South Africa's unions and government cannot let infighting detract from the real issues of working conditions and pay.
In the past week, much of the reporting concerning the massacre at the Lonmin Marikana mine in which 34 striking platinum miners were killed by police has done little to engender sympathy for the cause of South African miners. Accounts of the strikers' 'threatening nature', use of petrol bombs and the deaths of two police officers will go far towards confirming the stereotype of the underclass African as violent, wild and uncontrollable.
Two police officers were "hacked" to death by machetes and at least two, possibly six, handguns were recovered from among the dead protesters. Some miners were reported to have engaged in rituals, war chants and spear brandishing. From these reports, one might be inclined to think that the incident at Marikana stands as proof that South Africa is a dangerous place to do business - a place of instability, with political and union infighting, poorly trained police, and an unruly underclass still dealing with the legacy of apartheid 18 years after it came to an end.
Are these viewpoints helpful, or do they simply distract from the important issues of reform within the mining sector? Is this tragedy unique to post-apartheid South Africa or could it be just part of a timeless labour dispute witnessed in mining industries the world over?
Background to the violence
The episode began when Marikana miners walked away from their posts in defiance of their employers, their unions and the law. They demanded better treatment. Fed up with poor working and living conditions, these miners were willing to risk losing their jobs in an area beset with unemployment. Low-wage workers in competitive industries such as mining do not strike lightly, but do so as a last resort.
The demands made to Lonmin, whose headquarters are based in London, included a wage increase from R4,000 ($480) to R12,500 ($1,500) a month, greater safety provisions in the mines, and entitlement to overtime. Some supporters of the workers' cause, including former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, have even called for the mine to be seized from private companies and nationalised by the South African government. Previous concessions have been made by Lonmin, but many see these as having been insufficient.
Much of the recent commentary on the strikes has focused on the division between the traditional miners' union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the younger Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). In late January to February of this year, tensions arose between the two unions over strikes and calls for pay rises at the Impala platinum mine in Rustenburg. AMCU was accused of using violent tactics and of trying to impede negotiations to further its own membership drive by unions such as NUM which has been losing support. Meanwhile, NUM has been accused of having too close a relationship to both South Africa's ruling African National Congress party (ANC) and Lonmin by rival unions. It is the largest union in the COSATU trade union federation which is allied to the ANC and Cyril Ramaphosa, a former NUM Secretary General and multi-millionaire, is widely tipped as a future ANC President.
Furthermore, many of the various secondary and tertiary actors in this story (politicians, union leaders, traders in platinum) appear to be using the Marikana tragedy as an opportunity to appeal to their own interests. Malema has called for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma for doing little to benefit the nation's poor, while Zuma, in an equally calculated move, declared six days of mourning for those killed in the clashes last week.
These dealings all divert attention from the real issues of dangerous conditions in mines, miners' insufficient wages, rising inequality, and the failure of both unions and political leaders to speak up for the working poor, not to mention the failure of the police force in responding appropriately to the protests.
The Marikana massacre has been likened to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in which 69 anti-apartheid protesters were killed by police. The recent clashes have brought back painful memories of police-protester conflicts long thought to be a thing of the past. Although overcoming apartheid reorganised the political and social system, South Africa's economic system has continually failed to bring prosperity to all. Marikana thus represents a class struggle - the police hands holding automatic weaponry may be white and black this time, but they still shoot to kill working-class protesters.
The Marikana massacre should be placed in a long line of violent labour disputes in the mining sector across the globe. To understand Marikana, we must learn from Ludlow, Colorado, where in 1914 miners went on strike for nearly identical reasons as the Marikana miners. At least 19 women and children encamped with the striking miners were burned to death in their tents by the Colorado National Guard. In Serene, Colorado, six strikers were gunned down at the Columbine mine, by the Colorado National Guard in 1927. In Hazelton, Pennsylvania, the police killed nineteen strikers marching in support of their newly formed union, at the Lattimer mine in 1927.
These miners struck for nearly identical reasons: union recognition, a living wage and dignity. At Columbine, the course of events was eerily similar to that at Marikana; machine gun fire mowing down strikers in a matter of minutes. Living conditions were almost identical, cramped overpriced quarters, with limited facilities and frustratingly poor services.
Although these events occurred nearly a century ago and on the other side of the world, they occupy common ground. They represent the common experience of underground miners. Exploited by the powers that be, unwilling to accept their plight lying down, they are always met with resistance as they stand up and make demands for dignity and fair treatment. Unfortunately, it is often only after violence like Marikana, Columbine or Ludlow that reform makes inroads.
The episode at Marikana throws into sharp relief the many social and political problems facing South Africa. The tragedy was not an isolated or a freak occurrence. It was long-standing tensions and social unrest that contributed to the strikers' confrontational behaviour towards the authorities and to the police force's excessively forceful response.
There will be a great deal of analysis and soul searching in the aftermath of the massacre. It is crucial that the core demands of the miners are not forgotten: improved working conditions, freedom of association, and adequate wages.