Marikana: What Has Changed?

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By Lehlohonolo Shale

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 8 of VARSITY News.


“…the democratic era in 1994 was not a victory for the forces of liberation. It was a settlement filled with compromises that essentially left the architecture of colonialism intact,” says activist-lawyer Christine Qunta.


This is a pithy statement coming from a corporate lawyer given the narrative of “change” that has been dominant in our country and its institutions, including academia. The only achievement, according to Qunta in Why We Are Not A Nation, became the ability to “provide a door through which certain political changes could be effected.” But even as she rhetorically asks the reader “So what has changed?”, she is constantly confronted with the reply of “So what has not changed?” It is a critical look at the concept of a “new South Africa” and one which, in my view, many a political analyst has missed when looking at the tragedy of Marikana that transpired seven years ago.


The book itself is not about Marikana but I want to argue that it was about the reaction to the massacre. This is what I believe, in terms of its scale and context, should be located within the ushering in of a new dispensation and the country’s historical ties with capitalism/imperialism.


In a recent article in the City Pressit is reported that “White men still rule” in a supposedly new country. According to the Employment Equity Report prepared by the Commission for Employment Equity “not much has changed in the labour market.” The most untransformed sector remains agriculture, the sector that deals with food production and thus livelihoods. Here, about 72% of top management positions are occupied by white males. Generally, the latter group “despite being a minority, remain the majority in top management positions across the country.”


Perhaps what is also interesting in this article is the reaction of labour federation Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), through its spokesperson Sizwe Pamla. He is reported as not being shocked by these statistics given the fact that the government has no political will to turn the tables. Pamla is quoted as saying: “White managers will never volunteer their inherited privileges and because there is no will to make them transform, not much will change.” The question that begs an answer is: why then does COSATU call on its members during election time to vote for the same government that is seemingly unwilling to wield its power? It is a contradiction that I feel has not been adequately probed by the analysts in our country.


When the movie Miners shot downcame out, I was amongst the first people to attend its screening. Like many fellow countrymen and women, I was trying to make sense of what had happened on 16 August 2012 at a koppie in the North West. After an impasse between mine management and the labour union Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) 34 workers lay dead. In truth, the mine management had stalled any further talks pending a disarmament of the strikers. What would follow would be accusations and counter-accusations which finally led to a commission of inquiry by the state.


In the film the narrator traces the journey of the incumbent head of state Cyril Ramaphosa. The narrator, Rehad Desai shows us how Ramaphosa’s trajectory at the end became tragic. After being part of the negotiating team that brought about the “new South Africa” the trade union official went into business and became a shareholder at Lonmim Platinum Mines. At the time of the massacre he was still holding this position. This is where he allegedly called for “concomitant force” against the striking workers. The irony, as the speaker points out, is that the businessman had founded trade union National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), an affiliate of COSATU. In its heyday the NUM was part of the struggle to defeat apartheid. For the narrator, this is the heroic role that he played. Unfortunately, this is where it ends.


For me though the massacre cannot solely be placed on an individual cog in the wheel of the system. The problem that our analysts are sceptical of is to confront the constitution of the “new South Africa,” which rests on an exploitative economic base which was consolidated with the transitional negotiations of the early 1990s. As Qunta shows, to even call it negotiations would be an elevation. Simply put, the liberation movement was short-changed in the deal. The forums were devoid of the “give and take” element that is lauded in negotiated settlements. Although this does not mean that a negotiated settlement is a panacea to the challenges faced by the dispossessed majority. There are countless examples in history where the ruling class has negotiated in bad faith.


In the Marikana context a threat to the architects of the “new South Africa” came when the workers were questioning the logic of this economic base. Now, according to the defenders of the new country theory, the workers were moving out of line. They were now moving out of their traditional base, which is cowering to the workplace. The demand of a minimum wage of R12 500 was ridiculed by the representatives of the ruling class. At the time the rock drillers, the heart of the mining sector, were earning a minimum wage of R4 000.


But as some commentators have shown us throughout history – the workplace demands are themselves not a catalyst to the overthrow of the capitalist/imperialist system. They are at best a school of struggle for the working class. I believe in Marikana the workers learnt a crucial lesson – that they are their own liberators. The victory of their struggle will rely only in their hands and their revolutionary allies, and not on those who hold a stake in transnational companies which perpetually exploit them.


Today there is still no closure to the Marikana case despite the institution of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry. In fact, according to AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa the commission is an “omission” which did not even find the London-based mining company, at the very least, guilty of any wrongdoing.


The challenges of this country threaten to remain stagnant if we don’t do what needs to be done. Incidentally, our continent is the richest in terms of mineral wealth, yet South Africa remains at the helm of the poverty statistics. The myth of political power can no longer be sustained under these circumstances. Nothing short of land redistribution and the socialisation of the means of production will dent the exploitative economic relations existing in our country.



This section of VARSITY is a vehicle for expression on any topic by members of the UCT community. The opinions within this section are not necessarily those of the VARSITY collective or its advertisers.

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