Levi Kabwato
Levi Kabwato

Marikana: Political or economic unrest?

No one can argue that South Africa will never be the same again after the Marikana massacre. What remains arguable, however, is how the country moves forward in the aftermath of the incident.

For business, the sooner everything dies down and workers go back to work the better. For workers, in sharp contrast, this is now business unusual. Events after the infamous massacre have provided a new impetus for mine workers across South Africa who feel they can dictate the future conditions of their labour by outlining key minimum demands.

If only it were that easy.

A picture accompanying a Mail & Guardian (print) business story on striking workers not “caving in” speaks much to what all the mine strikes and indeed, every other strike in South Africa is about – quest for tangible economic empowerment. In the picture, a striking mine worker whose right leg appears plastered holds a placard that reads: “Equalization = Back-Pay + 12.500” and then there is a double-arrow linking this text to a briefcase emblazoned “House, Car – BMW, Entertainment”. To the left of all the text, more notably, is the image of a bag of dollars, not rands.

It is a profoundly intelligent placard that captures a message striking workers have either failed to articulate properly or one that the media, as a study into the whole Marikana incident shows, may have deliberately chosen to downplay by not speaking to the majority of the workers. It is a placard that also captures the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a people who, on a daily basis, see first-hand the wealth of this country, its dazzling potential and mighty gains in wealth. Yet, their daily reality is that they are the sacrificial lambs that risk their lives without the reward of adequate compensation or any systematic advancement in life.

In a lot of ways, therefore, the message is deeply political as it touches sharply on the question of access to the means of production, a kind of access that makes it possible for mine workers to clearly see a logical path towards them rising from being rock-drillers to becoming home-owners someday, driving BMWs and being able also, to afford to send their children to really nice schools. With this thinking and given the historical context, therefore, gaining access to and ownership of the means of production becomes more political than it is economic.

The African National Congress (ANC) understands this point very well because this is exactly the foundation of the rhetoric accompanying the so-called “second phase of the transition”, which in itself, is an attempt to re-link the present-day ANC to the core values and aspirations of the Freedom Charter. At the party’s policy conference in June this year President Jacob Zuma made significant reference to the Freedom Charter, he spoke about a national democratic revolution and in the same breath criticised the land-reform programme, going on to declare the state as the custodian of all mineral and petroleum resources in South Africa.

Yet one gets a sense that if the ANC policy conference had happened after Marikana, the tone and message from the ruling party would be different. Perhaps there would be no talk of a revolution and explicit declarations as to who actually owns all this wealth mine workers dig up every day.

Without doubt the massacre has left many in the party morally and intellectually conflicted but it would appear as if there wasn’t any conviction in the manner in which the party seeks to reassure the workers that it has not abandoned them. In fact it’s quite relevant that the mine workers at Marikana and those who have followed suit in the so-called wildcat strikes are flirting with the very ideals of the Freedom Charter. Add to this the enduring perception that the ANC has not shown assertive leadership or sympathy for the workers and you have, as we have seen, the perfect platform for people like Julius Malema, whose message resonates sharply with that of the striking workers.

To his credit President Zuma has attempted to assert himself and give strong indications that he is on top of the situation. He, together with his team, recently met labour, business and community representatives in Marikana, agreeing – as reported by the Mail & Guardian – to “speed up the fight against poverty and combat inequality and unemployment”. Apart from sounding like a resolution made in 1994, this action will not come easy or fast enough for the striking workers.

So what does the future look like?

In the same newspaper, Vishwas Satgar of the Democrat Left Front gives an almost accurate prediction of what we are likely to see going forward. “The strikers’ only lifeline now may rest in the response to the call for a general strike … [P]ost-Marikana, workers [have] broken new ground by testing democratic institutions and the political order, as well as throwing the collective bargaining system into question.”

Meanwhile an organisation calling itself the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) is hatching a plan to keep the strikes going. According to the plan “the only way for mine workers to maintain momentum is to link themselves to the broader workforce and working-class communities who have already taken their discontent to the streets,” reports the Mail & Guardian.

Given the recent treatment of Cosatu by some mineworkers, possibility may rise that broader strike action will occur outside the ambit of the trade union and this, in itself, may lead to heightened national tensions. Alternatively – and this is quite unlikely – it may also mean the end of the workers’ resistance and their return to work because of the incapacity to effectively coordinate on their own.

Regardless the consequences of not just one but two, three or many more Marikanas may be too ghastly to contemplate for government, business and some citizens who, from a distance, have only followed the strikes as gawping outsiders. For the workers, this may be the only way out of the treadmill of repressive labour conditions that have consistently failed to uplift them and their communities out of abject poverty.

For South Africa, an effectively coordinated national workers’ strike such as the one being mooted presents, perhaps, one final opportunity to decisively deal with what slain revolutionary Che Guevara once described as the “barbed class contradictions that grow each day with explosive power”.

If Marikana – with all its symbolism – is the abscess that hurts this nation, then it is very urgent that due attention be given, before it bursts.

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