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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.


  • @LeviKabwato is a social and political commentator. His other areas of interest include media management, journalism, media freedom, freedom of expression in cyberspace, creative writing and radical philosophy.


  1. Sandile Memela Sandile Memela 23 October 2012

    Marikana is the epitome of the giant problem of economic inequality that has haunted South Africa since the discovery of diamonds and gold. It is now an open secret that without a resolution of economic inequality, we are headed for a bumpy road ahead.
    In fact, the economic war is already in our homes as we have resigned ourselves to witnessing and experiencing the killing of fellow citizens for cellphones, plasma TVs, cars and a host of other luxuries by victims of economic inequality and greed.
    Anyone who understands and comes from a struggle background will tell you that the war was not just for non-racialism, non-sexism and democracy but, above all, economic justice and social equality.

  2. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 23 October 2012

    “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,”


    Let’s keep in mind that 12500 a month means that miners will have to pay income tax.

    You know who qualifies for the income tax? Only the richest 10% of the population. So tell, just how much in common with the miners do the rest of the “working class” actually have?

    Are you really expecting domestics, gardeners, newspaper and other hawkers, textile factory workers making less than the minimum wage, farm workers, and all the others who haven’t the slightest chance of seeing a wage even vaguely approaching 12500 to jump on board?

    What exactly do you see the miners’ message being? “Join us and we’ll magically increase your wages”? For the perennially un- and under-employed: “We don’t have any idea where we’ll find the jobs, but we’ll get you one”?

    You’re right: That is Malema’s message. More demagoguery for the poorly educated — “We’ll promise you everything you want, just put us in power.” Promises as empty as Malema’s commitment to them.

    Oh, and one last thing, and pardon the salty language: When the *fuck* did a BMW have *one* fucking thing to do with the ideals of the Freedom Charter? I pay income tax, and I can’t afford one.

    The difference is, I *know* I’m rich, and lucky.

  3. Worker Worker 23 October 2012

    “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.” There you have the problem – simply put. Every single one of these ideologies is completely bankrupt and offers no hope at all for the SA economy. The ‘national democratic’ revolution which is about destruction, as all revolutions are, and is neither national nor democratic. The state as the custodian of all resources – but the state is the heart of the problem – the state is the source of inefficiency and mismanagement. If Zuma had stood up and said ‘I promise you nothing but hard work and building, and consign the bullshit about revolutions and destruction to the ashheap of history’ and then secondly said ‘I want the state OUT of the economy – I want a free economy with free people able to work and better themselves with their own talent, and the state has been nothing but a drain on this vision’ – then there would be some hope. But with such ideologies, founded on discredited socialism which has bankrupted much bigger economies than SA, there is no hope. And the political leadership can’t be the solution – because their ideologies are the basic, unconquerable and fundamental problem.

  4. Worker Worker 23 October 2012

    “there is a double-arrow linking this text to a briefcase emblazoned “House, Car – BMW, Entertainment”. I don’t think anywhere in the world people are quite so crass about their objectives, and quite so unconcerned about the possible work and knuckling down to achieve one’s personal goals. Maybe elsewhere in the world, a worker would focus on his career like this – worker -> shift supervisor -> foreman -> factory manager -> shareholder in company. Only in SA has the link between career success and material reward become so utterly decoupled, and the idea that the path to instant wealth comes from the absurd ‘national democratic revolution’ which decoded basically means taking wealth from someone else rather than doing anything about it yourself. SA is indeed in a uniquely tough situation as the rhetoric of the struggle was never about creating, or building a new, growing industrial economy – it was always about socialist ideas of instant BMWs by taking from others. And the economy just isn’t big enough for it. And the number of truly wealthy people is miniscule. If every country in the world thought that the solution to all their problems was just to move into a wealthier neighbourhood and take from them, God knows how few countries would ever have got out of the post WW2 poverty that most were in. SA needs a complete change of mindset if it is going to have any hope of being successful. And to stop blaming others for its own failures.

  5. Bernpm Bernpm 23 October 2012

    Nice article reflecting the wobbly situation of today’s socio-economic conflict in SA Society.

    Any suggestions to address the situation??

    For the poor, the BMW is a symbol of extreme riches. R600.000 for a car equals
    50 monthly salaries of R12.000 or roughly 4 years of demanded wages.

  6. Tofolux Tofolux 24 October 2012

    @Levi, I have noted the credentials of radical philosophy and for the purpose of discussion can I ask that a radical consideration is made in terms of this particular issue? Personally, I dont think that the surface has been scratched. I also dont think that the direction in which we are directed, will bring the objective analysis we want in this case. This particular issue must be approached from another direction and an in-depth investigation will provide some harsh reality and surprises. It will not take away from the omniscient debate but I still think harsh, radical and strategic unpacking is warranted so that going forward, we will identify correctly, who the movers and shakers are. “All is not what it seems”.

  7. Levi Levi 24 October 2012

    @Sandile – you’re right, Marikana points/reminds us of the much larger problem that exists.

    @Rich – I think more emphasis should be put on the symbolism of the strikes. Why do we have them in the first place? I don’t think anyone is going for instant wealth here or asking to be given a BMW which they can’t account for. The point is that mineworkers – or indeed any other worker – should be able envision a way in which they can advance themselves in life. And of course, advancement in life comes in more ways than just a Beamer!

    @Worker – Revolutions are not about destruction. They become only destruction if their causes are betrayed. And, if socialism is discredited, what shall we then say about the state of capitalism as we are currently witnessing? If anything, developments in the US and Europe prove that the State should be a key actor in the economy as all else is bound to fail. In this case, China and Latin American countries like Bolivia are deeply instructive.

    Your take on talent is dishonest. Talent does not exist in a vacuum, it has to be nurtured somehow and conditions have to be made in order for it to thrive. In your world, innovation would be punished by the more powerful and this would only perpetuate inequality.

    Much more broadly then, it is not about moving into wealthier hoods or driving BMs or Masseratis, it’s about collective vision towards realising a common national goal that affords everyone the opportunity to contribute to the…

  8. Andy Andy 24 October 2012

    @ Levi: I think you make your point really well and back it up brilliantly in the above response! Talent does not exist in a vacuum; the rampantly capitalist views of Worker would seem to cast his chosen name in a highly ironic light.

    Joe Foster, the General Secretary of Fosatu, delivered a keynote address in April 1982 in which he said:

    “It is therefore essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of a wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect workers’ interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters”

    This, to me, is a far more accurate prediction of the future than any Notre Dame may have managed. With Marikana, ANC cadre deployment policies and self-enrichment through companies like Chancellor House and PBF and corruption like the Arms Deal, how long until the SACP and Cosatu break from them?

    These left-wing elements even went so far as to say nationalisation, their over-arching ideal, should not happen in the way the ANCYL envisions because such right-wingers could no longer be trusted to act in the best interests of the people!

    If the NDR is to be revitalised, it must be through elements like the SACP and Cosatu (unpoliticised) who will actually represent the poor majority instead of a broken and corrupt ANC which is a far cry from Tambo, Sisulu and…

  9. Levi Levi 24 October 2012

    @Tofolux – That is a very necessary project but one that most centres of power – government and business – have resisted over the years. Where it has been done, or at least attempted, the project has been discredited or given little attention. But it is critical. You’d think that this is something the National Planning Commission should actively engage in but no…

    In Zimbabwe, for example, findings of a land audit are still being kept a secret, for instance. How can people make meaningful contributions to the discourse on land reform when they don’t have access to such vital information?

    It’s a pity.

  10. Edward Edward 24 October 2012


    advancement in life starts at about the age of 5.

    if a child is not at creche/school by then, and learning about the world in general, then already there is a problem.

    it is impossible that everyone is the same, despite the dogmatic mantra of some of our wabenzi commies.

    i put it to you that it is 90% the government fault. they don’t do their job, be it regulation, or enforcement of rules, or be it just keeping the streets clean.

    lets be honest; these people are low lsm individuals. it is the simple things that are needed. proper schooling, sewerage, water, electricity, safety.
    and with that in mind, why is the area around the mines such a cess pit.

    would you like the employer to also be the local government?

    why is there such high garnishee orders / why are they so indebted? and whos fault is it, because truly, it seems that we should be dealing with children if it is anyone elses fault, other than the workers themselves.

    without the jobs, where would these people be. 2/3 being foreigners, lets not forget.

    lets start being a little honest here. people need to grow up and take responsibilty. it is a sorely missed trait that africa has.

  11. Edward Edward 24 October 2012


    the whole world crash was because of socialism.

    bill Clinton told fanny mae and Freddy mac to give money to people to buy houses, THAT THEY COULDN’T AFFORD.

    europe caught a massive cold because of the underlying debt issues, AND… because of all the socialism in europe.

    greece has a pensionable age of 50 or 55 if im not mistaken. that’s unsustainable.

    just like what is happening in this country, but we are still a couple of years away from that BIG BANG, that is unles this uiselss anc doesnt break everything first.

  12. FarCeSpotter FarCeSpotter 24 October 2012

    Too long has our government focused on “wants” not “needs”. I hate to use this simple analogy, but I fear that if we do not start focusing our resources at “growing our economy” instead of “sharing and uplifting” we will be bankrupt with no hope of recovery.

    Yes we can demand better wages – and I believe there should be a cap on the ratio between the highest and lowest paid workers – but that is not the answer.

    In very simple terms if we would like to see a wealthy population our GDP should be in the order of R10T – else the pie is simply not big enough.

    So the quicker we forget about philosophies, principles and retribution etc. the quicker we can start building success.

  13. enlighten enlighten 24 October 2012

    @Sandile Memela

    Anyone who has common sense will tell you that the war was OBVIOUSLY never about non-racialism, non-sexism, democracy or social equality (Just Look at BEE will You) – It was and IS ONLY about “Economic Power”. (Look at Malema and Zuma)

    Basically, all it boils down to is materialism, greed and power trips.

    Unfortunately, people forgot about happiness and the poor in this amazing equation.

    Capitalism is all about more for the rich (powerful) and less for the poor (outcasts). There will never be room for so called “economic justice” in a capitalistic society (Reality), let’s get that straight, OK.

    So, let’s talk about economic equality, shall we, or just drop the subject completely.

  14. SJ Botha SJ Botha 24 October 2012

    The so-called living wage is a sure way of bankrupting any society and business. It does not take profitability, nor productivity into account and therefore it is a flawed idea.

    In the end, democracy always leads to those who add least to the system, finding out they can vote themselves an income from those who add most. Yet again, a sure way to make any society fail.

    Crime and racism is the expression of the fact that different nation are forced together in a unity state against their will, thus leaving them without a sovereign state of their own. The moment such nation are sovereign, crime and racism for the most part disappear.

    We can get this done, but it seems the politicians are the only ones who stand in our way, so let us remove them and for once do what is right. It has been done in Sudan and is on the cards in Catalonia, Belgium and perhaps even Scotland.

  15. MLH MLH 24 October 2012

    @Rich Brauer: no. I wouldn’t expect anyone to jump aboard the miner gravy train to show support, but I’ll be surprised if strike action by teachers, medics, traffic cops, cops, public sector, etc. isn’t watching everything closely with the idea of future rolling strikes.

  16. Economic and Politics are inseparable in a “developmental state”, as such, labour unrest is a political matter, as much as a business sector one. The matter of leadership though is much more cut and dry. Either leadership takes the lead, or plays second fiddle to populist mob-manipulation… This is the gloomy, yet courage-spurring context of present day SA.

  17. bewilderbeast bewilderbeast 25 October 2012

    “For business, the sooner everything dies down and workers go back to work the better.”
    Here’s the tragedy: The dominant political party AND the dominant workers’ union ALSO want things to “die down and go back to work”!!! Add to that the Communist Party also siding with the bosses and employers of the vast majority of private and state workers and you leave ONLY revolution as a way to say KAK to the eighteenth repetition of “Just vote for us again and next year you’ll have a better life for all”.
    Bullshitting (even when paid for, packaged by exorbitant consultants and ‘bought’ hook line and sinker by the ‘intelligentsia’ and the ‘captains of industry’) has A SELL-BY DATE. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me eighteen times, shame on ME. Well, we’ll soon see if the actual expiry date is nineteen years, maybe even 24 after another election, but sooner or later we’re going to hear more of WE DEMAND.

  18. Tofolux Tofolux 25 October 2012

    @Levi, allow me to sketch a hypothetical scenario. You have a multi party democracy where the opposition party/ies only garner a certain amount of votes. One of these parties are able to hold dominance in an area where the politics of race is political. This number of votes cannot increase or decrease becos this politics is rife under a certain community. This pol party however needs to have a greater support under the populace not only becos time is running out for a certain pol leader but also becos this leader is power-hungry. The unions have always been a broad church and the support of any of the biggest unions will certainly guarantee a considerable seats in Parly. The SG of a union was approached and asked to join this pol leader even if the only attraction was power. The appalled union leader dismissed the idea as a joke and left it at that not only becos unions were going to congress to elect new leaders but also becos of social issues impacting on the needs of workes. The build up to these congresses went unnoticed despite the irony that these elections were hotly contested outside the area of contestation. The pol leader threw in the towel mid contestation because the balance of forces were not in their favour. After congresses a new war erupted. The ongoing deaths and intimidation of union leaders by those on the ground, employees did not make news in the media despite a sustained programme. Also, companies linked with the pol leader also rolled out their …….

  19. Tofolux Tofolux 25 October 2012

    programme of action. The fight and discrediting of the Police Commissioner succeeded only becos he ”droppped the ball”. The new commissioner, barely out of the announcement of her appointment assisted of course, when the Marikana programme was kicked off. The sustained programme of making unions ungovernable has been funded by certain role-players and the front men have been hand-picked. Fear and intimidation is an old tool and it will work amongst those who cannot protect themselves. The timing of the programme of action is not a co-incidence because it must be seen, not as wild-cat strikes but also because of the timing of workers expectations. In fact, the programme is synergised on all fronts.
    As is well known, the pol leader has very good friends in media circles and the guarantee would always be there to focus the attention where it should not be. If you think this is mere co-incidence or bad timing, I once again suggest that we should never leave it to anyone else to do our own ”critical thinking” In the meantime, the pol leader is sitting in the sidelines, not breathing a word but constantly watching, checking on the progamme of action.

  20. #Tbos #Tbos 27 October 2012

    @Levi I come from the EC where the majority of the killed miners come from. The abject poverty, iliteracy, marginalisation, pain and suffering of our people s felt most. These are men and women that suffer day in and day out. With 5.8% of the populace has Matric, where more than 72% live below the poverty line. Where 41% reported no income in 2010. These are the people that were willing to face the bullet rather than continue being poor. These are the people that are willing to take to the street even if it means being fired. They are ready to die for what they belive in. When one of the miners said “Why should i worry about loosing my job because i have nothing anyway”. My view is that one day we will have to deal with the anger of then rural people who will be asking mire questins to our government. Our leadership needs to wake up, for one day our people will march to the Union building to ask for a better life..

  21. Brent Brent 31 October 2012

    All you bloggers can push your ideologies as much as you wish but the actual answer is growing the economy. I saw somewhere else that if we equalised the wealth amongst ALL S. Africans it would come to ± R4500/month per person, which seems too little thinking of the whole country not just the unemployed. So growth is the only answer and it all starts with education, training and good, clean, efficient Govt and does not include strikes, war and violence.


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