Mining for justice in South Africa

(Flickr/Michael Thompson)

The commission of inquiry into the deaths of 34 striking workers at a South African platinum mine in August opened with a bombshell last month. Police allegedly shot 14 of the slain workers in the back, or in the back of the head — a revelation that is wholly inconsistent with their claim that it was done out of necessity. But perhaps even more shocking was the discovery that former National Union of Mineworkers leader and anti-apartheid labor hero Cyril Ramaphosa was among those calling for the crackdown.

Once hailed as “South Africa’s Lech Wałęsa” for leading a strike of 360,000 gold and coal miners in 1987, Ramaphosa has since become a multimillionaire business tycoon, senior leader of the governing African National Congress and board member of Lonmin — the company at the center of the worst violence against civilians since the apartheid era. Yet, it is this precise reversal of positions that explains why South Africa is again in the midst of great civil unrest.

Since the end of apartheid nearly two decades ago, income inequality has grown and life expectancy has declined. According to a recent World Bank report, the top 10 percent of South Africa’s population accounted for 58 percent of the country’s income. Meanwhile, the bottom 10 percent accounted for just 0.5 percent of income and the bottom 50 percent less than 8 percent.

Major unions like the National Union of Mineworkers have played no small role in creating this dire situation. Once leaders in the struggle against apartheid as part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the NUW has since collaborated with the industry and the ANC to keep ownership in the hands of the same business elites — despite once standing for nationalizing the industry. As The New York Times recently explained:

Now, as the shock of the killings reverberates through the nation, the party that liberated South Africa is facing perhaps its gravest challenge since it took power in the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994: seething rage from the poor in one of the world’s most unequal societies and a sense that the A.N.C. has created a wealthy black elite, including men like Mr. Ramaphosa, without changing the lives of ordinary people.

Since the Marikana massacre, as it is being called, strikes have spread across the mining industry, shutting down some of the country’s largest platinum, gold and ore mines as well as other sectors of the economy. Earlier last month, 20,000 truck drivers held a three-week stoppage that greatly affected fuel and stock deliveries. At the same time, however, the striking transport workers also began targeting their non-striking brethren with sticks, stones and fire, resulting in at least three deaths and injuries to scores more. This, along with the deaths of two police officers just days before the Marikana massacre and images of some striking miners carrying knives and machetes, gave the burgeoning resistance a sense of uneasiness.

In a front page editorial, the Sowetan newspaper made a direct appeal for nonviolence, saying:

The economic problems do require a war. But, a different kind of war — a war of ideas. Not a war that dispenses with human life in as cheaply a manner as we have seen in Marikana.

But this kind of dilemma is nothing new for South Africa. It was at a similar point in 1976, when the starkness of inequality was about to boil over into widespread bloodshed, that Archbishop Desmond Tutu told John Vorster, then prime minister of the apartheid government:

I am writing to you, Sir, because I have a growing nightmarish fear that unless something drastic is done very soon then bloodshed and violence are going to happen in South Africa almost inevitably. A people can take only so much and no more. … A people made desperate by despair and injustice and oppression will use desperate means. I am frightened, dreadfully frightened, that we may soon reach a point of no return, when events will generate a momentum of their own…

Although his worst fears were not quite realized, Tutu was right about reaching a point of no return. Just weeks later, thousands of black students in Soweto took nonviolent action against the apartheid regime to fight for a better education. Although hundreds were killed in a particularly brutal attack by police, the incident gained international sympathy, galvanized the anti-apartheid movement and inspired bolder action across the country.

Now, almost four decades later, South Africans stand poised to harness such momentum once again. The wave of protests and wildcat strikes ignited by the Marikana massacre have not only achieved victories at the bargaining table — including a 22 percent wage increase for the Lonmin platinum miners — they have also, and perhaps just as importantly, empowered workers to set up their own strike committees. No longer are they reliant on the traditional union leadership, which has so evidently not cared for their best interests. All these advances point toward what some are calling the Miners’ Spring. As the Financial Times recently noted:

Two months into a strike that has seen tens of thousands of miners down tools and demand better wages, there is no sign that the mood is softening. Instead the indications are that workers are becoming more militant and better organised.

If that’s the case, it would be fitting, given the important role miners played in ending apartheid. This time, however, the task for South Africans is far greater. They must eradicate a system of inequality that is arguably more pervasive than the apartheid regime itself.

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