The massacre of 34 platinum miners at Marikana in South Africa on August 16, 2012, shown in detail in a remarkable documentary film Miners Shot Down that has recently been screened by Al Jazeera, was a pure event of class warfare that sends us reaching as far back as a century or more for meaningful comparisons.
Anyone who doubts that has only to consider one amazing fact revealed by the concentrated footage of the event unveiled by filmmaker Rehad Desai. On the morning of the day of the massacre the forces of law and order, confronting strikers who were not occupying company property or blocking any roads, turned up not only with a deployment of 648 police, 4,000 rounds of ammunition, truckloads of barbed wire, and a fleet of armoured vehicles, but, even more strikingly, with four vans from the mortuary services, in other words, with their hearses ready to receive the bodies of the men the police must have intended to kill.
This kind of response to a strike recalls such events as the brutal Homestead strike in the United States in June, 1892, when Andrew Carnegie, whose name has passed into history mostly as a philanthropist, surrounded one of his steel mills with a wall and towers from behind which his armed forces were able to pick off any workers giving trouble. On that occasion the purpose was not only to beat the strike, but to destroy the union, which was totally achieved after a prolonged struggle in which nine workers and seven members of the private Pinkerton army of occupying scabs were killed. It ended after four months when, with only 192 out of 3,800 strikers left, a vote was taken to return to work for lower wages than they had when they went on strike, thus beginning a movement of de-unionization that spread across the country and went on for several years. This was a momentous event in the struggle for human rights; and the Marikana massacre promises to become a similar beacon of shame in the modern struggle for the rights of workers in the fast-developing industries of the developing world.
Marikana is an event that has opened the eyes of all those of us who had looked to the African National Congress as an enlightened government. It certainly started out that way when its great leader Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison to somehow snatch governance of South Africa from the vicious white minority whose lunatic doctrine of apartheid had imposed a rule of iron on the black majority for nearly half a century. His new government was pledged to socialistic methods of reducing inequality and poverty, improving living standards and the like. But Mandela was convinced when he went to the Davos meeting of capitalism’s “masters of the universe” to change his movement into one that supported capitalism and all its works. And Marikana has shown decisively that in jettisoning his movement’s commitment to collective welfare achieved through democratic socialism, he had also exposed his nation to the iron rule of capitalism, which is that the bottom line, profit, and money,counts above everything else.
The irony of Marikana is compounded by the part played in it by one of the heroes of the ANC resistance, Cyril Ramaphosa, a vigorous union leader who, by 2012, had transformed himself into a multimillionaire businessman with multiple directorships, one of which was in the Lonmin company whose mine was struck by the discontented workers. These workers, in fact, were so disaffected by the lack of progress under their new government, that they accused the very union formed and created by Ramaphosa, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which had once been a leader of the class struggle in South Africa, of being in the pocket of the mine-owners, and betraying their cause.
The strike therefore, was what is classified in the West as a wildcat strike. Lonmin employed 28,000 workers, but the NUM had lost so much support among them that a rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), had been successfully recruiting among them.
When the miners first went on strike the company told them it would send them a paper containing its offer, but various spokesmen for the union said they did not want papers because “we cannot read. We want to meet them face-to-face. We are not educated, that is why we are working at the rock face. We cannot read papers.” The company representative advanced towards the strikers in an armoured car, but was not permitted by the police to get out of it. The company demanded the strikers give up their weapons before negotiations could begin. The workers said they were prepared to do that --- “we are only carrying these things --- indicating a spear, machetes and such weapons --- “because the police are shooting at us” --- but they wanted to be escorted to the safety of a nearby hillock --- referred to as “the mountain” by the strikers, which was common land, not owned by either side, where they would surrender their weapons. For a time it seemed the company was ready to concede that, but suddenly a phone call was made to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, and after that a new, harsher tone was adopted to the strikers. Who made that phone call later became a question the strikers were hoping the later Commission of Inquiry could sort out, because whoever it was seemed to be pulling the strings behind these events.
In the first two days of minor skirmishes , 10 people were killed, including two police officers and two security guards (and, of course six miners). The refusal to negotiate did not deter the strikers who turned up again, covering almost the entire face of the mountain on the third and final day, to confront a police and security service armed to the teeth and evidently willing and perhaps even anxious to use their armaments. The leader of the rival AMCU union had taken a hand on the side of the strikers, and, seeing how things were deteriorating, he suggested the strikers, who had advanced beyond the mountain, should retreat and get out of there while the going was good. Mr. Desai has dug up footage showing almost the whole of the action during the confrontation. The strikers began to move away, crouching as they walked for fear of being shot, moving in an orderly fashion towards the mountain, when they were met by a volley of fire that brought them to a halt. Many fell, the firing continued, and the film shows police picking over the bodies, pulling them like sacks of potatoes this way and that, perhaps themselves in confusion after the deadly confrontation. In this exchange, 17 strikers were killed, many of them apparently shot at a range of 300 feet or more. One witness tells the filmmaker, however, that not only were ambulances denied entry to the scene for more than an hour, but the police continued to hunt strikers for the twenty minutes after the first massacre. This gave rise to two Scenes of Action, as one might say, 17 miners having been killed at each of them, and some 78 other people were wounded.
Towards the end of the month the film shows the Commissioner of Police announcing to the assembled policemen that they had upheld the ideals of responsible policing. And soon after the events 250 miners were arrested and charged with “public violence”, later elevated to charges of murder. This charge induced, even in the Minister of Justice, "a sense of shock, panic and confusion. I have requested the acting National Director of Public Prosecutions to furnish me with a report explaining the rationale behind such a decision." No police or officials were arrested or charged with anything, and on September 2 all the murder charges were dropped and the detainees released by September 6. This occurred after a law firm representing the detained men wrote an open letter to President Jacob Zuma threatening to file an urgent petition with the High Court if he did not order release of the detained men. "It is inconceivable that the South African state, of which you are the head, and any of its various public representatives, officials and citizens, can genuinely and honestly believe or even suspect that our clients murdered their own colleagues and in some cases, their own relatives," the lawyers wrote.
A month later a mediator announced that the strikers had accepted a 22 per cent pay increase, an unheard of increase to any wage packet for workers in South Africa at the time.
An official commission of inquiry was established, expected to do its work in four months, but that has taken more than two years, and the report, although presented to the President, has not yet been released to the public.
As for Cyril Ramaphosa’s part in the events, the film quotes him as having told the security authorities that what they were facing was not a labour dispute, but “a criminal event” and urging that strong measures be taken against the illegal strike.
A Wikipedia website on the massacre states that during the hearings before the Marikana Commission, “it emerged that Lonmin management solicited…Ramaphosa, to coordinate ‘concomitant action’ against ‘criminal’ protesters and (he) is seen by many as therefore being responsible for the massacre.”
After these events, Ramaphosa was elected deputy leader of ANC, subsequently deputy-president of the republic, and has again become described as South Africa’s “leader-in-waiting,” as he was before being beaten to the job by Thabo Mbeki. He is estimated to have a personal fortun of anything between $500 and $700 million.
So it would appear that almost all the elements of classic class warfare were present in this event --- unprovoked police aggression, overkill in police response, stern authority against poorly educated victims, targets chosen just because they were poor workers, apostasy and betrayal among former leaders of the strikers, massive, unsustainable response to the event from the justice system ---- except that the miners eventually won their pay rise.