South Africa’s Marikana Massacre: Prompting the Longest Strike in the Country’s Mining History

On 16 August 2012, 34 black mineworkers of Lonmin platinum mine were killed on a mountain or “koppie” under the auspices of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), in what has become known as the Marikana Massacre. The largest number of killings of civilians by the police since the Soweto Uprisings of 16 June 1976, the Massacre is already proclaimed a turning point in the political developments of the country. On the four year commemoration on 16 August 2016, it is time also to reflect on the demand of R12,500 (equivalent to approximately $500 – this was twice as high as workers’ monthly salaries at the time) which workers died for on the mountain on the fateful day. Workers had put aside their unions, which they saw as being in the pockets of the management, and formed their own independent committees.

In an edited excerpt from Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha’s new book, The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa (Pluto Press; Wits Press), they detail how 80,000 workers from the three largest platinum mining companies in the world (Lonmin, Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum), united for the demand of R12,500. This was more than a year later, in 2014, under the auspices of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which took the country by storm. The process culminated in the longest strike in South African mining history. As one former committee member at Lonmin platinum mine put it, “This strike [2014) did not begin in January this year. It started in 2012 at the moment when our brothers were massacred by the police [on 16 August 2012]”

The Great 2014 Strike Begins

On 19 January 2014 the AMCU held a mass meeting of a few thousand workers from Amplats, Lonmin and Impala. Although official strike action did not begin until 23 January, this meeting took a decisive move that would lead to the longest strike in South African mining history. The mood signalled that action was imminent, but none were entirely aware of the uncompromising spirit that would fuel the workers for the next five months. Makhanya, who had become an AMCU leader at Amplats addressed the large crowd in the Olympia Stadium in Rustenburg which was a central place where mass meetings are sometimes held by workers. Others had introduced themselves after being prompted by the master of ceremonies, but when it was Makhanya’s turn to speak, he told the crowd that ‘If you do not know me by now, then you are a spy.’ Indeed, few rank and file mine workers and even fewer shop stewards of AMCU in the platinum belt covering the area from Rustenburg to Northam did not know this young man, who had been at the forefront of the struggle since mid-2012.

Soon afterwards Joseph Mathunjwa, the President of AMCU who witnessed and attempted to prevent the killing of mineworkers on the mountain in 16 August 2012, arrived with his coterie, which included AMCU officials and bodyguards. They did so in style, in expensive BMWs. An ovation spread like wildfire – the workers appeared to be in awe. At the outset of Mathunjwa’s eloquent one-hour-long speech, he greeted the workers, thanked God for what they had received in life, and apologised sincerely for arriving late. He then exclaimed:

Comrades, today is a big day, and it’s not Mathunjwa’s day, but AMCU’s because you the workers are AMCU. AMCU is not a company, but it belongs to the workers. AMCU was not born out of the board room, but came from the workers in the mines who stayed ten days without food saying we are tired of NUM! … If you think that AMCU is a company that was opened in board rooms and caucuses [then] you got it wrong. It comes from the grassroots and the belly of the earth and God blessed it on earth and in heaven. Hence today we are meeting, the workers here have found their home in AMCU!

The crowd responded with loud applause. Mathunjwa spoke passionately and persuasively, as if he was a preacher. From his perspective, God was on his and his union’s side and nothing therefore could stand in their way. Although Mathunjwa did not want to be viewed by the African National Congress (ANC) as its arch-enemy, he could not avoid it, as we shall see later. During his speech he attempted to avert this when he claimed that the AMCU was not opposed to the ANC by calling the president the ‘Honourable President Jacob Zuma’.

Other aspects of his speech are worth quoting at length since, like Julius Malema and the EFF, Mathunjwa is able to effectively link anti-capitalist ideology to the needs and aspirations of a vast majority of workers in the platinum belt:

Comrades, our future was determined even before we were born by the capitalists. By the time our mothers were expecting babies, the capitalist class was very jubilant because another slave was on its way. We [are] the slaves. Comrade, it’s up to us that we continue the way the things are continuing, or we change the course …. [The employer] cannot differentiate [between] being a human being and mining equipment. We the workers are just taken to be tools to extract the mineral wealth of the country and not as people. How many workers have been killed in the mines? But I have never seen any manager or CEO being arrested or charged. Always it is the workers who went into a place that is not safe .… Who is benefiting from the economy? It’s the politicians and the capitalists. And this thing that when we go on strike we are sabotaging the government is not true. We want to realise a better life for all. Comrades, 20 years [of democracy] has been wasted in the mining industry. After 1994, the so-called big unions … sat cosily with the capitalists in their boardrooms.

Mathunjwa gave a similarly impressive speech at the two-year commemoration of the Marikana massacre on 16 August 2014. Activist-academic Trevor Ngwane told him that he sounded like the late civil rights spokesperson Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The AMCU president’s conclusion on 19 January was, ‘Comrades, let’s intensify the struggle for decent salaries. Let us strengthen our campaign so that we get the results that make us dignified people.’

The Strike That Will Not Die

By early March, the strike was in full swing. On 6 March, thousands of AMCU workers marched to the union buildings in Pretoria to highlight their demands. Two days earlier, they had conceded that the demand for R12,500 could rather be met over four years (instead of having immediate effect), but the platinum producers claimed that spritimaraeven this deal was unaffordable. One marcher from Lonmin seemed to capture the essence of the spirit of the mine workers when he stated that ‘Our fellow workers died for a living wage. I cannot betray them …. Our journey for a living wage is strong than before …. I am prepared to go on strike for future mine workers to earn a decent wage.’

As the mass stay-away rolled into late April, leading 15 weeks of strike action, desperation was beginning to set in. No one had been paid since the end of January. Thapelo Lekgowa, who was largely based in Rustenburg at the time, particularly at Marikana, conveyed the mood in a text message sent to me on 27 April: ‘Shit is bad here. People are hungry.’ Workers nevertheless remained determined to achieve, if not R12,500, then something near it. One key factor which contributed to this determination was the fact that, in accordance with the LRA, they were protected by membership in a union. As Mofokeng reflected:

You know what motivated these people. Was one thing, that is Mr. Mathunjwa’s certificate, it does not expire. It does not get expired. That’s why you see we were so strong because this certificate. We saw that this certificate does not expire. That’s why we have seen that we cannot be expelled from work.

As the strike became more and more prolonged, the ANC government – concerned about foreign investment and the price of the rand – intervened more forcefully. At the COSATU Workers’ Day rally held in Polokwane, President Zuma reportedly ‘urged unions to “act in good faith” and avoid resorting to “blackmail as a negotiating tool”’. Earlier in the week, the home of an ANC councillor in Marikana and the ANC office in Nkaneng were set alight. Zuma intended to speak in Marikana the following Tuesday, but the trip was cancelled because it was deemed unsafe. At the COSATU rally, Zuma hit hard against the 70,000 or so mine workers on strike when he suggested they were being irrational: ‘Unions must always be alive to the realities that endless strikes are not in the interests of the workers, not in the interest of the economy …. exercising the right to strike must never be allowed … to degenerate into anarchy.’ He continued, ‘The methods of engagement employed by trade unions must always appreciate that we now have a democratic government put in place by an overwhelming majority of our people, most of whom are workers.’

President Zuma and his coterie were correct to be concerned given their interest in maintaining the status quo and curtailing strike action, but their calls fell on deaf ears. Based on Makhanya’s deduction, the workers had become more committed than they had been in 2012: ‘You know now the strike will last so long. I cannot even estimate how long because when you see the morale of the people they were too emotional now. Our strike is too [sic] militant than before. People attend [mass meetings] in numbers and numbers.’

Each of the shafts would hold a mass meeting daily with the exception of Sunday. The workers were arguably more united than they had ever been. The cracks in the leadership at Amplats had barely, if at all, extended to the rank and file. Certainly, the three mines – Amplats, Impala and Lonmin – which had gone on unprotected strikes at different times during 2012 (and in the case of Impala and Lonmin, beginning with merely one category of workers), were now working together as one.

The attempt by the ruling government in South Africa to drown the independent working class power which was fermenting at Lonmin, Marikana on 16 August 2012, had the opposite effect of what was intended. Repression gave way to further mobilisation and determination, this time under the auspices of the union. It culminated in the longest strike in South African mining history beginning in January 2014 and ending in June 2014 after a full five months. Mineworkers’ emerged victorious, with 20% wage increases each year for the following three years. The effect of the Marikana massacre can not only be felt presently in the mining industry, but will continue to reverberate in the minds of ordinary citizens across South Africa for years to come.

Luke Sinwell is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Social Change based at the University of Johannesburg. He is the author (with Siphiwe Mbatha) of The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa (Pluto Press; Wits Press; 2016).

Siphiwe Mbatha is a coordinator of a socialist civic in South Africa called the Thembelihle Crisis Committee. He first went to Marikana one day after the massacre to give solidarity to the striking mineworkers.