Blame Flies Over Police Massacre of 34 South African Miners

Mike Elk August 17, 2012

Screenshot from a video of police opening fire on striking miners in South Africa, which went viral on the Internet Thursday.

Coau­thored with Bhaskar Sunkara.

Yes­ter­day in Marikana, South Africa, at least 34 strik­ing min­ers were shot dead by police and anoth­er 78 were wound­ed. The inci­dent, which was caught on tape, occurred as police were attempt­ing to clear strik­ing min­ers from a hill­top out­side of the Lon­min mine. In response to author­i­ties fir­ing stun grenades and tear gas, a num­ber of min­ers began to charge. With­out warn­ing, dozens of offi­cers opened fire with auto­mat­ic weapons.

It is unclear how many of the min­ers were actu­al­ly car­ry­ing clubs or machetes as they surged for­ward. There are alle­ga­tions that some min­ers were fir­ing at the police, which are hard to sub­stan­ti­ate since the police were fir­ing non-lethal muni­tions — stun guns and tear gas — at the time of the charge, obscur­ing the scene. But based on the footage, the hun­dreds of rounds fired at pro­test­ers appear stark­ly dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the threat posed by men wield­ing clubs.

Instead of focus­ing on whether the police used exces­sive force, the South African media has been quick to claim the inci­dent stemmed from vio­lent clash­es ear­li­er in the week between two rival unions.

The gov­ern­ment-backed Nation­al Union of Minework­ers (NUM) faces com­pe­ti­tion for mem­bers from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Con­struc­tion and Minework­ers Union, a new­er union formed by dis­grun­tled NUM mem­bers who say the NUM was too con­ces­sion­ary and was resis­tant to change from with­in. In 2007, the NUM refused to allow a dis­grun­tled rank-and-file work­er to chal­lenge the head of the NUM, on the grounds that the work­er was mere­ly an employ­ee and not already an elect­ed offi­cial. The more mil­i­tant ACMU claims to have already sur­passed NUM in membership.

At the mine in Marikana, NUM rep­re­sent­ed approx­i­mate­ly 30 per­cent of the work­ers, while anoth­er 30 per­cent were rep­re­sent­ed by the ACMU. Some 3,000 rock drill oper­a­tors belong­ing to both unions walked out on August 10 in a strike for bet­ter con­di­tions. The NUM cut a deal with mine man­age­ment and want­ed to return to work this week — but told media that they felt they couldn’t because of ACMU interference.

Ear­li­er this week, 10 peo­ple were killed in clash­es between the ACMU and the NUM, includ­ing two police offi­cers. ACMU’s gen­er­al sec­re­tary, Jef­frey Mphahlele, said the con­flict between the two unions began with NUM mem­bers shoot­ing ACMU mem­bers. The more rad­i­cal ACMU has said that the NUM rou­tine­ly engages in vio­lence when chal­lenged by ACMU at a mine, in order to scare work­ers tempt­ed to defect.

The NUM dis­putes these claims and says that ACMU start­ed the inci­dent. It has also blamed the mine own­ers, say­ing on its Twit­ter account today that, the back­ground of the vio­lence at Lon­min lies in the com­pa­nies under­min­ing the bar­gain­ing process and structures.”

The shoot­ings hap­pened yes­ter­day when police attempt­ed to clear the hill­side of strik­ing min­ers from both unions. ACMU lead­ers say that part of the rea­son that min­ers refused to leave the hill was because that day, the com­pa­ny had at the last sec­ond reneged on a deal with ACMU that would have end­ed the strike. ACMU Pres­i­dent Joseph Math­un­jwa told the Mail and Guardian that he plead­ed with the min­ers to aban­don the hill­side, fear­ing for their safe­ty at the hands of the police: I said leave this place, they’re going to kill you.”

The Asso­ci­a­tion of Con­struc­tion and Minework­ers Union has placed the blame for the mas­sacre, in which 34 have been con­firmed dead, at the hands of the mine man­age­ment, the police and the NUM. The Nation­al Union of Minework­ers, how­ev­er, has stood behind the police. The police were patient, but these peo­ple were extreme­ly armed with dan­ger­ous weapons,” NUM Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary Frans Baleni told Kaya FM.

NUM’s col­lu­sion with the state is symp­to­matic of pow­er struc­tures in South African since the end of apartheid. The 300,000-member NUM is the largest affil­i­ate of the Con­gress of South African Trade Unions, which forms the tri­par­tite” gov­ern­ing alliance along with the rul­ing African Nation­al Con­gress and the South African Com­mu­nist Party.

The union was found­ed in 1982 and even­tu­al­ly won an end to a racist reser­va­tion sys­tem, which denied black South Africans access to bet­ter-pay­ing jobs. The ANC, sim­i­lar­ly, earned inter­na­tion­al praise and recog­ni­tion dur­ing its bat­tle against apartheid, which cul­mi­nat­ed in its vic­to­ry in South Africa’s first demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tion with uni­ver­sal adult suf­frage in 1994. Since then the ANC has dom­i­nat­ed pol­i­tics in the coun­try. But alle­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and waste have dogged the par­ty. For many, it has come to sym­bol­ize the unful­filled promis­es of the nation­al lib­er­a­tion struggle.

The response from the ANC’s Pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma, him­self a self-described social­ist with trade union roots, was mut­ed. He mere­ly expressed regret” for the killings, adding that today is not an occa­sion for blame, fin­ger-point­ing or recrimination.”

Richard Trum­ka, pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO in the U.S., told In These Times: Once again, minework­ers who pro­duce so much wealth under often dan­ger­ous dai­ly work­ing con­di­tions have paid the high­est price – their lives – in a com­plete­ly avoid­able indus­tri­al con­flict. We send our deep­est con­do­lences to the fam­i­lies of these work­ers and call on the South African gov­ern­ment to take imme­di­ate action to address the brutality.”

Ulti­mate­ly, the pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty for these clash­es hangs with nei­ther union, but with the com­pa­ny and the state that endors­es these con­di­tions. South African min­ers work in a dan­ger­ous envi­ron­ment and face con­stant exploita­tion while earn­ing only a pit­tance, even though demand has soared for the plat­inum they extract. This year alone, 40 min­ers have died in South Africa.

The strike was a nat­ur­al out­crop of these con­di­tions and is not like­ly to fade away with­out sig­nif­i­cant redress. But even if a set­tle­ment is reached, anoth­er blow has been dealt to the lega­cy of the once-proud African Nation­al Con­gress and its allies in the trade union movement.

The polit­i­cal con­se­quences could be lasting.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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