South Africa - After Marikana - a social time-bomb waiting to explode

Oct/Dec 2012

The wave of unofficial strikes which started in early August in the South-African platinum mines, made the headlines after police shot dead 34 strikers and injured 78, on 16 August, at Lonmin's Marikana mine.

Since then, and for well over two months now, this strike wave has ebbed and flowed across the entire mining industry. Some miners, who had been on strike for over a month, returned to work having made some gains. Others are still out, after anything from two to ten weeks on strike. Others still, who had returned to work, have downed tools repeatedly since, in response to threats to fellow workers or in support of other demands.

Measuring precisely the extent of the strike wave at this point is virtually impossible, given the joint attempts by the companies, politicians and media, at talking it out of existence. But on the basis of the reports available, a minimum of 70,000 permanent miners are still on strike, in the platinum, gold, coal, iron, chrome and diamond mines. To this figure should be added tens of thousands of contract miners (employed on a casual basis by so-called "labour brokers") who, in many mines, have actively joined the strikers.

That a showdown was on the cards at some point was already shown by the Marikana massacre in August. Since the beginning of September, however, the companies and the regime of the African National Congress (ANC) have been raising the stakes.

Most mining companies have threatened to sack their entire striking workforce and some have already carried out their threat - 18,000 permanent strikers have been sacked to date and an additional 43,000 are facing a similar threat.

Meanwhile the repressive machinery of the state has raised its profile to the point where the so-called Platinum Belt around Rustenburg in South Africa's North West province, which remains the strategic heart of strike wave, has been de facto placed under martial law, with all gatherings banned and numerous arrests among strikers.

So far, the striking miners have remained defiant. In most of the big mining companies, the bosses' sacking threats have been ignored by the strikers. And police and army raids against miners' shanties have often been met with stoppages and/or street riots in which protesters erected barricades and overturned police armoured vehicles before setting them alight.

But whichever way it goes now, this strike wave is already the most important struggle waged by the South-African working class since the ANC came to power following the first multi-racial election, back in 1994. It is the most important struggle of the past 18 years in terms of the economic weight of the sectors affected (mining is the country's biggest productive industry and foreign currency earner) and in terms of its combined duration and numbers involved (which have varied with times, with over 100,000 since the mid-September at least). But it is also the most important struggle in political terms, because of the way in which it has developed thanks, and only thanks, to the militancy and determination of the miners themselves - not only without any assistance from the machinery of the miners' union, which was far more concerned with retaining its cosy relationship with the mining companies, but, in fact, against the frantic opposition of its leadership.

This article is an attempt to do justice to the struggle of these workers. As poor and over-exploited as they may be, the South-African miners are proving that they are capable of finding within their own ranks the resources necessary to get the all-powerful mining multinational companies to fear their collective might. In a world in which it has become fashionable to bury the class struggle and dismiss the idea that the working class can lead society towards revolutionary change, these events show, once again, its collective potential power in action.

Platinum - super-profits and over-exploitation

Just under a decade ago, platinum replaced gold as South Africa's largest single source of foreign currencies for the South-African economy and of profits for local and international export companies operating in the country.

How did that happen? As little investment had been made to replace gold mines which were running out of ore, gold production started falling. Meanwhile the world price of platinum had risen far quicker than the price of gold. Moreover, while there was no shortage of gold-producing countries across the world, South Africa was estimated to hold 80% of the world's exploitable reserves of platinum and eventually accounted for 78% of the world production. This production was, and remains, concentrated in the so-called "Platinum Belt", stretching from the western bushveld complex in South Africa's North-West province - an area around Rustenburg, where Marikana is situated - to the east in Mpumalanga and further north to Limpopo province.

Just like the rest of the mining sector, the platinum industry was reorganised by the imperialist companies themselves in the period before apartheid was finally ended. Through this reorganisation, the international mining giants ensured that they retained the lion's share of the cake, while leaving some space for a number of small local mining companies, whose mines they often ran on their behalf. Once these local companies were taken over by the new post-apartheid black capitalists, this division of labour became a means for the international giants to distribute a few crumbs to the local capitalist class in return for help from its state machinery in the looting of the country's mineral resources and in the exploitation of its working class. The entire platinum sector (mining as well as smelting and refining) remains, therefore, dominated by three international giants, which are, in order of decreasing importance: Anglo Platinum (or Amplats, a subsidiary of Anglo-American), Impala Platinum (or Implats, which is linked to various international banks as well as to Arcelor-Mittal) and Lonmin (which is a remnant of the deceased British group Lonhro and is now connected to the Anglo-Australian giant XStrata).

The price of platinum has always been high and the sector very profitable. It's not for nothing that the luxurious casino-resort "Sun City" sits slap bang in the middle of the North West platinum complex. However platinum profits exploded during the 2001-2009 period, thanks to a meteoric rise in world platinum price. This rise was fuelled partly by a large inflow of speculative capital towards commodity markets and partly by a sharp rise in platinum demand by the car industry worldwide (as platinum is used, among other things, in the production of catalytic converters). During all these years, the platinum giants raked in tens of billions in profits, most of which were redistributed to their western shareholders without making significant investment.

With the world crisis starting to hit in 2007, the demand in platinum began to shrink. The platinum price went down and, with it, the profit margins of the mining giants. For the boardrooms of these companies, however these profit margins had to be preserved, whatever the means or consequences. Some mines were closed down while in others, the miners paid the bill with an increased level of exploitation. So much so that, in 2011, the combined net revenue of the three platinum giants reached £5bn!

The conditions of the platinum miners became significantly worse. At the Marikana complex, the 3,000 rock drill operators who are the first line, skilled, workers in the platinum mines and who face the most dangerous conditions, have seen their wages fall to around £300/month. It may be more than a South African domestic worker who gets probably just over half this, on average. But many of these workers come from the Eastern Cape or Lesotho - poverty-stricken rural areas at least 600 miles away - where they may have a family to support in addition to the family members they live with, near the mine. Besides, the cost of basic food in South Africa - even away from the big cities - is only around 20% less than in London! As to the non-skilled workers and, even more so, the contractors who form around 40% of the workforce, their wages were even lower. These were starvation wages by any standard.

The miners' living conditions were just as scandalous as their wages. Across the mining industry in general, some of the older mines still offered hostel housing to the workers and others had their single-man hostels converted to family dwellings. But this was not the case in the newer mines, and especially not in the platinum belt. Workers got a small housing allowance on top of their wages and were told to find their own accommodation. But most of the platinum mines are in the bushveld - more or less in the wilderness - where there is nothing but scrub and dust. So workers had to build their own shacks or to rent one from a shack-landlord, thus creating extensive and sprawling shanty towns around the mines, located literally in the middle of nowhere - what the politically correct media call "informal settlements". The mining companies knew that their workers had no option but to live in these shack-slums, without proper running water (Lonmin provides polluted water tanks, or a few taps which run only for a few hours a day), without drains, toilets, without rubbish removal or any other amenities. But once the bosses had paid a meagre £98/month housing allowance (which was what Marikana's rock drillers got), they considered that they had done their duty - or they shifted the blame for the lack of housing onto the local municipalities.

The NUM, from militancy to class collaboration

A large part of the South-African and international media presented the strike wave in general and, in particular, what it dared to call its "violence", as the expression of factional rivalries within the trade-union movement.

This must be denounced, without any ambiguity or qualification, as an outright lie whose only aim is to conceal the fact this strike wave is a major social development in the country, and that it illustrates the explosive potential of the working class in its resistance against the exploitation to which it is subjected.

However, but this is polls apart from the lies of the media, one of the features of this movement is the determined refusal of most of the miners to carry on following the leadership of the National Union of Miners (NUM), whose leaders are part of the ANC regime itself and who the workers consider to be in bed with the mining bosses.

Indeed, the NUM's militant days, when it led illegal strikes - like the 3-week national strike in 1987 during the apartheid years, are long gone. That strike for higher wages involved as many as 360,000 gold and coal miners. After the police had shot 11 of them and injured another 500, the spokespersons for the apartheid regime and the media blamed the "violence" of the strikers. At the time, the then Anglo Gold Ashanti chief executive, Bobby Godsell, made a statement about the need for "liberal business" to share power with black workers,. The strike leader and NUM general secretary - none other than Cyril Ramaphosa - replied: "I don't know how one shares power with people who have shotguns in their hands, people who have tear gas canisters, and I really don't know how one shares power with people who continue to pay starvation wages."

Just four years later, however, Ramaphosa was elected ANC party leader, heading its delegation in the negotiations leading to the setting up of the first post-apartheid multi-racial regime. Having failed to get himself nominated as the ANC candidate for the country's presidency, Ramaphosa learnt "to share power with the people who continue to pay starvation wages"; in fact he became one of them. He went into business and joined the ranks of the post-apartheid black bourgeoisie, becoming one of its richest and most prominent members. This was only ten years after the 1987 strike. By making the best of his political connections, Ramaphosa was soon sitting at the helm of a financial empire which included mining assets, among other things. Subsequently, he was to collect a whole series of directorships - in companies like, among others, Standard Bank, the multinational brewery company SABMiller, and Lonmin, the owner of the Marikana mine.

Of course, there was always more to the NUM than the likes of Ramaphosa. But his political and business career are quite representative of the aspirations of the top layer of the NUM machinery - and all the more so as he is, once again, being mentioned as one of the possible contenders for the ANC leadership, to be chosen at its December conference. Indeed, since 1994, a long series of former members of the NUM leadership left their positions at the top of the union to embark on lucrative careers as parliamentarians, ministers or, like Ramaphosa, businessmen. And, of course, although these individuals had formally left the NUM, they retained much of their past influence over its machinery

Moreover, this machinery has built up considerable material resources, thanks, partly, to the size of its membership (over 300,000), but above all to its management of numerous social funds. In the absence of any real control from the rank-and-file, this affluence has been a breeding ground for careerism among the leading circles of the NUM. So much so that, the NUM leadership increasingly equated the union's interests to those of the regime - i.e. to the common interests of the South-African capitalists and international companies.

This identification was particularly visible in gold and coal mining, which were both covered by national agreements. The NUM leadership got into the habit of bargaining with the Chamber of Mines, behind close doors, while policing the rank-and-file in between agreements. When members baulked against being stitched up, the NUM machinery would discipline rebel members - which often resulted in their sacking.

Thus, in September 1998, following a wildcat strike by the 3,000 coal miners of Douglas Colliery, the NUM branch secretary, a devout Christian called Joseph Vusimuzi Mathunjwa, was sacked. When his members went on strike to demand his reinstatement, the NUM leaders refused to endorse their strike. However, the strikers stuck to their guns and managed to force the company to back down after three weeks of an "unprotected" (i.e. illegal) strike. Subsequently, the NUM leadership accused Mathunjwa of having "brought the union into disrepute", launched a disciplinary procedure against him, and then expelled him. However, Mathunjwa took away with him the 3,000 NUM members of his mine, who then formed the initial core of a new union, the Association of Construction and Mineworkers Union (AMCU), which proceeded to poach disaffected NUM members across the country.

However, with a membership which was not even one tenth that of the NUM, there was no way AMCU could win recognition within the nationwide bargaining machinery which existed in gold and coal mining. But in platinum mining the NUM had never sought to establish any form of national bargaining. On the contrary, the NUM leaders preferred to negotiate on a company by company (or even mine to mine) basis. This was no doubt because this sector had become so lucrative, that NUM officials reckoned they could bargain for higher wages than were the norm in the rest of the mining industry. However, with falling demand from the car industry after the beginning of the crisis, the NUM's strategy soon backfired, allowing the bosses to play one mine against another, and generating discontent among the platinum miners. This created an opportunity for AMCU to put its foot in the door, not because it is particularly militant - which it is not - but because it is still untested by workers, some of whom are willing to give it a try, when circumstances bring them to reject the NUM once and for all.

This has happened on at least two occasions over the past two years, as a result of major strikes which, in some ways, were also dress-rehearsals of the present strike wave. In both cases, while AMCU played no role in initiating these strikes, it was able to capitalise on the frustration of the strikers against the NUM leadership.

The first strike took place last year in May. It broke out in the Karee mine, another Lonmin operation right next to Marikana. Except that, this time the strike was not so much against Lonmin itself than against the NUM leadership, which had taken disciplinary action against the local branch officials for failing to organise elections aimed at unseating the branch's "unruly" reps. Lonmin reacted by sacking all 9,000 workers. They then had to queue up for reinstatement under new contracts. But as a result, many left the NUM and joined AMCU, which then, having the majority among the workforce, was granted limited recognition for bargaining purposes by Lonmin - in this mine only, of course.

The second strike took place in January-February this year. 3,000 rock drill operators staged a 6-week illegal strike at the huge Impala Platinum mine, in Rustenburg, where 46,000 miners work in 14 shafts scattered over 260 square kilometres. The spark for the strike was the unfair allocation of bonuses by Impala, which had been agreed by NUM officials. So the miners refused the representation of the NUM and walked out of meetings whenever NUM officials turned up. The strike spread right across the mine. Since the strike was illegal, Impala was able to "legitimately" dismiss 17,000 strikers. But the strikers had decided they would not be starved back to work. Widespread burning and looting of shops and other buildings, took place around the workers' settlements. Eventually the leader of the trade-union confederation COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi himself, was called in to try to defuse an explosive situation in which 4 workers had already lost their lives. In the end, having failed to forced the strikers back to work, Impala had to rehire most of the sacked workers and grant the strikers a 100% wage rise across the board. But the fall-out for the NUM remained a fall-out. Some workers at this point joined AMCU, although many remained suspicious of any union, full stop.

And these workers may soon find that they had good reason to be suspicious. Because, since then, AMCU has shown that it is chiefly concerned with jumping into the NUM's shoes. On 18 October, for instance, Lonmin miners who had gone back on strike to protest against the arrest of three of their strike leaders, were surprised to see AMCU's general secretary, Jeffrey Mphahlele, rushed in, inside a big Mercedes to urge them leave the NUM and join AMCU but above all, to go back to work. AMCU, said, Mphahlele, would sort out the issue of their arrested leaders for them. Well, yes - this sounds very much like the old NUM!

Marikana - the class war

At Lonmin's Marikana complex, it was 3,000 rock drill operators starting an unofficial strike on the 10 August, for a living wage of R12,500 (£936) per month, who were the unconscious instigators of todays's unprecedented movement. Their demand represented a wage increase of 200% for the lowest paid.

They began to meet every day, on the small rocky outcrop adjacent to their settlement, known as "Wonderkop". They selected their own leaders from among their ranks, regardless of any union hierarchy. Anyway most of them were in the NUM, although AMCU had begum to recruit among them.

These workers may not have known that 112 of their number would be mown down in a hail of police bullets within a week, leaving 34 dead, but they did know what they were up against. Every recent strike in the mines - but also in other industries - has left its toll of dead and injured, as has almost every recent anti-government protest in the country's shanty-slum settlements, where week in and week out, residents get together to demand action over their appalling living conditions, whether it be the lack of clean water, electricity, rubbish removal, schooling, or transport. And they get shot, beaten up, arrested.

Right from the first week of the strike, the rock drill operators were assaulted, initially by Lonmin's security guards, but also by NUM officials, who were desperate to regain control of a workforce that was ignoring their leadership. By the end of that first week, 6 workers, two security guards and two policemen had been killed in separate incidents.

On the morning of the massacre, the strikers massed their ranks tightly together on the hill and refused to disperse when told to do so. They told the hundreds of cops and, later, the army personnel who had been sent in to break their resistance, that they were prepared to die rather than give up their fight. In a show of their determination to hold their ground, they had grabbed all the makeshift weapons they could find: pangas (machetes), knob-kieries (home made-clubs with a knob at the end) and traditional spears - plus maybe one or two guns, claimed the police, after the event. Anyway, against the automatic guns of the police, the miners knew that their weapons were purely symbolic. In fact, later on some swopped their weapons for the the brightly-coloured unmbrellas commonly used in Africa against the sun.

NUM officials were brought in on the afternoon of the 16th August, in armoured vehicles, to address the strikers. They were shouted down and told to leave. The AMCU leader, Joseph Mathunjwa, however, came on foot and joined the workers at the bottom of their hill. He received cheers for his trouble. A journalist who was at the scene reported his speech as follows: "We were told that the situation is now under the national security and that this is now a security zone. What this means is that this situation is now in the hands of the police. The police will have their way. They can do whatever they want. In fact, let me not mince words - blood must spill today. That's what they want. This is a gathering where blood will spill." He then knelt and begged the workers to disperse peacefully. "The employer wants to run from the truth. He wants you killed because he says you are lawless rogues. NUM wants to say these people were killed after AMCU spoke to them. This is politics. They want us to carry the blame. So they will kill you today and get other people to work in your place tomorrow and they will get them cheaply. It does not bother them. It is the capitalist who will win today." Mathunjwa then "quoted from the Bible and left swiftly, almost fighting tears." In fact he got the hell out of there as soon as he could - claiming that he needed to preserve his own life "for the sake of the workers"!

By 3.30pm, with the union officials out of the way, the armoured cars, police and army reinforcements were put in place. The national police spokesperson, Captain Dennis Adriao rounded up journalists to tell them that the police were now entering the "tactical phase" and their safety was no longer guaranteed. The police lined themselves up, encircling the 3,000 massed workers on the hill. Barbed wire was rolled out and placed in a semicircle around the main escape route towards the nearby settlement. Later it was revealed that a small opening was left through which workers were forced to flee as stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas were fired behind them. The first group through the wire - around a dozen, including a known "leader" (who had been nicknamed "the man in the green blanket" by the Star journalist who spoke with him daily) - were shot. They died where they fell.

What the reporters who were positioned behind the police lines on this side of the outcrop, did not know, was that on the other side, police were firing real bullets too, and that they were pursuing fleeing workers into the bushes and among the rocks and murdering them in cold blood. It was there, 300 yards from Wonderkop, that most of the victims were killed, many of them shot in the back at close range. Workers later related how police told them they would die in order to pay for the killing of the two policemen who had been shot with their own guns after attacking a group of strikers a few days before. Some workers heard Fanagalo being spoken among the ranks of the police - i.e. the mixed dialect used on the mines to communicate. They concluded from this that there must have been NUM officials with the police. Whether they were right or not, the fact that they thought the union might have collaborated with the police in a massacre of mineworkers is significant enough.

When the dust settled, 34 strikers were dead and 78 wounded, maybe more. More than 200 strikers had been arrested. In fact, it is likely that the real number of casualties was higher - given that not all the wounded went to a hospital for fear of being arrested and that some strikers are still unaccounted for.

The strike wave spreads

Almost immediately after the killings, the strike spread to the rest of the Marikana complex, where the remaining 25,000 miners joined the rock drill operators' strike. Stoppages occurred at several neighbouring mines, including the Bafokeng Rasimone Platinum Mine (BRPM), owned jointly by Anglo American and the "Royal Bafokeng nation". There, 1,000 workers downed tools and a group of them, bypassing the NUM, presented the company with a demand for R12,500/month together with increased allowances. Within a few days, the RBPM mine management claimed that the dispute had been resolved, but a week later, the RBPM miners were solidly on strike. There were to be many more similar attempts at playing down the strike wave over the following weeks - to no avail.

In the meantime, similar stoppages had taken place in several big platinum mines, such as the Anglo Platinum facility at Thembelani and the Crocodile River mine run by Canadian company Eastern Platinum. Mine after mine, stoppages were spreading across the bushveld complex. In most cases; these were not solid strikes yet. Rather, the miners seemed to be testing their strength before taking to the offensive in earnest.

Less than two weeks after the Marikana massacre, the strike wave reached a new stage when it spread to the first gold mine. On 30 August, nearly half (12,000 out of 26,000) of the workfoce at GoldFields' Kloof Driefontein Complex (the world's 4th largest gold mine, west of Johannesburg) embarked on an illegal strike raising the same demands as the Marikana strikers. Again, they bypassed the NUM. Reports mentioned the strikers shouting "Voetsek! Fokof!" (Go! Fuck off!) as an NUM official tried to address them. And when he eventually tried to speak from one of the company's armoured vehicles, workers shouted "Hamba!" (Go!). Another big Goldfields site 150 miles south-west of Johannesburg, in the Free State province - soon followed with its 10,000 miners out on strike.

In every case, the police were there in numbers, frantically trying to disperse miners' gatherings - fortunately without causing any casualties, this time. But on September 3rd, they were to kill another 4 strikers at Gold One's Modder mine (East of Johannesburg, this time by shooting with live bullets at a protest for the reinstatement of a thousand miners who had been sacked last June, following an "illegal" strike.

The strike wave was still gathering momentum. On the platinum mines, the previous stoppages were mutating into solid strikes. It should be said that the marches organised by the Marikana strikers seem to have played an important, if not a decisive role in this. In any case, in the Rustenburg area, the country's two largest platinum mines - owned by Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum - were now fully involved. So much so that, 4 weeks after the beginning of the Marikana strike, production had been stopped in most important mines across the platinum complex.

However, in order to strengthen a strike wave which they must have felt not quite solid enough, on 12 September, representatives of the Rustenburg Anglo Platinum strikers announced from the platform, in front of a football stadium packed with strikers, that their aim was now to co-operate with strikers from Marikana and other major mines, to call an all-out strike in the mines across the Rustenburg area from September 17th.

It should be noted once again that, although the strikers were mostly NUM members themselves, right from the beginning they had to face the outright opposition of their union's official structures. As a result, in many mines - and certainly in the largest - they selected from among their own ranks an informal leadership to lead their strike, which has been referred to as the "interim workers' committee"'. Why was this label chosen by the strike activists who formed these committees? What did it mean in their minds? Did they see these committees as the building blocks of a future new union designed to replace the NUM altogether? Or did they see them, on the contrary, as future replacements for the existing discredited NUM structures? Only the future will tell.

In any case, it was these committees which undertook all the organisational tasks of the strike movement. In particular, judging from the reports available, they seem to have played a role in expanding the strike wave by building on the energy of the most determined and militant strikers. Likewise, these committees were the driving force behind the call for an all-out strike across the mines in the Rustenberg area, on 12 September, and then behind the suggestion to prepare for a national strike across the whole mining industry.

Lonmin backs down

After six weeks of strike at the Marikana complex, and following several failed attempts by the company to get the 28,000 strikers to agree to return to work on the basis of insignificant concessions, the situation suddenly changed on 18 September. Following protracted talks involving all kinds of middlemen, including the clergy, negotiators announced that Lonmin had agreed a wage increase worth between 11 and 22%, another increase worth 12% to be negotiated in October, plus a back-to-work bonus worth R2,000, equivalent to almost half of the wages lost by most workers as a result of the strike.

Although the rock drill operators who initiated the strike will now earn R11,000/month, the strikers did not win their R12,500/month demand - which, for the lowest paid, would have amounted to a 200% wage increase. Nevertheless their gains represent a significant success against a company whose only response to their strike, so far, had been police violence and the threat of mass sackings.

The political significance of Lonmin's concessions was highlighted by the immediate reaction of business "experts" who warned of an impending "catastrophe" - meaning, for mining profits - should all the mining industry go down the same road. So, an "emerging market specialist" with Japanese banking giant Nomura stated in an interview to Reuters that: "The key worry now is that 22% wage rises will be seen spreading across the mine industry. That is hardly affordable in an industry with such hefty cost pressures already". Meanwhile, two analysts with Standard Bank - a South African bank which has heavily invested in mining - produced alarming comparison charts showing how the Lonmin settlement compared with the outcome of the four largest "legal "strikes which took place in 2011, in gold, coal and diamond mines and in the metal industry. All told, and assuming the company does not renege on its promises (which remains to be seen), the Lonmin "illegal" strikers had won nearly three times as much as last year's "legal" strikers!

None of this should come as a surprise. The strength of the Marikana miners lay in their courage and determination, of course, but, above all, in the fact that they succeeded in sparking off a movement which not only spread across platinum mining, but also began to spread to gold and chrome mines. In particular, one may ask whether the call issued the previous week by the strikers' workers' committee for a general platinum strike across the Rustenburg area may have been one of the main reasons for Lonmin's concessions. We will probably never know. But there is no doubt that the implied threat of an uncontrollable social explosion must have played a role in Lonmin's move.

There is no doubt either that the Lonmin deal had an impact on the strike wave. In a few cases, it prompted companies to make concessions in order to end, or even pre-empt, a strike in their mines. But more often, it encouraged other miners to remain on strike or to join the strike wave.

Thus, just after the Lonmin deal, Impala, the country's second largest platinum company, chose to pre-empt the threat of an unofficial strike by granting a substantial wage increase to its workforce - for the second time this year.

But Impala was an exception among the big platinum companies. The rest of the platinum mines remained paralysed. More importantly, the strike wave had now spread well beyond platinum mining and was showing no sign of losing momentum. In fact, almost two months after the strike first broke out at Marikana, new mines were still joining the strike wave every day. By then, a large part of the country's historical gold mining industry was paralysed by unofficial strikes, including the main mines of the two largest gold companies - Anglo Gold Ashanti and GoldFields. There were strikes as well in several coal mines, in chrome and iron ore mines and in diamond mines. In two cases, at the Samancor Chrome mine and at the Sishen iron ore mine (owned by a subsidiary of Anglo-American), the strikers had even decided to stage a sit-in underground until their demands were met.

The regime against the strike wave

There is every reason to believe that ANC president Jacob Zuma and his partners in the leaderships of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), of which the NUM is the largest affiliate, were taken unawares by this explosion of anger in the mines. But their reaction certainly exposed, once again, the fact that for all its "revolutionary" talk - referring to the social upheaval which led to the end of apartheid - the regime stands firmly on the side of capitalist profit, as it has always done since 1994.

In the days which followed the 16 August massacre, all the members of the ruling coalition stuck to the same line - according to them, the police, having come under attack, had acted in self-defence. Four days after the massacre, the new national police commissioner, general Riah Phiyega, said to the police: "Safety of the public is not negotiable. Don't be sorry about what happened".

The previous day, COSATU had declared in a press statement: "police tried to disperse striking workers gathered on top of a hill, wielding pangas and chanting war songs. It ended in a three-minute shootout between the two groups, after police fired teargas and then used a water cannon to disperse the strikers, who retaliated by firing live ammunition at the police."

Ten days after the massacre, on 26 August, in a cover article for the South African Sunday Times , entitled "Time for a new accord", Cyril Ramaphosa bemoaned the "extent to which violence has become the language through which discontent is articulated and disagreement mediated". According to him, the responsibility for this had to be apportioned to "the Lonmin management, board, and all its shareholders, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, the South African Police Service and the striking miners themselves".

As to NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka, he quite simply blamed AMCU, calling for the arrest of the "ringleaders" of the strike: "These people said today they want to die on the hilltop. They said they will bring their children to die there. That is why we say the ringleaders must be arrested". Later on, on 15 0ctober, the same Seshoka was to add: "The police have to be there [in the mining areas], and they must be there in bigger numbers. Even if they are there now they are losing the battle to criminals. They are not losing the battle to strikers, but to criminals - those people are there to cause chaos, to ensure that property is burned, that people are killed. We can't have the promotion of lawlessness". Clearly, as far as the NUM was concerned, the striking miners were nothing but criminals!

But the SACP leaders were probably the worst slanderers, in this naked explosion of anti-working class hatred. Thus Dominic Tweedie of the Communist University was quoted writing about the Marikana massacre: "This was no massacre, this was a battle. The police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to. That's what they have them for. The people they shot didn't look like workers to me. We should be happy. The police were admirable".

Likewise, the SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin, in an apparent refutation of the theory that the whole "tragic" episode was due to inter-union rivalry, distilled his slanderous poison to whitewash the NUM of any responsibility: "Prior to August 16th the dominant interpretation of what was unfolding at Lonmin was that it was just 'union rivalry' (note how this exempted the role of the mining corporations, and how it established a supposed equivalence between NUM and a pseudo-union originally funded by BHP Billiton and reliant entirely on demagogy, violence and intimidation)." In other words, for Cronin, the emergence of AMCU was not a by-product of the NUM's cushy relationship with the companies and discredit among miners, but merely a fabrication of the Anglo-Australian mining giant against the NUM. This is a lesson in putting reality on its head!

As to president Jacob Zuma himself, it took him no less than 48 hours before the consequences of the Marikana massacre dawned on him - when the newspapers, echoing the general shock caused by the event, began to refer to this as a "post-apartheid Sharpeville". Of course everyone in South Africa knows about "Sharpeville". It was a landmark in the history of apartheid and the regime's most notorious massacre, whose anniversary is now commemorated every year. On 21st March 1960, white policemen, backed up by armoured cars and several low-flying aircraft, opened fire on a 19,000-strong anti-passbook protest, after the crowd had failed to disperse. The protesters were armed with nothing but rocks and had no place to run to. The police killed 69 of them, including children, outright, and wounded 180 more, many of whom were shot in the back trying to flee the scene. Faced with this uncomfortable media campaign, taking place only three months ahead of the ANC's Mangaung conference in December, in which Zuma still hopes to win a second mandate from his party, he finally declared an official week of mourning for the Marikana victims, in addition to the tokenistic enquiry into the massacre already announced.

But the regime's official tears over the victims of the Marikana massacre did not mean that it was renouncing its class war against the strikers. Not only were the Marikana strikers arrested on 16 August kept in jail, but they were deprived of their anti-TB and anti-HIV medications and many were beaten up in their cells. To add incomprehensible insult to injury, in the increasingly surreal world of ANC government logic, two weeks after the massacre, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) used a legal provision dating back to the apartheid days, to charge 279 Marikana miners - including some of those who had been wounded - with the murder of their own comrades, who had been slain in front of their eyes by the police! But this time, the regime had gone too far. The announcement of the charge caused such outrage across the country that the NPA was forced into frantic retreat. The murder charges were dropped and the imprisoned miners were freed over the next few days.

Meanwhile, the mine companies tried to regain the initiative. While the miners' blood was still wet on the ground and the dead and wounded were still not all identified yet, let alone buried, Lonmin had issued ultimatums to the 3,000 Marikana rock drill operators to return to work or be sacked. After Zuma's belated declaration of a week of national mourning, Lonmin finally withdrew its threats and agreed to "talk", paving the way for 12 days of negotiations, under the watchful scrutiny of the strikers, which finally resulted in the 18th September deal.

Towards a social explosion?

The ANC-led regime had to face the facts. While its use of repression against the miners had only succeeded in inflaming their anger, its back-peddling and conciliatory gestures had totally failed to slow down, let alone stop, the growth of the strike wave. So, in early September, the regime chose, once again, to step up the repression against the strikers.

While Zuma was making scathing attacks in parliament against "clandestine foreign elements" who, were, according to him, responsible for the social unrest, justice chief Jeff Radebe announced in a live broadcast that there would be a crackdown beginning on 14 September. He added that "our government will not tolerate these acts any further" and announced measures against "illegal gatherings, the carrying of dangerous weapons, and incitement, as well as threats of violence". Shortly after this, Zuma's office announced the deployment of the army across the country until the end of January, to support "the operational needs of the police".

On 15 September, police and army personnel raided the Nkaneng squatter camp in Marikana, spraying the shacks and shanty dwellers with rubber bullets - which were to cause the death of Paulina Masuhlo, a much-liked ANC local councillor. The Rustenburg area was flooded with police and soldiers, to prevent any kind of meeting or march by strikers. And this offensive was not just confined to the "Platinum Belt". Over the following weeks, a growing flood of reports showed that protests were being banned up and down the country, for the most spurious reasons, or no reason at all. To provide a legal cover for this de facto martial law, the regime invoked a rarely used piece of legislation, the Regulation of Gatherings Act, originally introduced to "normalise" politics in the run-up to the first multi-racial election, in 1994.

With the exception of Lonmin, which has already conceded to the strikers, and Impala Platinum, which followed Lonmin's example to defuse a strike threat, all the big mining companies seem to be looking for a head-on confrontation. So, Anglo Platinum, Anglo Gold and GoldFields have all announced plans to sack thousands of strikers should they fail to resume work promptly.

Anglo Platinum was first to carry out its threats in the Rustenberg area. However, it immediately came up against the determination of the strikers who refused to budge. 12,000 strikers were sacked on 5 October. But then, they probably remembered how last February, in similar circumstances, the determination of their comrades at Impala Platinum had allowed them to force the company to rehire most of the strikers it had sacked, with a significant pay increase into the bargain!

GoldFields used a different strategy at its KDC West mine - the first large gold mine to join the strike wave, on 29 August. On October 2nd, GoldFields' security evicted 5,500 strikers from the company-owned hostels in which they lived. Did GoldFields hope that this would break the strikers' determination and force them back to work? Or that the migrant miners would return to their home lands? Either way, this was a miscalculation. Thousands of strikers immediately congregated on a hilltop nearby the entrance of the mining complex and, in a gesture of defiance reminiscent of the Marikana miners on August 16th, they vowed to remain on this hill until the company conceded to their demands. Four days later, GoldFields had to cancel its expulsion order.

However, within 2 weeks, on 19 October, GoldFields carried out its threat of sacking all striking miners who failed to resume work, after they had been awarded a small wage increase (a change in the grading structure worth no more than 2 to 3% to most workers, and agreed between the NUM and the Chamber of Mines). This time, according to the company, some strikers returned to work at KDC West and some to the Beatrix mine. But as many as 1,200 strikers were sacked on the spot for refusing to resume their shifts. GoldFields was not out of trouble yet: almost at the same time, 10,000 workers at its KDC East mine downed tools, for the second time since the beginning of the strike wave.

By now, police and army personnel are striving to intimidate workers everywhere, to prevent them from organising their struggles. This blatant collusion between the ruling coalition, the capitalist class and the big companies is nothing new, of course. For years already, a significant and growing section of the working class has registered its disgust at the regime's pro-business policies, its corruption and nepotism and the arrogant wealth accumulation of its so-called "black diamonds" - those who, like Cyril Ramaphosa, used their political connections to turn themselves into multi-millionaires.

In addition, since the beginning of the present crisis, the social apartheid which remained after the dismantling of the past racial apartheid, has become increasingly unbearable for the poor majority of the population. Since the crisis really began to bite in South Africa, in 2009, a million jobs have disappeared. The jobless rate was already high before the crisis, but now it reaches 38% among adults, and twice that level among the youth. Half of the population is now living below the official poverty line.

What the South African regime faces today is the increasing refusal of a previously long-suffering and loyal ANC-voting population to recognise its authority and its institutions any more. These are the people it shot and killed at Marikana. A growing number of people among the working class and poor have had enough and are prepared to say so, even if it involves risking their lives. And why not, when as far as they see it, they have next to nothing to lose? Workers see their wages and conditions - especially housing, transport, health care and education for their kids - getting worse and worse. But when they decide to take action over these issues, union leaders or local politicians inevitably "do a deal" behind their backs and let them down. Would it be any surprise, therefore, that the Marikana massacre, which is probably considered by a significant section of the poor population as the "ANC's Sharpeville", should raise this collective anger against the regime by another notch?

Beneath this anger, there is the social time-bomb left over from the apartheid era. This era created a large, highly-concentrated working class, with a militant tradition which is recent enough to be appropriated by its younger generations. At the same time, the dismantling of apartheid, orchestrated as it was by the western and South-African capitalist classes, left a society which is one of the world's most unequal. The result of this combination is a social time-bomb waiting to explode.

The present strike wave in the mines illustrates the explosive potential of the situation in South Africa. Not only because of its intrinsic power, but because it also echoes the social discontent of large layers of the working class and poor, and could provide a rallying point for this discontent.

For instance, in September-October, 40,000 truck drivers staged a 3-week national strike over wages. Likewise, workers at Johannesburg's Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System embarked on a strike over wages on 15 October and various strikes are taking place across the country among local government workers, over wages and against municipal corruption. Unlike in the mines, most (but not all) these strikes have been called by the union machineries, following the legal procedure. And there is every indication that these union machineries are determined to keep these strikes as sectional as they can.

But would it be impossible for the miners to address themselves to all these discontented workers, above the heads of their union leaders, in order to convince them that they would have everything to gain in joining ranks with the miners, in a common struggle for common objectives?

When workers start to refuse the control of union machineries, which had so carefully been put in place to keep them in check, and choose to act collectively, and in large numbers, while taking their class interests into their own hands - then the capitalists operating in South Africa, whether domestic or imperialist, and their ruling politicians, have every cause to be seriously worried. Given their collective strength and their political credit among the rest of the working class, the miners and the activists who will have emerged from the current strike wave, may well be holding in their hands the key to a general social explosion. Whether they will use this key is another question. Only time will tell. In the meantime, long may the capitalists shiver and sweat in their beds at night.