This is a summary of my analysis of the news from of the weekend press (August 19) – and radio and TV commentary – concerning the events in which 34 striking miners were killed by police last Thursday (August 16) at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in Northwest Province. (Written Sunday night, so some new facts might have come to light that I haven’t included – especially not Julius Malema’s “breathtaking political coup yesterday” – see Carol Paton’s lead story on front page of Business Day today … here is a link.)
The police shootings came after a week (starting August 12) in which workers launched a violent wildcat strike reportedly demanding a wage increase to R12500.00 p/m – from the current average of about R4500.00 p/m for Rock Drill Operators, who were the main constituents of the approximately 3000 workers who had gone on strike (the wage demand issue was dissected here – a story that points out that the real wage differential between what the workers were demanding and what they were getting was actually much narrower.)
During the course of the strike, prior to the police decision to remove the workers from a nearby hill they had occupied, approximately 10 people had been killed, including members of the police force, security guards, and ordinary workers – perhaps strikebreakers, although this is still unclear.
Julius Malema visited the area on Saturday and addressed the strikers – and is the only political leader who has been welcomed to do so. (Since I wrote this Zuma also managed to address the strikers).
President Jacob Zuma’s office has announced that a (judicial) inquiry into what happened will be established (see terms of reference and other details here.)
Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu together with Minister of Labour Mildred Olifant announced on Saturday they will be establishing a “task force” to address the problems at Marikana and deal with wider problems in the platinum sector.
It would be difficult to overstate the depth and variety of impacts of this event. Every news source reviewed here took the position that what had happened at Marikana was impossible to explain through any one category of cause and thus a multiplicity of causes was the approach taken across the board – although usually ending with the statement that the society and its top political leaders must, ultimately, carry the responsibility. Thus the commentary will be broken into the categories most commonly used in the Mail & Guardian, City Press, Sunday Times and Sunday Independent:
Marikana as union rivalry
All the weeklies placed the rivalry between the mainstay Cosatu union, the National Union of Mineworkers (Num) and the Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu) as the central explanation of what happened at Marikana. The consensus was that Num is slipping throughout the mining sector, having become too close to management (I doubt this is something with which either the union or management would agree) and increasingly representative of white-collar workers – and not RDOs and their assistants, and others who do much of the difficult physical work deep underground. “Amcu leaders and members launched ferocious attacks on Num members who were not prepared to go on strike”, said the Sunday Times lead editorial, summarising the most popular explanation for the central cause of what happened at Marikana. This ‘inter-union rivalry prism’ has much deeper implications when we consider the fact that Num is the key element of support for Jacob Zuma’s re-election at Mangaung in December this year, and Cosatu itself is three weeks away from its National Congress where its own leadership struggles – which are likely to be deeply influenced by what happened at Marikana – are being driven by those within the ANC – a matter explored under a headline below.
Marikana as Lonmin management failure
All the news sources reviewed here expresses the view that wages were unacceptably low in the platinum sector and that management was in some way culpable of feeding the conflict in the workforce by having attempted to make a separate deal with Rock Drill Operators at Marikana. These stories also tended to quote a 5 year study by the independent, “faith based”, Bench Mark Foundation – by chance (according to the foundation) released during the strike – that is sharply critical of the platinum mining companies for having failed to fulfill social obligations to workers and surrounding communities. (Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, City Press)
Marikana as policing failure
There was unanimity throughout all the news sources reviewed here that the police had handled the situation badly – and that deaths were, in part, a result of improperly armed (with automatic rifles) and poorly led police forces on the scene. Most accounts went to some effort to explain that the police had been fired on by strikers, that (at least one) member had been hacked to death by strikers during the course of the action (City Press, Sunday Independent) and that at least one shot came from the strikers during the confrontation – although the only weapons collected by police after the action were pangas, sticks and iron bars … no guns (Philip de Wet corrects this in the comments sections below, saying police found 6 guns including the one taken from the murdered policeman … I am looking for a link to the Phiyega statement and will put it here when I find it.)
Most of the sources agree that “They were armed to the teeth and advancing on the police. This is not to justify the killing, but we must be aware that today we could just as easily have been talking about the massacre of policemen” – Mondli Makhanya, Sunday Times. However, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) has announced that it will investigate the killings and ”will seek to establish if the police action was proportional to the threat posed by the miners” – Pierre De Vos in Constitutionally Speaking.
Marikana as societal break-down – as a result of economic inequality
As mentioned, it is difficult to overstate the degree of anxiety and hand-wringing about the state of the South African democracy that came through in all the news sources reviewed here – and in television commentary throughout the weekend. The general point of concern was that the levels of inequality (raised in this case by low wages and poor working conditions of miners) will, here-on-out, be a constant destabilising element to this society. Commentary also focused on asserting that the mechanisms by which society negotiates clashes of interest – including the labour market collective bargaining regime – are broken (evidenced by this incident and the more-widespread-than-ever, and often violent, service delivery protests). Thus political stability was raised as a matter of concern in all 4 of the weeklies.
Marikana as driving exit of foreign investment
The business sections of the three Sunday newspapers all pointed out that the price of platinum rose sharply on the back of what had happened, but that Lonmin share prices fell precipitously. “Fear clashes will spread” was the lead Business Times headline and several stories suggested that “foreign investors” would exit because of endemic labour conflict and unrest. “The police killings … ‘have taken things to a new level, spreading the fear to currency and bond market investors’”, Business Times quoted Nomura’s Peter Montalt
Marikana through the prism of Mangaung.
Two issues lay the ground for Marikana to be perceived through the prism of the pervasive leadership contest in the ANC. The first is that Num itself is the key pillar of ANC support in the trade union movement (it’s the biggest union in Cosatu) and the force that swung Cosatu support for the ANC at the formation of the trade union federation in 1985. More specifically, Num, under the leadership of Frans Baleni, is backing Jacob Zuma’s bid for re-election at Mangaung in December. The powerful – and very left-wing – National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa) under Irvin Jim – and backed by Cosatu Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi – is opposed to giving carte blanche backing to Zuma (mostly because of corruption concerns) and it is speculated that this faction might back Kgalema Motlanthe against Zuma at, and in the lead-up to, Mangaung. Several newspapers – but particularly the better informed Mail & Guardian, suggested this dynamic will lead to an attempt (by pro-Zuma forces) to unseat Zwelinzima Vavi at Cosatu’s national congress in three weeks’ time.
Secondly, Julius Malema immediately stepped into the breach at Marikana – as he did at the comparable (because it was also driven by the Amcu/Num contest) Impala strike earlier this year. Speaking to the workers on Saturday 18 – and note he was the ONLY political leader who has been allowed, by the strikers, to address them and he received a warm reception – Malema called for the resignation of Nathi Mthethwa (Minister of Police and key Zuma ally) and Jacob Zuma himself.
The faction of which Malema is a part and the factions that have a tactical alliance with him are likely to make as much as possible of the Marikana killings, and attempt to lay the blame directly at Zuma’s door (as almost all news sources reported Malema doing on Saturday.)
- There is a risk that it spreads – to other platinum operations, to the mining sector more generally and even to the society at large. The transmission mechanisms would be Num trying to win back ground it is losing from Amcu as well as via the already restive squatter camps and township neighborhoods. Municipal IQ, an organisation that monitors various aspects of municipalities, but particularly service delivery protests, points out that we had already passed, in July, the highest yearly totals of such protests since 1994. This outcome would not be my first case scenario. What drove the violence and the series of errors (of commission and omission) of the unions, management, the police and government that led to the killings are unique to that incident. If it does spread, the most likely first stop would be other platinum mines, and therefore the first impacts would be on supply of the metal.
- The feed through into conflict between unions – obviously between Num and Amcu, but also within Cosatu, between Num and Numsa – could presage a generalised increase in levels of industrial unrest.
- Government is likely to turn its full attention to the “social” performance of the mining companies – under the Mining Charter. Expect a thicket of new regulations – and a generalised attempt to focus the blame on the companies.
- Jacob Zuma’s comfortable lead in the Mangaung contest (and this is purely my opinion) is gradually narrowing as we get closer to the December ANC National Conference. The Marikana incident is likely to weaken his position further – and this in the context of a series of defeats in the second biggest ANC province, the Eastern Cape – which until a year ago was considered safe ground for Zuma.