Just over a year has passed since the Marikana massacre and the amount of critical reflection on the worst act of state violence since the end of apartheid is minimal at best. Other scandals have dominated the news cycle, from Nkandla to Guptagate, along with endless other tales of public sector corruption and incompetence.
The difference is that Marikana was an atrocity not a scandal ; it was something so horrendous that it doesn’t readily fit into the established narratives that guide our national debate. Instead, it was passed off as a tragedy, something to be mourned on all sides, an act of nature like a tornado or a hurricane which nobody is responsible for, a narrative which I have no doubt the Farlam Commission will, at some point in the far future, endorse.
Perhaps the most important lesson of Marikana is that the state can gun down dozens of black workers with little or no backlash from ‘civil society’, the judicial system or from within the institutions that supposedly form the bedrock of democracy. What we have instead is the farcical Farlam Commission, an obvious attempt to clear the state’s role in the massacre and prevent any sort of real investigation into the actions of the police on that day. In other words, the state can get away with mass murder, with apparent impunity in terms of institutional conceptions of justice and political accountability. If anyone takes the fall it will be Phiyega rather than her higher ups, who appear to have set her up as the fall guy if it ever reaches that stage.
In South Africa it seems that the easiest way to organise a cover up and get the public to consent to it is to launch a commission of inquiry. Doing so after one of those troubling incidents in which the natives needed to be gunned down after they started complaining was a classic colonial tactic to control public anger and legitimise colonial rule. The Farlam Commission stands proudly in this vainglorious tradition.
One of the more devastating consequences is that the media largely chose to devote its coverage to dull dayto-day reports on the Farlam Commission, instead of covering the ongoing events and struggles of both the Marikana workers and community, as well as other struggles across the platinum belt. The Farlam Commission was supposed to end in April, but instead here we are in
October and no end is in sight.
If anything, Marikana demonstrates that the social forces capable of forcing the government to change tack or bring about substantial social change will not emerge from what passes as civil society. ‘It was ordinary workers representing their own interests, not AMCU, Juju, a sangoma or Gwede’s “Swedish agitator” who were at the forefront of the strike.’
The workers standing at that hill on 16 August 2012 were standing there because they were workers involved in a real struggle for a living wage and decent working conditions. But they were not killed because they were workers ; they were killed because they were working class and black. What this means is that the life of the black working class in South Africa still doesn’t possess that such value. Could one even imagine Marikana occurring if at least some of the workers gathered that day had been white ?
They were not killed because of fratricidal union strife between AMCU and NU M, the trope most used by labour journalists and analysts. In fact, contrary to what seems to be the dominant narrative among supposedly nuanced labour analysts, AMCU didn’t have much to do with the strike. AMCU did not lead the strike, it did not incite workers to go on strike with false promises and most of the workers who took part in the strike were disgruntled NU M members.
The massacre did not result in mass solidarity protests in urban centers, riots or an apparent public outcry, which would severely damage the ANC’s political position outside of the platinum belt. The deaths of 34 persons at the hands of the police in another country might not necessarily bring down a government, but in a country with a government that is more responsive to public outrage it would probably cause the political demise of the head of state.
Marikana also proved that seemingly invulnerable unions can disappear in a matter of months in a sector if they fail to support workers’ struggles and choose, instead, to side with the state and capital against workers. NU M, once the largest union in South Africa, with over 300 000 card-carrying members, is now all but dead in the platinum industry. It has lost perhaps over a 100 000 members in year, the majority of whom have joined AMCU, which now has a membership of over 110 000 workers.
Within AMCU, the union is struggling to hold itself together, as its administration is simply too small and disorganised to be able to cope with tens of thousands of new members. Its leadership is stuck between trying to replace NU M as the dominant union in the sector, trying to cement longterm relationships with employers, and attempting to placate the demands and energy of thousands of newly radicalised and militant workers.
The nuanced and rigorous public debate and critical reflection that should have happened after Marikana have not happened. Instead, the country has spent the last year attempting to ignore or forget the massacre or belittle it by terming it a mere ‘tragedy’, as if it were an act of nature or ‘a failure of intelligence’. Meanwhile, workers and organisers continue to be targeted and killed by mysterious forces, and some linked to the Marikana event. workers and organisers continue to be targeted and killed by mysterious forces, some linked to the Mariikana event. Others commit suicide. The Marikana community continues to live in fear of police incursions and retributive killings.
Marikana marks a turning point in the country’s history. It will will go down as the point at which the ANC ceased to rule by consent and began to rule by force. But as of yet, the murder of 34 people broadcast on live television has not been enough to shatter liberal illusions of the state of our democracy. While the chattering classes continue to argue about various twitter-related codes of etiquette, workers are still being murdered in Marikana.
As the region looks set to explode in a new round of strikes in the near future, the story is far from over. In this feature, we will explore some of the challenges facing workers in the platinum belt and what the political developments have been over the last year in the Rustenburg area – from the challenges facing that’s left of the workers’ committees that led last year’s strikewave to extended analysis of AMCU.