The rise of insurgent trade unionism in South Africa

Source: Roar Magazine

Four years after South Africa’s bloodiest post-apartheid massacre, in which dozens of striking miners were killed by police, a fresh memory of Marikana is needed.

Marikana is remembered around the world as a moment of sorrow in which 34 black South African mineworkers were killed by police on August 16, 2012. But on its own, this memory can obscure a much more promising vision of direct democracy and rank-and-file organizing that eventually changed the course of modern South African politics. The massacre culminated in the longest strike in South African mining history and possibly the longest strike in the world in the year 2014.

This history is in fact something to celebrate as we commemorate the four-year anniversary of the massacre. While the police and politicians have yet to be prosecuted for the toxic role they played in relation to the killings, the surviving mineworkers did not fall back in fear or in outright shock. Instead, they continued to organize and became a more potent force. This happened not days or weeks afterwards, but literally occurred within hours following the police shootings. Below is an excerpt from Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha’s new book, The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa (Pluto Press), which details this experience.

At around 7pm on the eve of the Marikana massacre, about 10 to 20 workers held an ad hoc emergency meeting in the dark below the mountain where the bodies of their slain colleagues still lay. They “wanted to know what the police’s intentions were and whether they would kill us as well, since they had killed our fellow brothers.” The meeting was not chaired by anyone and it was not called by a central committee or individual. Workers had come back to the mountain to find out what had happened and to discuss the way forward. Mofokeng explained that:

I was there. Later on the 16th. Not on the mountain… at the shacks there. We met but it was so scary that people could not even go there. I don’t know how many people there were — twenty, ten… they were talking about how they would continue with this thing as people died. There were some people who were talking… They said we could meet tomorrow, but we couldn’t go to the mountain again. We would go elsewhere. We would look for somewhere to sit here at Nkaneng. Then, the next day, they found a place to sit. They didn’t go back again [to the mountain]… there were many there on the following day, the 17th. We went outside the shacks there.

Cebisile was also at the meeting and he corroborated:

We decided to meet at the bottom of the mountain and took a decision that we were not going back [to work] until we got what we were asking for. We decided to come back the next morning so that we could find out for sure who was arrested, killed and in hospital.

At the meeting, the workers came to a consensus about two key issues: the strike had to go on, and workers would stop carrying weapons. They were adamant that “we [the workers] were not going to be intimidated by the death of our fellow brothers. We were going back [to continue the strike] in memory of those who died.” Most went back to their homes, but Cebisile and others stayed there the whole night to observe the police.

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