by Susan Rosenthal
On August 16, police fired into a crowd of protesting workers at South Africa’s Marikana platinum mine. More than 35 miners were killed, and more than 75 were injured. The mine is owned by U.K.-based Lonmin corporation.
The scale of this massacre compares with the police slaughter of protesters during the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the 1976 Soweto uprising and throughout the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s.
As shocking as it was, this massacre was inevitable, and it will be followed by more such tragedies, and not only in South Africa.
Capitalism has become so desperate for profit that it must grind workers’ conditions into the dirt, even as these workers produce record wealth. While South Africa’s mining corporations make billions of dollars, their workers suffer extreme poverty, toxic environments and early death.
To maintain this inequality, capitalists use every possible means of divide and rule: seducing union leaders; funding inter-union rivalry; importing temporary contract labor; cultivating strike-breakers; beefing up security forces, bribing public officials, funding political parties, and so on.
These methods succeed because capitalism breeds opportunists who are eager to advance themselves by betraying those they supposedly represent.
One such opportunist is Cyril Ramaphosa, who helped build South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) into a fighting force against apartheid. Once apartheid ended, Ramaphosa joined the emerging Black-African capitalist class. He currently heads a major investment group, sits on the board of directors of Coca-Cola and is one of South Africa’s wealthiest citizens. Yet he still claims to be a socialist.
Then there’s the current NUM, whose leaders are paid extravagantly more than their members and who view any challenge to their leadership (and their gravy train) as criminal. The NUM supported the African National Congress (ANC) before it came to power, and it continues to befriend the ANC as a capitalist government, even as it promotes worker exploitation.
Add the Association of Mine Workers and Construction Unions (AMCU), launched by two former NUM members, and allegedly funded by a multinational mining, oil and gas company (BHP Billiton corporation) to undermine the NUM. If the AMCU is exploiting the discontent of NUM members to advance itself, then it could succeed only because of the NUM’s failure to properly represent its members interests.
The NUM has colossally failed its members by allowing corporations to use sub-contracted labor, which pulls down wages for all workers. In Lonmin’s Marikana mines, nearly one-third of the work-force is sub-contracted.
What should be done? Most answers have been pathetic, calling on the same forces that created the massacre to restore (capitalist) order.
South African President Jacob Zuma called for calm and announced a commission of inquiry into the tragedy.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) “calls on Lonmin to initiate a full investigation into the violence. We also call on law enforcement agencies to leave no stone unturned and bring the culprits to justice.”
Amandla titled its editorial, “A Brutal Tragedy That Should Never Have Happened,” and blamed all the parties who contributed to the massacre for not being more responsible.
Proving its utter irrelevance, the AFL-CIO denounced the tragedy as “a completely avoidable industrial conflict” and called on the Lonmin corporation “to ensure calm and safety is restored so that miners can return to work.”
The youth league of the ANC came closest to seeing the world as it truly is when it indicted “South Africa’s exploitative mining regime, capitalist greed and the poverty of our people” as the cause of the massacre. While its call to nationalize the mines might be a step forward, it would not end the exploitation and oppression of mine workers.
We don’t know what workers think; they have not yet found their collective voice – the first step towards a real solution, the first ingredient in the recipe for socialist revolution.