More 34 striking miners were killed when police opened fire at a Lonmin PLC platinum mine, Marikana, South Africa on Thursday 16 August.
Nearly 80 have been reported injured. Over 250 people were arrested on the same day.
This is a shocking event, reminiscent of how the apartheid police “shot to kill” at protests. It has rightly been condemned by the labour movements around the world.
Workers at the platinum mine had been on strike for a decent wage and a week earlier 10 people had been killed (including two police).
The strike was initiated by rock drillers, under the leadership of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The rock drillers undertake the most difficult and dangerous work at the mine and earn just R4,000 a month (£305). They were demanding R12,500. One striking miner told Reuters news agency: “You work so very hard for very little pay. It is almost like death.”
Lonmin plc is the third largest global platinum producer. Under a former incarnation, as Lonrho plc, the company benefited hugely from the apartheid social conditions which made it easier for them to hyper-exploit black labour. They are in the same game today. Its operating income for last year was $300 million.
But the global economic crisis has hit the platinum industry; low prices have followed a slump in the auto industry as platinum is a key ingredient for catalytic converters. As in South Africa’s gold mines (where the workforce has been halved), platinum bosses want to put the screws on the workers.
Prior to the shooting, Lonmin had threatened to sack the workers. Thursday 16 August was earmarked by both the company and the bosses as the day on which the strike would be broken.
Afterwards Lonmin disingenuously characterised the assault on the miners as “just a police operation”, as if their attitude to the workers had nothing to do with it! They have blood on their hands for this massacre, and blood on their hands for all the miners who have been maimed and killed in their mines down the years.
President Jacob Zuma’s immediate reaction to the killing (before he got wise and proposed a commission of inquiry)? “We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of law or violence.”
What democracy would that be? The one he would like to see in South Africa, where no opposition is brooked? A democracy where workers striking for decent wages are gunned down?
And whose violence is to blame? The self-defensive actions of a group of highly-exploited workers who want jobs which pay, who want to survive in the horrifically unequal society of South Africa?
Or the violence of cops, endorsed by the capitalists and their state, meted out in order to make sure capitalist pro- duction and the creation of profit goes on
One factor in the tragedy is a bitter rivalry between the AMCU and the much larger ANC-led National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) which also organises in the platinum belt. And in the background, for many in South Africa, the ANC stands in the way of raising living standards and is responsible for the growing inequality. Mass demonstrations against the government are commonplace.
In recent years the NUM has said to have worked closely with the bosses. Cyril Ramaphosa, the first NUM leader (who is now a business tycoon), is a non-executive director and “chairman of the transformation committee” at Lonmin.
The NUM — which had negotiated a two-year wage deal at the plant — had previously dismissed the miners as uneducated migrants from rural Lesotho and/or vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous “leaders”; the NUM dismissed the R12,500 demand as “unrealistic”. The South African Communist Party which has long allied with the ANC and has a huge influence in the trade unions has even called for the leaders of the AMCU to be arrested! Every socialist trade unionist will find such behaviour depressing, the complete opposite of our basic duty here — one of solidarity.
Forty-four people are dead. The hundreds who were arrested are being quickly brought before the courts. Some of them — but not the police! — have apparently been accused of murder and attempted murder. The company is still threatening to sack miners who do not return to work.
Whatever the exact details of the inter-union rivaly the basic story here is clear.
The women of the mining community asked the question in a protest song in a demonstration on Friday 17th: “What have we done?” The platinum miners of South Africa have done nothing more than demand the right to be treated like human beings. In this profit-hungry world that is a crime and that is all it takes for you to be killed by the pistols and rifles of state-sponsored assassins.