Marikana: Why? What now?

22 September 2014
Lonmin employees gather at the base of a hill called Wonderkop at Marikana, outside Rustenburg in the North West Province of South Africa, 15 August 2012. The miners were calling for the minimum wage to be raised from R4 000 a month to R12 500.
Lonmin employees gather at the base of a hill called Wonderkop at Marikana, outside Rustenburg in the North West Province of South Africa, 15 August 2012. The miners were calling for the minimum wage to be raised from R4 000 a month to R12 500.

The deaths of 44 people near the Lonmin mine in Marikana in 2012, including 34 miners killed by police on 16 August, reflect a worldwide increase in state repression, symptomatic of global capitalism being in crisis. This was the argument of Martin Legassick, emeritus professor of history at the University of the Western Cape, at a panel discussion held at UCT on 19 August 2014.

"Let's not forget that Marikana was not isolated," Legassick said. "There have been other deaths at police hands in South Africa – Around the world, we've seen an increase in violence and in barbarity."

Violence in Gaza, where hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed by the Israeli military, and police fatally shooting black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August - and the mass protests that followed - bore witness to this, said Legassick.

"All these things reflect an increase in state repression around the world."

Why was this so? Legassick offers an analysis.

"Because capitalism is in crisis. Because capitalism in 2008 went through what's called a financial crisis when banks went bankrupt. The root of that is the accumulation crisis - the inability of capitalists to make profit - and, as a result, they are clamping down on resistance and on protest, and trying to repress it."

When capitalism is in crisis, said Legassick, it loads the problems onto workers.

But there's another side to the protests, according to Legassick: they've gone global, with people in Gaza texting people in Ferguson to show solidarity with their cause.

Regarding Marikana, we should see the dead miners as martyrs and not victims, said Legassick.

"They didn't die in vain. Marikana was a turning point in the history of the country," he continued.

A few days after the killings, Legassick was in Marikana, and attended a meeting at which the names of the slain miners were read out.

"I remember at this meeting, this mass meeting, being hugely impressed by the determination with which those who were speaking and those in the audience who responded were determined to continue the fight for this minimum wage of R12 500," Legassick relates. "And it was that determination, despite the massacre, which sparked the strike wave, which sparked the persistence of struggle that led to partial victory this year in that struggle for R12 500, and which shook up the whole of South Africa."

Associate Professor Andrew Nash, of UCT's Department of Political Studies, shared the panel with Legassick.

Tasked with unpacking what Marikana means for UCT, Nash's answer was cryptic: "Everything. And nothing."

Nash argued that UCT management sometimes seemed reluctant to engage with such issues, suggesting that they don't have much to do with the university. "At the same time, it means everything, in the sense that [it shows us] just as the Soweto revolts of 1976 showed us, in a dramatic form – two possible futures.

"It seems to me that Marikana is one of those turning points, a fork in the road to which no-one can turn a blind eye; no-one can say, 'Oh, we're simply going down the middle."

Much of Marikana's significance lies in the subsequent "cover-up", said Nash.

"A few days after the massacre, President [Jacob] Zuma sent a team of ministers to Marikana to see whether they could get the survivors simply to forgive and forget, to agree that this had been an unfortunate accident. The Defence Minister [at the time] Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, spoke of how she said to the workers, 'Can you not find it in your hearts to give us forgiveness?'

"This was the closest the government has come to taking responsibility for its actions."

This theme of taking responsibility was central to Nash's address.

"Once it became clear that they were not going to get forgiveness on the cheap - that this was not going to be forgotten - instead, the government and its allies (in a sense, all the ruling classes in South Africa) turned to trivialising the victims of Marikana. So the SACP [South African Communist Party] constantly stressed - as if that was the scandal of Marikana - the use of muti by the miners."

Nash decried the depiction of the dead miners as "criminals and savages".

These discourses, along with the use of 'tragedy' as opposed to 'massacre', shifted blame not only away from the government, but onto the miners themselves - as evidenced by the surviving miners being arrested after the massacre, on charges of public violence that were later 'upgraded' to murder.

"One thing that neoliberalism cannot tolerate is a clear explanation of what they're actually doing. What they're doing is increasing economic growth, they're bringing about investment flows and so on, and it's just too bad that workers have to be laid off and take pay cuts and so on in order to improve the investment flows.

"But once you put the dots together and show what neoliberalism is doing – it's burning the furniture to keep the house warm." What do we do about it?

"We [the university] have a part to play, at least in remembering Marikana, but also in understanding there is an image of a future which applies closer to home. Within the university, there's a task," says Nash. "And one can start almost anywhere – in pursuing that prospect of a society that acknowledges the suffering of the past, acknowledges the shame of the past also, and looks forward to building upon it towards a different kind of future."

Story by Yusuf Omar. Photos by Greg Marinovich.

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