Category Archives: Leonard Gentle

SACSIS: The Massacre of Our Illusions…and the Seeds of Something New

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The Massacre of Our Illusions…and the Seeds of Something New

by Leonard Gentle, SACSIS

The story of Marikana runs much deeper than an inter-union spat. After the horror of watching people being massacred on television, Marikana now joins the ranks of the Bulhoek and Sharpeville massacres, and the images evoked by Hugh Masekela’s Stimela, in the odious history of a method of capital accumulation based on violence.

But this is not just a story of violence and grief. To speak in those terms only would be to add the same insult to the injury perpetrated by the police on the striking workers, as many commentators have done – seeing the striking miners as mere victims and not as agents of their own future and, more importantly, as the source of a new movement in the making.

The broader platinum belt has been home to new upsurges of struggle over the last five years. From the working class community activists of Merafong and Khutsong to the striking workers of Angloplat, Implat and now Lonmin, these struggles, including the nationwide “service delivery” revolts, are a sign that a new movement is being forged despite the state violence that killed Andries Tatane and massacred the Lonmin workers. Rather than just howl our outrage, it is time to take sides and offer our support.

After Marikana, things will never be the same again.

Firstly, the killings mark the end of the illusion that the ANC has not been transformed into the party of big capital. For some while now the ANC could trade on its liberation credits in arguing that all criticism came from those trying to defend white privilege. The DA was perfect to be cast in this role because it always attacked the ANC for not being business-friendly enough.

But Marikana was an attack on workers in defence of white privilege, specifically the mining house, Lonmin. Lonmin epitomises the make-up of the new elite in South Africa: old white capital garnished with a sprinkling of politically connected Blacks.

In this, the ANC steps squarely into the shoes of its predecessor, apartheid’s Nationalist Party, acting to secure the profits of mining capital through violence.

Secondly, the strike and the massacre also mark a turning point in the liberation alliance around the ANC – particularly COSATU. Whereas the community and youth wings of what was called the Mass Democratic Movement became disgraced after 1994 by their association with corrupt councillors, and eclipsed by the service delivery revolts of today, COSATU’s moral authority was enhanced. Within what is called “civil society”, COSATU continued to be a moral voice. So anyone who had a campaign sought out COSATU as a partner. This moral authority came because COSATU was simply the most organised voice amongst the working class.

Today COSATU’s links with the working class are only very tenuous.

It is almost intuitive that we consider the notion of a worker as someone working for a clear employer, on a full-time basis, in a large factory, supermarket or mine. Indeed classical industrial trade unions were forged by workers in large factories and industrial areas. This was the case in many countries where such unions won the right to organise and was also the case in South Africa, when a new wave of large industrial unions emerged after the 1973 Durban Strikes.

Going along with this structure were the residential spaces of townships. From the 1950s, the apartheid regime increasingly came to accept the de facto existence of a settled urban proletariat and built the match-box brick houses in the townships of the apartheid era: the Sowetos, Kathlehongs, Tembisas.

So the working class was organised by capitalism into large industrial sites and brick houses in large sprawling townships.

Since the 1980s, the neo-liberal phase of capitalism has changed this.

Neo-liberalism has not only been about privatisation and global speculation. It has also been about restructuring work and home. Today casualisation, outsourcing, work from home, labour brokers and other forms of informalisation have become the dominant form of work and shack dwelling the mode of existence of the working class. The latter is in direct proportion to the withdrawal of the state from providing housing and associated services.

Twenty years ago the underground workers of Lonmin would have lived in a compound policed by the company. Today the rock drill workers live in a shantytown near the mine.

Also, mining itself has changed. Much of the hard work underground is now done by workers sourced from labour brokers. These are the most exploited workers, working the longest hours with the most flexible arrangements. Today it is even possible to own a mine and not work it yourself but to contract engineering firms like Murray and Roberts to do the mining for you. Into the mix can be added so-called “illegal miners” who literally mine with spades and their own dynamite and then sell on to middlemen with links to big businesses.

Lonmin has exploited these divisions – using the old mining industry strategy of recruiting along tribal divisions. The rock drill workers are Xhosas who are railed in from the Eastern Cape to heighten the exploitation at the coalface.

Add to this the toxic mix of mine security, barbed-wire enclosures and informal housing, as identified by the BenchMarks Foundation, and a picture of institutionalised violence emerges.

By way of contrast, the dominant trade unions in South Africa have largely moved up upscale towards white-collar workers and away from this majority. Today the large COSATU affiliates comprise of public sector white-collar workers, like the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union. The lower level blue-collar workers are now employed by labour brokers and are in services that have been outsourced, like cleaning, security and so on. They don’t fall within the bargaining units of the Public Sector Bargaining Council.

The Lonmin strike was the second in the last three months to hit the platinum sector. It was preceded by a strike at Implats. Both involved the Association of Mining and Construction Workers’ Union (AMCU) as workers sought an outlet for their frustrations.

The mining trade journal Miningmix published this story in 2009:

(A) gradual change had taken place in the profile of the NUM membership over the last 15 years; one that nobody had taken notice of. The NUM was originally borne out of the lowest job categories of South African mineworkers, mainly from gold mines. More than 60% of its members were foreigners, mostly illiterate migrant labourers.

Nowadays that number has dropped to below 40%. On the other hand, an increasing portion of the NUM’s membership comes from what can be described as white-collar mining staff, who had previously been represented exclusively by Solidarity and UASA. The local NUM structures in Rustenburg, like the branch office bearers and the shop stewards, are dominated by these skilled, higher level workers. They are literate, well spoken and wealthy compared to the general workers and machine operators underground.

So while the NUM remains the largest affiliate of COSATU, it is changing from a union of coalface workers to a union of above ground technicians. It is these developments that led to the formation of a breakaway union. Whatever the credentials of AMCU, its emergence is a direct challenge to the hegemony of NUM and of COSATU. As such, the federation has embarked on a disgraceful campaign of slandering the striking workers and their union.

In this they have been joined by the media.

With the notable exception of the Cape Times, the media’s culpability in demonising the striking workers has been reprehensible. In addition to only quoting NUM sources for information, or focusing on Malema, there have been no attempts to dig beneath the idea of manipulated workers and inter-union rivalry. They all depicted the rock drillers as uneducated, Basotho or Eastern Cape Xhosas, whilst flogging the idea of an increase to R12 500 as “unreasonable”.

Then there is the notion that workers went to AMCU because they were promised R12 500. This fiction is repeated endlessly by the media. Journalists are of course happy to source this from “unnamed” NUM sources. The slander here is that workers are so open to manipulation that they will believe any empty promises. This plays to the prejudice repeated by Frans Baleni of NUM from his Nyala that rock drill workers are uneducated, and it bolsters the idea that AMCU is some kind of slick willy operation that must take responsibility for the massacre.

Anyone with any experience of organising knows that trade unions don’t come to workers like insurance salesman. In the main, workers form their own committees and then send a delegation to the union office demanding that an organiser come and sign them up. Or, they simply down tools forcing their employer to contact a union organiser.

Nor is any strike decision, let alone a strike such as this one – unprotected, under the umbrella of an unrecognised union, in a workplace with mine security and where the workers themselves are far from home in a strange region – ever taken lightly. Wildcat strikes are probably the most conscious act of sacrifice and courage that anyone can take, driven by anger and desperation and involving the full knowledge that you could lose your job and your family’s livelihood.

In normal times, trade unions can be as much a huge bureaucratic machine as a corporation or a state department with negotiations conducted by small teams far from the thousands of rank-and-file members. Strikes change all that…suddenly unions are forced to be conduits of their members’ aspirations.

Whatever the merits of AMCU as a democratic union or as one with any vision of transformation; whatever the involvement of the Themba Godis, the workers of Marikana made their choice: to become members of AMCU and risk everything, including their lives, for a better future.

For that we owe them more than just pious sympathy. There is a job of mobilisation and movement-building to be done.

Almost 40 years ago, in 1973, workers from companies around Durban came out in a series of wildcat – then really illegal – strikes. Today this event is celebrated by everyone as part of the revival of the anti-apartheid movement and the birth of a new phase of radical trade unionism, culminating in the formation of COSATU.

But in 1973, the media highlighted the threat of violence and called for the restoration of law and order. The apartheid state could not respond with the kind of killings that happened at Marikana because the strikes were in industrial areas, but they invoked the same idea of ignorant misled workers (then they were seen as ignorant Zulus) and had homeland leader Mangosutho Buthelezi send his emissary, Barney Dladla, to talk to the workers.

While in exile, the SACP questioned the bona fides of the strikes, invoking the involvement of Buthelezi to perpetuate the fiction of “ignorant Zulus” because they were not called for by the liberation aligned union body, SACTU. Some in SACTU circles raised the spectre of liberals and CIA involvement in the new worker formations with an agenda to “sideline the liberation movement”. This separation of the ANC and its allies from the early labour movement was to lead to the divisions between the “workerist unions” and the “populist unions” in the labour movement and was to continue within COSATU.

How easily people forget this when workers forge new movements today.

For a long time now the ongoing service delivery revolts throughout the country have failed to register on the iPads and Blackberries of the chattering classes. This is because of the social distance of the middle classes to the new working classes.

Now the sight of the police shooting striking workers on TV has brought the real world of current struggles right into the lounges and bedrooms of public opinion.

So far the strikers have stood firm not only against the police and Lonmin, but also against the media labelling their strike “illegal”. Strikes are not illegal in South Africa; they are only protected or unprotected. Meanwhile NUM and COSATU are rallying behind their ally, the ANC, to stigmatise the strikers and their union as “paid by BHP Billiton and the Chamber of Mines”.

In the midst of our outrage at this brutality let us acknowledge that a new movement is emerging. Such early signs do not as yet indicate something grand and well organised. Movements are notoriously messy and difficult to assign to some kind of predetermined ideological box. We do not know what ups and downs people will go through, but when the seeds of a new movement are being planted, it is time to ask what the rest of us can do to help it to grow.