South Africa: Marikana’s Momentum Still Moves the Masses, but Where?

Source: Pambazuka

How long can the amazing upsurge of class struggle in South Africa go on? Living here 22 years, I’ve never witnessed such a period of vibrant, explosive, but uncoordinated worker militancy.

The latest news from the labour front is that 12,000 workers were fired on 12 October by Angloplats for a wildcat strike (it is likely most will be rehired in coming days if an above-inflation wage settlement is reached), and thousands of others are threatened by the mining houses. Jacob Zuma’s government is panicking about lost elite legitimacy, calling on 17 October for a pay freeze for top private sector, parastatal and state management to make a token gesture at addressing unemployment.

As the African National Congress (ANC), Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) and SA Communist Party (SACP) continuously fail to put a lid on the boiling labour pot, no one can offer sure predictions. To try, nevertheless, to assess the durability of this surge of working class revulsion, now two months after the August 16  Massacre of 34 wildcat-striking platinum mineworkers (plus 78 wounded), requires sifting through the various ideological biases that have surfaced in the commentariat, as well as first considering precedents. How much can the balance of forces be shifted if the ruling elite overplay their hand – and what organizational forms are needed to prevent divide-and-conquer of the forces gathering from below?

Metaphors for Marikana From the Bad Old Days

We must be wary of drawing a comparison to the South African state’s last mineworker massacre, in 1922 when Johannesburg’s white gold miners rebelled against the increasing use of competing black labour (to the sound of the Communist Party of South Africa’s notorious slogan, ‘Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa!’). They were resoundingly defeated and then co-opted, a fate that Marikana workers and 100,000 others who went wildcat in recent weeks have so far avoided. Those workers are now moving by the tens of thousands from Cosatu affiliates to upstart – albeit economistic, wages-oriented and openly apolitical – unions like the Association of Mining and Construction Union (AMCU), predictably labeled by tired ANC Alliance hacks as the new ‘counter-revolutionaries’.

The aftermaths of more recent political massacres may have more to teach us. After March 21, 1960 at Sharpeville, where 69 were shot dead for burning the apartheid regime’s racist passbooks an hour’s drive south of Johannesburg, there was an immediate downswing in mass-resistance politics, followed by a hapless turn to armed struggle and the shift of resources and personnel to ineffectual exile-based liberation movements. It was not until 1973 that mass-based organizing resumed, starting in the Durban dockyards with resurgent trade unionism.

The next big apartheid massacre was in June 1976 when in Soweto as many as 1,000 school children were murdered by the police and army for resisting the teaching of Afrikaans and taking to the streets. In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were periodic massacres by men who apparently fused ethnic interests of migrant workers (mainly from KwaZulu) to the Inkatha Freedom Party and the regime’s ‘Third Force’ provocateurs. But that era’s most comparable event to Marikana was the Bisho Massacre in which 28 were shot dead by a Bantustan army at the conclusion of a march in the Eastern Cape’s Ciskei homeland.

In 1960, the effect of the killings was first desperation and then more than a decade of quiescence. In 1976, the Soweto uprising put South Africa on the world solidarity map and along with liberation movement victories in Mozambique, Angola and then Zimbabwe, kickstarted other communities, workers, women and youth into the action-packed 1980s. In 1992, the revulsion from what happened at Bisho followed by Chris Hani’s assassination in April 1993 were the catalysts to finally set the April 1994 date for the first one-person one-vote election. Is there a historical analogy to pursue?

In other words, if today’s struggle is against what might be termed class apartheid, then is the disparate resistance signified by Marikana similar to the early 1960s and hence will there be much more repression before a coherent opposition emerges? Or will the contagion of protest from this and thousands of other micro-protests across the country start to coagulate, as in the 1976-94 period, into a network similar to the United Democratic Front (implying an inevitable split in the ANC-Cosatu-SACP Alliance, led by genuine communists and progressive post-nationalist workers), and then the formation of Worker’s Party to challenge ANC electoral dominance?

Or, might something happen quite suddenly to rearrange power relations, as in 1992, and as we saw in Egypt in the wake of independent labour organizing against state-corporate-trade union arrangements in the years prior to the massive Tahrir Square mobilizations in early 2011? ‘Tunisia Day’ for South Africa could come in 2020, according to high-profile commentator Moeletsi Mbeki (younger brother of the former president). But if the strike wave continues to build and if capital insists the state put its foot down on the workers, aided by sweetheart unions, as the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is now known, things may come to a head sooner. On October 17, Zuma’s remarks about the need to ‘get back to work’ had an ominous sound, and the next day the Marikana workers went on another wildcat strike because the police moved in to the platinum mine once again, arresting a few central leaders.

Fractured Political Certainties

Endless debates about these matters are underway, especially between the centre-left unionists and communists who are close to official power and thus defensive of the political status quo, on the one hand; and on the other, critical, independent progressives (my own bias). Overlaying the crisis and these debates is the internal ANC split between pro- and anti-Zuma forces, which spilled over into Cosatu prior to its September congress. It was this that initially paralysed labour leadership, given the danger Cosatu would unleash centrifugal forces that its popular, leftist leader Zwelinzima Vavi could not control. There was even talk of NUM opening up a leadership challenge to Vavi, on grounds that the 300,000-member union (Cosatu’s largest single member) was strongly pro-Zuma and insisted on the official Cosatu support that Vavi had initially resisted.

Until September, Zuma did indeed appear vulnerable to an ANC leadership challenge, but by ensuring the support of NUM and other unions, as well as a huge increase in membership in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, he appears certain to win re-election as ANC president at the party’s congress in December. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has been publicly vague on whether he will challenge Zuma, but recent events ironically strengthened the current configuration of personalities, as major blocs all sought stability – drawing the wagons around in a ‘laager’, is the local Afrikaans metaphor – on a terrain of such socio-political turmoil.

In the meantime, this political maneuvering left Cosatu mostly silenced about Marikana, as NUM’s weight and the parallel subversion of other union leaders made it too difficult for the federation to visibly back the upstart platinum, gold and other mineworkers. In any case, what these wildcat strikers were doing might, unionists reckoned, even throw the institutions of centralised bargaining into chaos. The demand for higher wages was both extreme, and thus opposed by NUM, and ultimately successful in the case of Marikana’s courageous workers. The 22 percent raise – at a time inflation is around six percent – they won after a month of striking was remarkable, and inspired the country’s labour force to look at their own pay packets askance.

By failing to issue immediate statements about Marikana, much less mobilise workers for solidarity against multinational capital’s and the state’s onslaught, Cosatu was simply unable to intervene at a time so many cried out for a shift from the War of Position to a War of Movement. Before Marikana, there was a chance Vavi would have been replaced by forces to his right, driven by NUM, but because he chose to close ranks, he won re-election as general secretary, building on a successful term over the past 13 years in which more than any other figure in South African society, he has vocally demanded economic justice – until Marikana. Indeed Vavi’s most conspicuous moves throughout the mining belt in subsequent weeks were out of character: hand-in-hand with NUM’s leadership, using his enormous prestige to throw cold water on the workers.

Overall, the configuration has Cosatu gazing upwards longingly for a relationship with state power, as with labour’s support for Zuma even during the darkest 2005-07 days of corruption and rape charges. Many on the left are convinced, now, that Cosatu’s conservatism is the principal barrier to progress. I wish this was not so, but find it hard to rebut.

The resulting void is vast. Only the so-called populist hypocrite Julius Malema, the ANC’s former youth leader who is himself allegedly implicated in corrupt ‘tenderpreneurship’ (insider deals for state contracts) in the neighbouring province of Limpopo, could gather 15,000 people at Marikana two days after the massacre. There he voiced the needed critique of Zuma, Lonmin and their associated black-parasitical capitalists, such as Lonmin part-owner Cyril Ramaphosa, who had just offered $240,000 of his company’s funds to bury the murdered strikers, but whose company Shanduka is paid $360,000/year by Lonmin for providing ‘empowerment’ consulting.

The billionaire Ramaphosa’s recent attempt to purchase a prize bull cow for $2.3 million was mentioned by Malema as indicative of the gulf between the new South African 1% and the workers. Malema was rewarded by overwhelming support from Marikana miners on two occasions – including a memorial ceremony he arranged, at which he kicked out several of Zuma’s cabinet ministers who had come to pay respects – but on his third visit, police denied him his constitutional rights to address another huge crowd. Even while contesting fraud charges in his home base, where facilitating provincial tenders made him rich, Malema has been an unstoppable force across the mining belt in North West and Limpopo Provinces, and even Zimbabwe, calling for radical redistribution. Each time he does so, it seems to pull Zuma’s rhetoric marginally leftwards as well.

Rebuilding From Micropolitics

But the forces for genuine change have to be gathered from below, for Malema’s agenda is still apparently a reentry to the ANC, from which he was recently expelled for pulling the party into disrepute. Instead, the labour and community activists at the base need our attention, for to exist in Marikana and these mining dorpies is to face incessant repression bordering on brutality. Police arrogance continues undisturbed by the hatred expressed by workers and the disgust of so many in the society.

For example, the emergence of a women’s mutual-aid movement amongst mineworker wives and girlfriends, as well as other women from the impoverished Marikana community, is one reflection of a new bottom-up politics. At least one martyr emerged from their ranks: Paulina Masuhlo, an unusually sympatico ANC municipal councilor in Marikana who sided with the workers and who was shot in the abdomen and leg with rubber bullets during a police and army invasion of Nkaneng on August 25. She died of the wounds on August 30. Yet for the following week and a half, police and malevolently bureaucratic municipal officials refused the women’s attempts to memorialize Masuhlo with a long protest march from Nkaneng to the Marikana police station. Persistence and legal support prevailed, so 800 demanded justice in a women’s-only trek from Nkaneng to Marikana police station on September 1, dignified and without casualties.

But the political opportunities that might fuse worker, community and women’s interests in improving conditions for the reproduction of labour power – perhaps one day too joined by environmentalists – are fragile and easy to lose. Male migrant workers typically maintain two households and hence channel resources back to the Eastern Cape, Lesotho, Mozambique and other home bases. This process of mixing short-term residents with long-term Tswana-speaking inhabitants is fraught with potential xenophobia and ethnicism, and is a site in which syndicates of illicit drugs, transactional sex (even forced sexual labour), traditional patriarchy, dysfunctional spiritual suspicions (e.g, the use of traditional medicine muti against bullets which allegedly wears off quickly in the presence of women), widespread labour-broking and other super-exploitative relations thrive.

As a result, it can be extremely expensive to swim within this sea of poverty. For example, reflecting the broader financialization of South Africa’s economy since the early 2000s, microfinance short-term loans that carry exceptionally high interest rates are offered to mineworkers by institutions ranging from established banks – one (Ubank) even co-owned by NUM and another (Capitec) replete with powerful ANC patrons – down to fly-by-night ‘mashonisha’ loan sharks. The extremely high interest rates charged, especially once arrears mount, are understood to be one of the central pressures requiring workers to demand higher wages.

New versions of a debt moratorium or organized debtor’s cartel – such as the ‘bond boycott’ strategies that were so common in the early 1990s, in which borrowers banded together to gain strength for collective defaults – are a logical progression for a micropolitics of resistance in Marikana and so many other similar situations. The ‘repo man’ tends to resort to threats and practices of violence, of course, so this is not a decision to be taken lightly (in Mexico in early 1995, it took a jump in interest rates from 14 to 120 percent to catalyse the ‘El Barzon’ – the yoke – movement which gathered a million members to renegotiate debts on the basis of the financial reality, ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay!’)

Jumping scale to other visions of post-exploitative economics, there is also loose talk of nationalization, of which Mining Minister Susan Shabangu and her pro-business allies have been attempting to rid the ANC, especially since Malema’s troubles rose to crisis proportions. The expulsion of the ANC Youth League faux-radicals left virtually no major figures aside from the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, Irvin Jim, to demand nationalisation of strategic resources – even though it was a policy position adopted just weeks earlier at an ANC national policy conference.

Nationalising platinum would be a smart move, for South Africa controls more than 80 percent of world platinum resources, and the price spike occasioned by the Lonmin, Implats and Angoplats strikes – now 30 percent over six weeks – suggests great potential for a platinum cartel similar to OPEC’s oil cartel. The main buyer of platinum is the European auto industry, so while the economic crisis continues, demand will remain soft, with the consequent threat that the major platinum mines will simply close shafts. The same week that Lonmin conceded the big wage increase to the 4000 Marikana rock drill operators, it found it could cancel short-term contracts of another 1200 workers, for example.

Narratives of Revolution, Revolution and Rearguard Defense

How far will the diverse momentums of Marikana pull South African society? Which political narratives are emerging, and can they become the basis for a social understanding that will mobilise the tens of millions of disgruntled South Africans into a force capable of breaking sweetheart relations between state, ruling party, labour aristocrats, parasitical capital and the London/Melbourne mining houses? The answer, so far, is not encouraging.

For some, this is potentially the breakthrough event that independent progressives have sought, so as to unveil the intrinsic anti-social tendencies associated with the ANC-Alliance’s elite transition from revolutionaries to willing partners of some of the world’s most wicked corporations. Such a narrative is promoted by the extremely fractured South African left, with some factions associated with the relatively broad-based (though labour-less) Democratic Left Front and the Marikana Support Campaign, which from Johannesburg and Cape Town have sponsored regular political meetings and solidaristic activities in the platinum belt.

Because the first such meeting at the University of Johannesburg a week after the Marikana Massacre provisionally included a NUM representative on the programme (though he was chased from the hall), another left faction led by Johannesburg’s Khanya College broke away to found the ‘We are all Marikana’ campaign. Resolutely opposed to any legitimation of Cosatu’s Alliance unionism, this network has also gathered ordinary workers for educational events. There are at least two other small revolutionary parties in Marikana engaged in recruiting and consciousness-raising: the Democratic Socialist Movement and the Committee for a Workers’ International. Unfortunately, even though it may often seem like a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation in a South Africa with amongst the highest protest rates in the world, the lack of connectivity between those with grievances is a crippling problem.

That is why it is worrisome to hear dissonant narratives from others who might potentially move together into, at the very least, a more united oppositional discursive mode, not to mention joint activist initiatives. One of these might have included coordinated international solidarity, which became a huge void in Marikana-reaction work given the willingness of NGOs to already call on the World Bank to divest from Lonmin the day after the massacre, and given that at least a dozen spontaneous protests broke out at SA embassies and consulate offices across the world in subsequent days.

To illustrate, although an impressive revival of the Black Consciousness (BC) tradition has occurred over the last decade through the New Frank Talk series, for example, the sole public intervention on Marikana by the September National Imbizo was to visit two days after the massacre to begin the reconstruction of events (resulting in their later accusations against others who arrived soon after, of political plagiarism), but without subsequent commentary or activism. A month after the massacre, I witnessed BC adherents along with an unusually subdued left-autonomist network conjoined in an intellectual conference at Johannesburg’s Wits University, in an event known as the ‘Tribe of Moles’, led by an emerging black intelligentsia suspicious of classical socialist formulations and friendly to insurgent opportunities. But surprisingly, in a whole day of debating race, representation and radical politics, the word Marikana was not mentioned once from the stage or floor. When asked during a break about the evolving situation, including Marikana women’s organising, the country’s most prominent BC proponent, Andile Mngxitama, called the cross-racial/class/geographical gender organizing underway (including middle-class women from NGOs) a distraction, for after all the corpses were ‘black bodies’ – and hence he gave impetus to the frequent claim that contemporary South African BC argumentation soon degenerates into race essentialism.

There is hope that women of Marikana organising across the divides of labour and community can set the example so desperately needed to connect the dots elsewhere in the society, including in nearby terrains ranging from mining dorpies to land struggles in North West, Limpopo and Gauteng provinces. Yet these women are as diverse (and ethnically divided) as the broader society: wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, sisters, healthworkers, educators, sexworkers, cooks, cleaners, salespersons. In two cases, there are even women serving as superexploitative mining house managers (Cynthia Carroll of Anglo and Mamphela Ramphele of Goldfields: capitalist ideologues who have provided very little in the way of sisterhood, though at least the former World Bank managing director Ramphele did acknowledge that migrant labour needs a rethink). These women have the additional burdens of handling trauma counseling for victims of violence, and of providing mutual aid to those who are suffering enormously, directly and indirectly, as a result of the wildcat strike wave’s reduction of immediate cash in communities.

What about progressives who have long been associated with the ANC because of the 100-year old party’s best instincts, but who after 1994 continued their sincerely liberatory work mainly from civil society? Here one might include organisations which jumped into the Marikana political breech with much needed support activities, including the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, Sonke Gender Justice, Studies in Poverty and Inequality, Students for Law and Social Justice, the Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27 (which is named after the country’s Bill of Rights).

A leader of the latter very vigorous NGO, Mark Heywood (formerly a leading AIDS-medicines activist), was on the one hand a vital supplier of solidarity, yet on the other, perhaps a victim of his own belief in liberal muti (traditional medicine), when speaking to the Marikana workers and community in late September: ‘The Constitution of South Africa is the most important weapon we have. It is more powerful than Jacob Zuma, but it will only give you power if you organise around the Constitution, if you organise around its rights.’ Shown this quote, one leading left intellectual chuckled, ‘I don’t think the workers won their 22 percent raise with a second thought about the Constitution.’

And what of the official ‘left’? Nothing if not brutally frank, Business Day newspaper editor Peter Bruce wrote four days after the massacre, ‘What’s scary about Marikana is that, for the first time, for me, the fact that the ANC and its government do not have the handle they once did on the African majority has come home. The party is already losing the middle classes. If they are now also losing the marginal and the dispossessed, what is left? Ah yes, Cosatu and the communists – Zuma’s creditors.’

Indeed it is surreal to find Cosatu and communist leaders so racked with anxiety at the prospect of widening worker revolt. In the most extreme case, an SACP ideologue was used by controversy-seeking liberal journalist RW Johnson as the useful idiot for a bizarre conclusion: ‘this time the Left was in favour of the massacre [emphasis added]. Dominic Tweedie of the Communist University, Johannesburg, commented “This was no massacre, this was a battle. The police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to. That’s what they have them for. The people they shot didn’t look like workers to me. We should be happy. The police were admirable.” The Communist Party’s North West section demanded the arrest of AMCU’s Joseph Muthunjwa and his deputy, James Kholelile.’

Johnson, a regular London Review of Books blogger, has apparently no interest in engaging a genuine Left, and indeed he confesses that he taught ‘vulgar Marxism’ to Zuma in Durban fifty years ago (obviously rather poorly). Yet his point about SACP inclinations to put the dissenters up against the wall is chillingly familiar.

If dismissing the courage and persistence of Marikana workers is the objective, then the partner in crime of both gleeful old-line liberalism and control-freak stalinism is nihilism, as represented in an Africa Report article by maverick commentator Heinrich Bohmke, well known in Durban as a political kill-joy with an eloquent spear of a pen. Writing six days after the massacre, Bohmke predicted, ‘the repertoire of counter-insurgency (for lack of a softer term) available to those working on behalf of the status quo is too great to allow much to come of Marikana… Bosses of all hues will consider this a boon. Instead of menace and the hope for an upsurge in struggle, what Marikana may end up marking is the beginning of a tripartite backlash against what government, established trade unions and business have all called “anarchy”.’

How wrong can you get. The panic of bosses and their spokespeople – neoliberals such as Bruce – is easy to discern, at a time social protest in townships reached very high levels in mid-2012, with no hope of relief. Some commentators apparently fearing the potentially uncontrollable contagion of disrespect, like Frans Cronje of the SA Institute of Race Relations, immediately rose to the ANC’s defense, declaring in mid-September, ‘A myth has taken hold in South Africa that service delivery was a failure.’ Cronje’s defense of state provision of water, electricity, housing, etc reverberated well with Business Day editorialists as well as SACP leader Blade Nzimande, who warmly endorsed the ‘research’.

But when I asked Cronje whether he had determined what percentage of post-1994 communal water taps were still working amongst those the ruling party claim serve more than fifteen million people, he conceded that he had no clue. The last serious audit I know of – a decade ago by David Hemson, at the behest of then water minister Ronnie Kasrils – put the share at less than half, using even the most generous definition of what is ‘working,’ and by all accounts the sector’s management has degenerated since then.

Others in this apparently frightened camp, like Business Day columnist Steven Friedman, appeal for a return to a ‘social partnership’ strategy in the wake of Marikana, because such an approach ‘has not failed us – it has not been tried.’ The corporatist elites, now including Vavi, did meet in mid-October, issuing what will be soon seen as meaningless statements against wildcat strikes and worker violence against scabs. The big business representatives at that gabfest were apparently loathe to even name themselves publicly.

Economic Potholes Ahead

Unfortunately for them, no matter the narratives of renewed social ‘leadership’, the strike wave may continue rising if desperation levels and worker militancy continue. Truck drivers received an above-inflation settlement on October 12 after resorting to sometimes intensely violent methods to disrupt scab drivers, in the process creating shortages of petrol and retail goods in parts of the country. If municipal workers go on strike next, the piling up of garbage and then its spillage on main roads – the typical tactic to infuriate wealthier residents so as to compel local government officials to settle – will add to the impression that South Africa has won amongst world capitalists: socio-economic rot and an inability to control the unruly proletariat.

In mid-September, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report placed South Africa in the number one position for adverse employee-employer relations (in a survey done prior to Marikana), whereas last year in this measure of class struggle, South African workers were only in 7th place of 144 countries surveyed. Partly as a result of labour militancy, major ratings agencies are now downgrading the country’s bond rating, most recently to BBB level by Standard & Poor’s. The resulting higher interest rates to be paid on the country’s prolific foreign borrowings – about five times higher today in absolute terms than inherited from apartheid in 1994 – will create yet more fiscal pressures as well as household and corporate repayment stress.

Given Europe’s crisis and South Africa’s vulnerability, much lower GDP growth rates in coming quarters are anticipated. And instead of countering that prospect with an interest rate cut by the SA Reserve Bank in coming weeks, as was projected just weeks ago, the country’s shaky financial standing will put countervailing upward pressure on rates. A rates increase is possible, just so as to stem rampant capital flight, even while Citigroup’s long-planned inclusion of SA securities in its global state bond reporting portfolio expands the purchasing base for Pretoria’s bonds. The only soothing answer for bankers from the finance minister, former communist Pravin Gordhan, is to hint at fiscal austerity in his upcoming budget speech.

All this is to say that the situation remains too fluid to assess which forces will emerge from the chaos. It is here that contemporary South African narratives from within ‘nationalism’, ‘populism’, ‘stalinism’, ‘trotskyism’, ‘autonomism’, ‘black consciousness’, ‘feminism’, ‘nihilism’, ‘corporatism’, ‘liberalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ all appear inadequate to the tasks at hand on the platinum belt and so many other workplaces and communities. No ideologues have yet posed a vision to rescue South Africa from intense pressures that seem to grow stronger each week.

What is definitive, though, is the waning of any remaining illusions that the forces of ‘liberation’ led by the ANC will take South Africa to genuine freedom and a new society. Marikana will have that effect, permanently, I suspect, so long as protesters keep dodging police bullets and moving the socio-economic and political-ecological questions to centre stage, from where ANC neoliberal nationalism could either arrange a properly fascist backlash, or more likely under Zuma’s ongoing misrule, continue shrinking in confusion and regular doses of necessary humility.

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* Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban.

Photo by Mark Weinberg