“And so, again, the truth of our country is in dead black bodies littering the ground. Once again, the truth of our time is that people asserting their rights and dignity against systemic injustice have been brought down in a hail of bullets. Has nothing changed in our place, when its truth remains that the armed might of the state acts for the elite of powerful and wealthy, and against our people?”
So asked Bishop Rubin Philip at a memorial service for striking miners killed in Marikana, South Africa. The murder of 40 miners is a shocking throwback to the state brutality and bloodshed of the apartheid era. The horrible scenes were like Sharpeville in 1960, Soweto in 1976 and Boipotang in 1992.
Many are asking how the African National Congress (ANC), the government brought to power by the mass movement against the apartheid, can oversee killings so reminiscent of the regime black South Africans overthrew.
Miners at the British-owned Lonmin platinum mine had been striking for a week when 3,000 met on August 16 near the shanytown where many of them live without proper sanitation, running water or electricity. They are demanding 12,500 rand a month ($AU 1430), four times what some miners currently make.
But they had been abandoned by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the dominant union in the sector, which decried their “unrealistic” expectations. The more supportive Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union had implored them to leave to avoid a police attack. They stayed, determined to stand their ground.
Police have since feebly tried to justify the massacre saying they were “protecting themselves”. But all evidence demonstrates that the striking miners were penned in by police razor wire, water canons, armoured vehicles and helicopters which opened fire on them as they tried to get out. Leaked autopsy reports show that most miners were shot in the back, proving they were attempting to flee.
Many of the survivors were arrested, jailed and beaten. Families were left uninformed of whether relatives were alive or dead. Miners’ representative Lybon Mabasa said that some imprisoned strikers had been violently abused so badly that their “eyes were (swollen) closed”.
The Lonmin bosses callously threatened workers with the sack if they did not return to work following the massacre, but ongoing strike action and public outrage forced them to withdraw this threat. Mass meetings of up to 15,000 miners and their families have pledged to continue the strike and maintain their demands.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the party they are associated with, the South African Communist Party (SACP), who have ministers in the ANC government, have shamefully blamed the miners.
Incredibly, the ANC arrested and charged some surviving miners with murder, using an apartheid-era law that allows victims to be imprisoned for “provoking” police violence. After a public outcry, the charges have since been dropped.
This massacre is a new low for the ANC. But they have presided over a regime of continuing inequality and poverty for the vast majority of black South Africans.
The historic 1994 election brought Nelson Mandela to power and ended apartheid. But the ANC’s commitment was to bring about “redistribution through growth”, not from rich to poor, or white to black. This has meant partnership with the bosses, managing South African capitalism and appeasing the white ruling class at the expense of ordinary people. Even before the 1994 election, the ANC agreed to accept an $850 million IMF loan contingent on huge cuts to spending and public sector wages.
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. A UN report has exposed that 1.7 million South Africans live in shacks with no proper bedding, cooking or washing facilities. Black peoples’ incomes actually dropped relative to the average white income in the period from 1995 to 2008.
These conditions have bred resistance and militancy. At a protest of the wives, mothers and daughters of miners following the massacre, one woman said, “My husband has worked here for 27 years—waking up at 3am and returning at 2.30pm. He earns 3,000 rand a month. What clown would earn so little and not protest?”
The movement to bring down the apartheid regime was based on the mobilisation of South Africa’s powerful black working class in general strikes, direct actions and protests. It is a movement whose legacy of resistance lives on. South Africa has more explosions of revolt per capita than anywhere else in the world—strikes, township protests, roadblocks and occupations.
The same power that brought an end to apartheid can now be turned on the mining bosses and corrupt ANC leaders who have stifled the struggle for freedom.