Marikana, Part III: Democracy’s Sharpeville

By Alex LichtensteinNovember 9, 2013

Marikana, Part III: Democracy’s Sharpeville

Between the Rainbows and the Rain by Philip Frankel

AT THE BEGINNING of this year I reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books an important study of the Marikana massacre of August 16, 2012. Published by the South African press Jacana and written by University of Johannesburg historical sociologist Peter Alexander and a team of researchers, Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer offered a detailed account of the extra-judicial killings at Marikana, a settlement outside a platinum mine owned by Lonmin plc. On that day, South African police coldly shot down 34 striking platinum miners in the country’s worst act of state-sponsored murder since the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The latter atrocity, of course, served to defend the apartheid state; the perpetrators of Marikana acted in the name of the post-apartheid social order governed by the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s former liberation movement, now in power for two decades.

Alexander’s study had been rushed into print in South Africa in order to provide a baffled public with a detailed investigation of exactly what happened that day in August. As I write this, the Farlam Commission, officially established to take testimony and sort out some version of the truth, continues its grim hearings. The transcripts already surpass 15,000 pages. South Africa remains an exceptionally open country in many ways, exemplified by the fact that the verbatim testimony before the Farlam Commission is readily available on the internet a day or two after witnesses testify. At the same time, the overwhelming volume of the material suggests that no final report released by the commission will be able to do more than scratch the surface. American readers still wondering how to understand the events at Marikana can now more easily acquire a copy of A View from the Mountain, reprinted this fall by Ohio University Press. But, as usual, even in the internet age, South African publishing runs ahead of what kind of information is readily available in the United States.

Those who want to look beyond the forensics of the massacre itself, which Alexander and his collaborators so ably describe, will want to get their hands on Philip Frankel’s more recent study, Between the Rainbows and the Rain. Frankel, a self-described “mining sociologist” with “pretensions to be a mine safety expert,” is also the author of a fine study of Sharpeville (An Ordinary Atrocity). Now he takes his practiced — and somewhat jaundiced — eye to what he calls “democracy’s Sharpeville.” Marikana, Frankel insists, “confirms the post-millennial pessimism into which just about all things South African have fallen.” But rather than explain the exact cause of the massacre itself in the days leading to its occurrence, Frankel literally digs beneath the surface in order to grasp its meaning within the larger political economy of deep-level hard-rock mining. South Africa, of course, has a long history of a deeply flawed mining industry, which underwrote the region’s industrialization and process of capital accumulation from the late 19th century on.

From the beginning, large-scale capitalist enterprises bent on wrenching the country’s immense mineral wealth from the ground relied on cheap and hyper-exploited African migrant labor to make their mines profitable. When Afrikaner Nationalists established apartheid after 1948, they thus built on a well-established system of mine labor recruitment and control. South African segregation, with its notorious pass laws, its racial restrictions, its impoverishment of the countryside, and its battery of extremely restrictive labor laws, perpetuated a beneficial investment climate for the mining houses. Dominated by British capital and English-speaking South Africans, the mining industry was deeply complicit in this system under apartheid, notwithstanding its well-burnished reputation for shining the light of “liberalism” into the darker recesses of the apartheid state itself, and the habit of blaming the ills of South African racism on Afrikaners while taking on the mantle of reformists.

Twenty years after the end of apartheid and the coming of democracy to South Africa, how much has really changed underground and in the bleak communities surrounding the mines? What Frankel offers in this book, written in the relentless tones of a jeremiad, is a fine-grained anthropological account of how contemporary work underground is organized and carried out by the miners themselves, largely out of sight of management in their offices in Johannesburg or London, their fancy consultants, and even the well-meaning Farlam Commission investigators. As Frankel observes, because the miners “have been comfortably written off as a primitive semi-crazed collective in the mainstream media, we know little other than the outline of their intentions, motives, internal dynamics and shifting responses.” What he and his team of researchers have discovered in their efforts to rectify this is revelatory, and suggests that Marikana was but a symptom of a far greater set of structural problems. As Frankel claims, “What took place [at Marikana] on August 16th could just as conceivably have occurred with similar violence at just about any mine in South Africa — because of workforce similarities, common historical residues inherited from apartheid and preserved” in contemporary mining culture, as ever-present as the mounds of poisonous mine tailings that still dot the landscape around Johannesburg.

Labor Migrancy

Chief among these apartheid “residues” is the migrant labor system, which for over a century drew impoverished peasants from all over southern Africa to the gold, diamond, and coal mines that made the South African economy hum. Although in principle the large platinum producers in North West province have agreed to hire workers who reside within 50 kilometers of the mine shafts, Frankel estimates that up to 40 percent of the workers at Marikana were long-distance migrants (Indeed, as A View from the Mountain showed, most of the murdered workers were laid to rest back in their places of origin, in the rural Eastern Cape.) Under apartheid, impoverished rural areas depended heavily on cash remittances from men who went out to work on long-term contracts at the mines. In this respect, little has changed in the industry; as Frankel points out, “Despite political change many rural areas in both South and Southern Africa continue to depend on remittances from migrant workers.” In Lesotho, the mountainous country surrounded by South Africa, three quarters of GDP still comes from miners’ remittances, for example.

One aspect of the migrant labor system that has changed dramatically, however, is the means of labor recruitment. In the past, both the mining houses and the apartheid state oversaw labor migration; now this task falls to a competitive private sector, in the form of a parasitic class of “labor brokers,” best understood by an American audience as a cross between border “coyotes” and the labor contractors who prey on immigrant and low-wage workers in construction and agriculture. While the migrant labor system certainly represented one of the most brutal aspects of apartheid, it at least had state oversight and monopoly control. When apartheid came to an end in 1994, Frankel estimates that independent contractors recruited only 10 percent of South Africa’s mine labor force; now, he says, more than 100,000 miners are contracted through labor brokers, including more than 60 percent of the workers in the platinum belt. “South African mines,” Frankel argues, “make extensive use of migrants and, increasingly, of short-term contractors almost twenty years after apartheid because it is cheap, basically un-unionised and mainly compliant when pushed to reach production targets.” Seen as outsiders by local residents in mining areas, and often from different language groups, ethnicities, or even national backgrounds, the migrants often arrive at the platinum belt as unwelcome guests. Moreover, as mining corporations like Lonmin face external pressure to improve housing and living conditions, reliance on “contract migrants also allow[s] the mining houses to circumvent the increasingly onerous demands made on them for sustainably developing more permanent worker communities.” In other words, as the costs of potential blood money paid to resident communities increases, the mine operators look ever more to the old system of migrancy that labor brokers now manage rather than the chamber of mines and the apartheid state — a system defined by the lax rules of neoliberalism and the free market.

In Frankel’s view, the numerous “fly by night” labor brokers who have come to fill the vacuum left by the dissolution of apartheid’s system of labor recruitment and control come perilously close to engaging in human trafficking. In one of his most explosive charges, Frankel suggests that in some instances National Union of Mineworker (NUM) shop stewards have been complicit in this system of “selling workers," which surely would help explain the hostility between many workers and the union leadership. Moreover, as in the past, traditional authorities bind their local subjects to themselves, both through customary forms of obligation and monetary debt, and by acting as middlemen between mine laborers and employers. An important “residue” of apartheid that Frankel largely neglects is the persistent power of these traditional chiefs, who at one time depended on the existence of the ersatz “independent” states, or Bantustans, established by the apartheid government for patronage and influence. The Bantustans are now gone, but the chiefs still wield considerable authority within their former borders; the platinum belt cuts right across one of these regions, the former Bophuthatswana. Other than alluding to the collusion between labor brokers and the chiefs, Frankel doesn’t pay much attention to their importance, or to the significance of mining leases and royalties, a prime means by which mining capital continues to colonize this region at the behest of these authorities. Platinum producers like Implats, Anglo, and Xstrata, three of the largest producers in the world, have struck lucrative deals for mineral rights with the Royal Bafokeng Nation: traditional authorities who according to their own website still wield sovereignty more than 1,400 square kilometers of mineral-rich land in North West province.

Killing per Ton

Not surprisingly, contracted workers are also largely unprotected and therefore remain vulnerable to many forms of exploitation, including low wages, terrible housing conditions, social vulnerability, and susceptibility to disease (HIV/AIDS in particular). While Frankel grants that “most mining companies are sensitive to the needs of their immediate employees,” he notes that “enthusiasm wanes when it comes to the rights of contractors, of dependents, indirect dependents in the extended African family and, further afield, the labour sending areas from which migrants come to mines.” The prevalence of contracted labor, Frankel shows, also has profound effects on the nature of production underground. In no other area of South African life has “transformation” had so little impact, and the legacy of apartheid weighs heavily on the mining sector. For example, as Frankel notes, “many miners, particular migrant labour, are not trained at all on arrival at the mine itself but are sent down into the shafts to work and protect themselves as best they can.” The predictable result is an appalling safety record, one of the worst in the world, with almost 300 recorded accidents per day, and a death rate far exceeding that of the mining industry in both developed and developing nations. As with many aspects of post-apartheid South Africa, this record flies in the face of the country’s stated precepts, in this case “some of the best mine safety legislation in the world.” As Frankel notes, “The National Audit on Mine and Health Safety commissioned by President Thabo Mbeki in 2008/09 indicated that almost 60 percent of mines do not comply with the legal regime.”

Two aspects of platinum production in particular exacerbate the danger underground: bonus payments based on very high production targets, and the assessment of these bonuses by team rather than by individual, creating a powerful incentive for underground workers to press themselves and co-workers to the limit without regard to proper safety procedures. As Frankel observes, “Miners […] are hardly ever able to exercise their constitutional right to withdraw from dangerous workplaces because the bonus is shared by the whole team and some may be far greater risk-takers than others.” This is especially the case for the overworked rock drill operators who conduct the difficult and dangerous work at the rock face, and became the spark plugs for the 2012 labor disturbances at Marikana.

“Many rockfalls [at Marikana’s Karee mine] that kill or injure occur while miners are waiting for roof supports, but continue working anyway in order to meet physically impossible production targets,” Frankel alleges. “Dangerous behaviour is in fact encouraged by production bonuses which drive individual people, teams and their immediate supervisors to exceed sometimes impossible targets and drive the rockface even further.” As for the men who work on the mines, Frankel characterizes them as “simply fodder in an enormous machine where it is ethically acceptable to kill per ton.” Most acquiesce in this system because of lack of alternatives; a crushing debt load engendered by their dependence on labor brokers and the necessity of supporting many dependents and maintaining dual households; the macho culture of mining; and a union no longer able or willing to speak on their behalf. Frankel points to a vicious circle that “saps morale in every mine where workers see their colleagues crushed or otherwise mutilated and induces a culture of fatalism which makes it difficult to motivate participation in safety programmes designed by mine management.”

Complacent Unions

One of the more common explanations for last year’s events at Marikana is the reduction of the conflict to an “inter-union rivalry” between the established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the “upstart” Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which had been trying to organize the deeply aggrieved rock drill operators whose working conditions had recently deteriorated. Frankel sees this as a gross oversimplification and regards both unions as unable to effectively express worker grievances or to defend their interests. Along with many other observers, he agrees that NUM’s well-paid leadership has essentially “become the tool of management or a labour aristocracy that no longer represents the views of its constituents.” Remote from the conflicts as discontent brewed deep underground at the rock face, NUM leaders had lost credibility with the workforce and “lacked experience and understanding needed to chart a way forward in a violent situation following on decades of often near-automatic worker compliance with the established system of industrial relations.” In contrast to the many left activists (mostly Trotskyists) who saw in the conflict a potential opening in a trade union movement they believed had sold out, however, Frankel believes that NUM’s challengers in AMCU did little better. While apparently popular among workers at Lonmin’s Karee mine near Marikana, AMCU lacked the “organisational resources to impose its plan on the situation it had partially ignited,” forcing workers back on their own resources. Still, Frankel concludes that NUM will have a very difficult time winning back these workers, pointing out that “in the aftermath of the massacre and the consequent wave of industrial strikes many of the critically placed rock drillers whose behaviour underwrites operations at Lonmin have been effectively alienated from NUM.” In fact, on the anniversary of the massacre, Lonmin chose to recognize AMCU as the majority union representative at the Karee mines, though labor-management relations there remain tense.

Corporate Witchcraft

Those forces most eager to dismiss the miners’ grievances and the direct actions that precipitated the violent confrontations of August 2012 — the police, the NUM leadership, Lonmin, and even the ANC — like to point to the miners’ alleged reliance on a “sangoma,” or traditional healer, to offer them “muti” that would protect them from police bullets. The scholar-activists who produced A View from the Mountain dismiss such charges as little more than “the old ‘agitator theory’ of strikes,” but Frankel gives them a bit more credence. In doing so, however, he does not intend to ratify a “discourse depicting miners as frenzied savages” (in the words of Alexander and his collaborators) or to write off the miners as “irrational” or “pre-political” actors who refused to “negotiate” in a proper manner. Rather, he seeks to illustrate the “huge social gap between the universe of the worker and that of mine management,” a gap that the NUM leadership which long ago abandoned their mine coveralls for suits (or Struggle T-shirts) could no longer bridge. “[T]hese traditional healers are important,” Frankel insists, “particularly for migrant workers who regularly return to places like the Eastern Cape from which they are recruited.” Faced with frightening and nearly unbearable conditions underground over which they have little control, it is little wonder that these workers consult sangomas to help “revitalise” them for the hellish work that awaits them upon their return to the mines. As Frankel concludes:

Understanding of the anthropological sub-culture among mineworkers, especially those with connections to rural areas […] is utterly critical for the ‘culture change’ that mining leadership has come to recognise and is important if the mines are to be transformed into something approaching a ‘normal’ industry.

It is worth reflecting that the corporate strategies pursued in management’s air-conditioned offices rely on their own peculiar type of “muti,” otherwise known as “corporate social responsibility,” with a battery of consultants seeking to work miracles and to inoculate the mining houses against state or worker control. Frankel acknowledges “a major investment by the industry in sustainable development, or at a less grandiose level, projects that assist rather than harm people or communities involved with mining.” A quick glance at any platinum producer’s website, bristling with slickly produced reports on “sustainable development” and “zero harm,” confirms this. Yet the wide gap between these aspirations and the social conditions in the platinum belt, above ground as well as below, persists. Frankel does his best to explain this paradox. First, as he points out, the “baseline” for social development in the country’s mining sector was extremely low, given the social history of apartheid. Secondly, as far as most mining “stakeholders” are concerned, social development plans remain a distraction from the imperative of production. This is the case for “mine managers whose eye is on reaching production targets and for whom ‘development’ is mainly a bother,” as well as for  “shareholders who are less than ethically minded” and, as the events at Marikana suggest, even “top union leaders whose primary concern is to obtain for themselves a piece of the highly lucrative mining pie.” Moreover, companies that do make an effort to improve their safety records or to provide decent housing often do so as a question of corporate PR, rather than for substantial structural change in the way the mining industry is conducted. “The purpose,” Frankel observes, “is to create the appearance of efforts to alleviate poverty and improve the lives of people behind the rhetoric that the company ‘cares.’ ” An entire industry of “consultants” has sprung up to implement these “tick-box interventions.” What are they if not sangomas dispensing corporate muti?

To be fair, Frankel does not lay all the blame for the ineffectiveness of developmental programs at the feet of the mining houses alone. Local communities and traditional authorities, beset by corruption and inefficiency, have proved woefully unable to institute these programs on their own behalf, throwing up bureaucratic obstacles at every turn — a reflection of the broader problem of incapacitated “service delivery” that has created mounting political dissatisfaction across South Africa and done much to undermine the legitimacy of the ANC. In the end, Frankel claims, “mines that should be playing a developmental role, be it in [the platinum belt] of Rustenburg or the coal fields of Witbank, are held hostage by special interests most of which are linked in or otherwise connected to the local branches of the ruling ANC.”

Mining’s Future

South Africa controls 80 percent of the world’s PGMs, or “Platinum Group Metals,” central elements in the production of automobiles, computers, mobile phones, and many other consumer durables. While in decline, the country’s gold industry remains important as well. Yet, as it did right from its 19th-century origins, the capital-intensive mining industry struggles to make a profit without a high degree of labor exploitation. The industry’s accompanying social costs — from the migrant labor system and all its attendant ills, to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to occupational injuries, to environmental despoliation — remain appallingly high and fall unevenly on the South Africa’s most vulnerable post-apartheid populations. As Frankel puts it, “Marikana is less about a single massacre with all its horrible specifics, and more about a fundamental degenerative process in mining and in civil society in general.”

Rather optimistically, however, Frankel places his hope in the fact that in the “last analysis, shareholders are not especially attracted to transparently exploitative mines that mistreat, neglect or succeed in killing their labour” and that “[g]uilt by association is equally apposite for modern international investors, the majority of whom are turned off by industries racked with poverty, disease, instability and environmental disasters.” But investor intervention requires transparency as well as conscience. The enormous International Finance Corporation loan the World Bank floated to Lonmin in 2007 — on the basis of the company’s stated plans to develop the surrounding region — suggests that corporate muti proved too powerful for local forces on the ground, like the South African Council of Churches, who warned that trouble was brewing in the platinum belt. Many on the left, while disgusted with ANC incompetence and corruption, still embrace nationalization of the country’s mines as a potential solution to the mining sector’s travails, hearkening back to the 1955 Freedom Charter’s ringing declamation that “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.” But the fact that defrocked ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s demagogic new party, the populist “Economic Freedom Fighters,” champions this solution as well does little to help its cause. Frankel does not appear to embrace this proposed solution, although he declines to consider it in depth.

At the same time, Frankel worries that management doesn’t have the foresight to grapple with the industry’s deep and unsustainable flaws. “Rather than move to examine the structural deficiencies of the industry with the urgency they deserve,” he argues, “mining leadership has […] turned to the old tried and sometimes tested remedy of laying off workers to reduce labour costs in a platinum industry dogged by low prices.” Indeed, as the Mail & Guardian bluntly reported at the beginning of this year, “Once an engine of job creation, South Africa's mining industry faces soaring costs, labour unrest and falling production that is threatening other mines with closure.” The mining industry now employs 30 percent fewer workers than it did two decades ago, and Frankel estimates that as many as 67,000 jobs, representing about a fifth of the mining workforce, could be shed this year from people laid off in the mines and in other industries reliant on the mining sector.

Depending who you ask, the ongoing crisis in mining stems from low skill and productivity levels, poor safety practices, ineffective unions, stubborn management wedded to an apartheid model of labor relations, high labor costs, volatile global markets, or a combination of all of these factors. Regardless of the cause, as Frankel recognizes in the course of his broad indictment of the industry, nothing less than a program of massive social investment designed to attack all of these problems at a structural level will suffice to make South Africa’s minerals an engine of development rather than just another resource curse. It remains to be seen if the ANC is up to the task. That’s the meaning of Marikana. 


Alex Lichtenstein is a book review editor for the internet discussion group H-SAfrica.

LARB Contributor

Alex Lichtenstein is the author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (Verso, 1996). He teaches U.S. and South African history at Indiana University, in Bloomington, and is a book review editor for the internet discussion group H-SAfrica.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.