South Africa


We must fight to ensure that those slain at Marikana on 16 August 2012 did not die in vain

We must fight to ensure that those slain at Marikana on 16 August 2012 did not die in vain
A cross of remembrance during the commemoration on 16 August 2016 of the 2012 Marikana massacre in Rustenburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Antonio Muchave)

How will our own children remember the Marikana Massacre 10 years after the killing of 34 mineworkers by the police at Lonmin?

On 16 August 2012, 34 striking men were gunned down by the police with automatic weapons at Marikana. The workers and the community in which they lived did not back down: they organised that evening and united a greater proportion of the approximately 28,000 workers at Lonmin (now Sibanye) the following day.

In the aftermath of what is now largely understood to be a premeditated massacre resulting from the “toxic collusion” between mining capital and the state, miners downed tools for a further month inspiring wildcat strike action in other industrial sectors across the country such as gold, transport and farms.

The year 2014 witnessed the longest strike in South African mining history carrying forth the living wage demand of R12,500 for which workers had died on the mountain. People continue to occupy land and establish informal settlements, even naming them “Marikana”, which has come to symbolise the idea of reclaiming what is rightfully ours in the spirit of the families and children of the deceased who can never be adequately compensated.

The state’s offer of an additional R500,000 per family (on top of R70-million in total handed over by the state to date) is a step in the right direction, but cannot bring our comrades, husbands and fathers, back to life.  

Mineworkers have borne the brunt of physical punishment and their blood has literally been spilt in the name of racial capitalism and the migrant labour system. But not all their sacrifices have happened in the blink of an eye or within the split second that a bullet passes through one’s body.

Whether because of long-term health problems, diseases such as TB or silicosis or accidents underground, black South African mineworkers have since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution consistently faced the prospect of being killed on the job. Indeed, health degeneration resulting from hazardous employment and living conditions compounds over a lifetime.

And too often it is not the mining conglomerates or the state, but the rural homelands that are the labour-sending areas that are home to the extended families of mineworkers who have been forced to confront this burden.

The women of Marikana, who ensure social reproduction in a system designed to extract surplus energies from their communities, have been incredibly resilient in the face of traumatic experiences and atrocious living conditions. Gender-based violence, alcoholism among mineworkers, mental illness, lack of security and murder and assassinations arguably have intensified since the massacre.

Despite a commission of inquiry that sat for 300 days and cost R153-million, 10 years have passed and yet no one has been held responsible for the killings.

The system of racial capitalism upon which apartheid’s foundation was constructed did not end in 1994 when the African National Congress (ANC) was elected to power. Millionaires like President Cyril Ramaphosa have cashed in through the elite framework of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) which has led to the advancement of only a small minority who built their conspicuous wealth on company shares.

The policy has contributed profoundly to the illusion that an individual’s failure is because of personal character rather than systemic problems. Black bodies continue to be exploited under the new dispensation. Not only are townships such as Soweto, Alexandra, and Tembisa denied access to basic services which they require to live a dignified life, but like Marikana they are scapegoated when they rise up to defend their freedoms.

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Indeed, the state charged 270 mineworkers for the murder of their slain colleagues under the “common purpose” apartheid-type law. The militancy of workers was not seen as a necessary solution to equalise wages in the context of growing poverty and inequality, but as a problem which legitimised the application of state violence.

The hegemonic memorialisation of Marikana undermines the genuine contribution that the mineworkers’ struggle has made to the ongoing quest for liberation from systems of domination and oppression. The “common sense” of capitalism seeks to persuade us that this was a tragedy whereby all of the stakeholders are responsible.

And yet the truth is that society is geared toward suppressing or obscuring the conflict between those who have wealth (the owners of the means of production) and those who must sell their labour power (the workers). When the latter rise up to defend what is rightfully theirs, for a fair share in the resources produced by their hard work (in this case underneath the earth), the repressive apparatus of the state will invariably emerge to defend the interests of capital.

Indeed, the events at Marikana brought about tectonic shifts in the political landscape and was a turning point in the history of South Africa. The seemingly left-wing and Marxist-Fanonian Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by Julius Malema, was arguably born out of the massacre.

As one who would be dismissed from the ANC, he had also developed relationships with insurgent miners in the platinum belt. On 18 August 2012, I was present at the mountain with 10,000 strikers when Malema exclaimed in a speech that, “Lonmin together with the ANC government has killed our people.” “The soul” in the mountain where workers were killed, “will never rest in peace”, he promised.

Malema pledged on that day to the people of Marikana and arguably to all the oppressed in South Africa that, “we will never betray you.” In 2013, the EFF was launched in Marikana forged out of the blood of mineworkers and the demand of R12,500 was written into its manifesto.

In the 2014 national elections, the EFF secured more than one million votes and 25 Members of Parliament including one activist, Primrose Sonti, who hailed from Marikana itself. Great expectations emerged that this new party was pro-black and pro-working class and would therefore bring changes to the people’s lives.

Although residents hoped that the government would deliver housing to people living around the mines, Lonmin’s lack of political will to address the poor quality of living in the informal settlements remained constant even though the commission of inquiry indicated that these poor conditions made Marikana ripe for violence. While Lonmin’s Social Labour Plan of 2006 committed to deliver 5,500 housing units by the end of 2011, they had built only three houses by 2012.

Sibanye, the company which bought out Lonmin in 2019, claims to be a kinder alternative to replace the loathsome Lonmin. And yet the company accesses electricity for profit, but it chooses not to do so for those who live literally across the road in Marikana’s shacks.

A shrine outside Sibanye’s local offices is inscribed with the words from the late Nelson Mandela, “the time for healing the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”

Thembinkosi Gwelani, Khanare Elias Monesa and Mgcineni Noki (the “Man in the Green Blanket”) are among the 44 names who appear for visitors, employers and employees to remember each time they pass. The company’s “Marikana Renewal” process is supposedly geared towards building a collaborative relationship with the community to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development. 

But as we learn increasingly about the stricter work hours, nearly impossible quotas for production and that Sibanye has used retrenchments to replace or lay off those with a historical memory of militancy at the mines, it is clear that this is all part of a public relations exercise to maintain “stability” while adhering to corporate social responsibility in the face of irreconcilable differences.

It is time to acknowledge that it may be not possible to “heal wounds”, create “peace”, or build community while systems of oppression and injustice are kept on the back burner.

The migrant workers killed at Marikana were buried in their place of origin, mostly in the rural Eastern Cape. The insurgent trade union, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) which workers understandably joined and viewed as a radical alternative to the pocket union, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), created a trust fund for the widows and families of the deceased and houses have also been built for the families. Amcu’s trust fund would enable the legacy of the deceased workers to provide a basis for the material improvement of mineworkers’ families and to contribute to quality education for their surviving children.

Our own observation at funerals of Amcu members (some of whom have been assassinated) in the platinum belt as well as the fact that the union crushed rather than nurtured independent working-class organisations, worker committees that helped bring it into power, suggests however that we also cannot rely too much on South Africa’s trade unions in their current form.

The EFF contributed R1-million towards the Marikana widows’ trust fund five years ago. While the EFF welcomed the recent decision by the high court to hold President Cyril Ramaphosa responsible for the killing of workers whom he referred to as “dastardly criminals”, the EFF’s role in the process of fundamental transformation of the economy and politics is questionable and top-heavy to the extent that the party over-emphasises publicity and radical discourse over material change. 

Nearly nine years after being launched in Marikana, the EFF has little to nothing to show there in terms of their contribution to basic services such as housing, water and roads. Not one house was built by the EFF and parts of the informal settlement below the infamous mountain, Nkaneng, still have no formal electricity and so the community relies upon makeshift “illegal” connections to access the grid.

It is perhaps no surprise then that the ANC won back the Marikana ward in the 2021 local government elections. As told by one woman from Marikana at a recent book launch in Johannesburg, “so many people have come and gone. What we don’t like is that when people come here and raise our expectations, make promises, and do not fulfil them.”

We must see to it that those slain on 16 August 2012 did not die in vain. We must continue to develop in dialogue with the people themselves (the women, the widows and the former mineworkers) our own memorials and inscriptions rooted in the experiences of the dispossessed.

In this way, we can contribute to the spirit that the freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu, who was hanged by the apartheid state on 6 April 1979, invoked when he reflected that “my blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.” 

Our memorialisation in the present should centre on the revolutionary role of ordinary people in forging collective alliances to challenge systems of oppression. The slain of Marikana dreamed of a better life for the historically dispossessed and stood up and fought for a dignified future for our children.

As one leading activist who risked his life to extend the reach of the platinum mineworkers’ movement in the period following the massacre proclaimed: “We were brought here by the blood of the workers. So that blood needs to be taken care of.” DM

Luke Sinwell is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and co-author of The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa (Pluto Press, London: 2016).


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