How the Marikana Movement Stunned Neoliberal South Africa

The day after the Marikana massacre, wives and mothers of the victims gathered in rage

[By all accounts and assessments, the Marikana mine massacre has marked a major turning point in the ANC-led “post-apartheid” South Africa.  But what sort of turn is being made?  A radical commentator and analyst, Patrick Bond, delves into this in some depth, and comments:  “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……..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.”  The following article, though long, is well worth exploring. — Frontlines ed.]

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by PATRICK BOND, in Counterpunch

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 October 12 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 October 17 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 Marikana 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 goldminers 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 coopted, 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 1000 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. Continue reading