge white-owned mining firms needed a vast black workforce to labour for very low wages in the hellish conditions of the mines. In doing this they also created the earliest and one of the most persistently militant sections of the black working class.”
In fact, the miners’ struggles threw up a large section of the anti-apartheid leadership. Many leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela, came from the ranks of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
After coming to power, however, the ANC has increasingly moved rightward, away from its left-wing roots, towards neoliberal and World Bank imposed policies. The current Government is a tripartite alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist party (SACP), and the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU), to which the NUM is affiliated.
Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the major leaders of the NUM, is now on the board of Lonmin. The NUM leadership is perceived as being close to the mine owners and the Chamber of mines; its secretary Frans Baleni has been an outspoken critic of nationalisation of mines. As a result, the NUM has rapidly lost support and membership at Lonmin; with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) rapidly gaining at ikts expense.
The AMCU had been leading the strike with the demand for a wage increase of up to 400%, which the NUM has termed ‘unrealistic.’ It has been pointed out, however, that the main demand in the historic 1946 African miners’ strike which the NUM hails, was for a 500 percent increase in wages: a demand that was eventually won.
In the wake of the massacre, Lonmin threatened to sack 3000 striking workers, but dropped that plan for the time being.
The massacre does not appear to have caused any cracks in the ruling alliance of the ANC with the SACP and the COSATU. Frans Baleni, the secretary general of NUM, defended the massacre in the media, “The police were patient, but these people were extremely armed with dangerous weapons.”
The SACP CC statement following the massacre, like the ANC’s own response, “welcomes President Zuma’s announcement of a commission of inquiry” rather than holding the Government responsible for the massacre. That statement also suggests that the Enquiry probe the role of the AMCU, stating, “The Presidential Commission of Inquiry must also consider the pattern of violence associated with the pseudo-trade union AMCU wherever it seeks to implant itself. ...The Commission should, in particular, investigate its leader Joseph Mathunjwa.”
Corporate plunder and severe repression were the hallmarks of colonial South Africa and the apartheid regime. Now, the spectacle of bleeding bodies of black mineworkers surrounded by armed police at Marikana, has left the ANC-led coalition Government, and its communist and trade union allies, with a lot to answer for.