On August 16 the South African Police Service killed 34 mineworkers, injured 78 and arrested 270 others who had gathered on a rocky outcrop a 90-minute drive from Johannesburg near the Marikana Platinum Mine owned by Lonmin Plc. A week earlier, ten other people died: six mine workers, two security guards and two policemen.

The deaths of 44 people sparked shock, dismay and profound soul-searching throughout South Africa. In 2010, South Africa took so much pride in hosting the 2010 World Cup of soccer, seeing it as an example of what can be done when everyone works together. Now the country has been forced to look at its darkest side and assess how far it has moved toward the aspirations expressed by Nelson Mandela in 1994 when he became the first black president and the first to be elected by a majority: “We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.”

Underlying the tragedy brought on by the working conditions and violent protests there is something deeper. The Marikana crisis is a wake-up call bringing to the foreground the challenges from the nation’s impoverished majority, and the unfinished promises to that majority. If left unresolved, these issues will imperil democracy, the rule of law and the hard-won civic, social and economic rights enshrined in the South African constitution.

A crucial industry

The South African Department of Mineral Resources acknowledged that there were 127 deaths in the mining industry in 2011 due to “falling of ground.” This was 25 fewer deaths than in the previous year. In addition, there are high incidences of silicosis, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

South Africa’s economy is the largest on the African continent – 32.7 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP in 2011, according to the World Bank – and mining is its cornerstone. The mining industry currently employs 500,000 people. It has had a crucial political and economic impact on the growth of the country since the discovery of gold and diamonds in the mid-nineteenth century. Mining represents 6 per cent of South Africa’s economy – down from 21 per cent in 1970, but still almost 60 per cent of export revenue, according to South Africa’s National Development Plan.

There has been a worldwide boom in commodities since the year 2000, with growth of 5 per cent a year in the 20 largest producing countries. South African production actually declined by 1 per cent a year during this period, a missed opportunity to grow the economy.

Platinum is a precious metal used as a catalytic converter in automobile exhaust systems to reduce harmful pollutants. It is also used in laboratory and dental equipment and jewellery. South Africa produces upwards of 80 per cent of the world’s supply and is estimated to have more than 90 per cent of the known global reserves. Different estimates in the National Development Plan foresee growth of between 100,000 and 300,000 jobs over the next 10 to 12 years, based primarily on platinum mining.

A history of mining conflicts

After World War I the mine owners, through their Chamber of Mines and supported by the government, decided to increase their use of cheaper black unskilled labour. This had a major impact on the white mineworkers who earned seven to ten times more. Blacks and whites formed separate unions and organized at cross-purposes. The historic confrontation with the white unions was the 1922 Rand General Strike which saw 81 workers, 43 soldiers and 29 policemen killed and more than 650 people injured. Charges were laid against 853 people, of which 46 were for murder. Eighteen were sentenced to death, though public reaction led to 14 being reprieved.

The African Mine Workers Union was created in 1941, backed by a broad coalition seeking to promote and defend the interest of the black mineworkers. The Chamber of Mines refused to recognize the union, and trouble with the workers brewed. Prime Minister Jan Smuts marginally increased wage levels, reimbursing the mine owners by transferring back taxes. He also invoked War Measures to prevent gatherings of more than 20 people on mining property.

In 1946 a major confrontation with the black miners took place. Of the 400,000 workers on the Reef in Johannesburg, 70,000 went on strike demanding an increase from two shillings to 12 shillings, paid two-week leave and family housing. The strike was brutally put down after a week, with nine deaths and several hundred injuries. As he later wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela, then a rising activist in the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, “was impressed by the organisation of the union and its ability to control its membership.” Nevertheless, the Smuts government managed to smash the union, and 52 men were prosecuted for incitement and sedition, resulting in fines and imprisonment.

Two decades later, the National Party, which ruled South Africa during the apartheid period from 1948 to 1994, passed legislation allowing the black mineworkers to unionize. Created in 1982, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is today the largest trade union in South Africa, having expanded to the platinum mining, construction and electricity industries and the public service. In the 1980s migrant mineworkers lived far away from their families for 11 months of the year, in compounds of cramped large dormitories with 10 to 20 beds in each room. These quarters were isolated from nearby towns and cities so that the white mine owners and the state could control the workers’ movements. But bringing them together in these compounds also, ironically, facilitated NUM’s efforts to organize the workers for better working conditions and recruit them into the struggle against the apartheid system.

Over the years, former NUM members came to play prominent societal roles. Some became shop stewards in the mines, advanced into skilled labour positions previously restricted to whites and served as elected councillors and mayors in their communities. Former general secretaries of NUM include Kgalema Motlanthe, once Secretary General of the African National Congress and currently Deputy President of the country; Gwede Mantashe, once Chairman of the South African Communist Party and currently Secretary General of the ANC; and Cyril Ramaphosa, who headed up the ANC negotiating team at the end of apartheid and became a very wealthy businessman – with holdings including an equity stake in the ownership of the Marikana platinum mine.

In 1999 close to 3,000 mineworkers quit NUM to form the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which was officially recognized in 2002. AMCU’s leader, Joseph Mathunjwa, was drummed out of NUM by the then General Secretary, Gwede Mantashe, for having brought “disrepute on the union.” AMCU is more militant than NUM and has made significant inroads in recruiting members away from it. It is alleged that AMCU has encouraged the Marikana workers to go on wildcat strikes.

Living and working conditions

There is still much uncertainty as to just what happened at Marikana. President Jacob Zuma appointed a commission within a week of the tragedy, and observers hope that it will sort out the facts. What is known is that the miners went out on strike, at the risk of losing their employment, for a base monthly salary before benefits of R12,500 (about C$1,500), two to three times the amount they currently receive.

While there are differing portrayals of their living and working conditions, a helpful source of information on the platinum mines is the Bench Marks Foundation, a faith-based organization chaired by the Anglican Bishop of Pretoria, Dr. Jo Seoka. Bishop Seoka has been one of the participants in negotiations between the strikers and Lonmin following the Marikana events. The Foundation’s Policy Gap Number Six, published in 2012, reports that Lonmin employs 23,915 employees permanently, the majority of them at Marikana. Lonmin also has 9,131 full-time contractors, a drop of slightly more than 1,000 from 2009. Thus, roughly one third of employees are subcontractors.

Subcontracted workers are usually poorly paid, poorly trained and educated and poorly accommodated. They also lack long-term familiarity with the work environment and culture, being highly mobile between jobs. Their presence therefore compromises the health and safety of other workers. There were three fatalities in the Marikana mines in 2010, and before year end in 2011 there had been six fatalities.

According to Nerine Khan, Director of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), an independent dispute resolution body established under the Labour Relations Act, the Marikana workers do not trust the unions and are now represented “to a certain degree” by the clergy.

Where do we go from here?

Lonmin agreed to significant wage increases of 11 to 22 per cent, which led to wildcat strikes, lockouts and even firings in other platinum and gold mines, where mineworkers have been demanding similar gains. Business and government initially supported the agreement, but there are fears that the reputation of an industry fundamental to the South African economy will be irreparably damaged. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), NUM and the ANC at first criticized the agreement because it circumvented the collective bargaining process and would encourage others to do the same. Subsequent meetings between the unions and the Chamber of Mines may result in increases for the lower rungs of unskilled labour across the mining industry, as well as commitments to improve the social conditions of the workers.

The Commission of Inquiry named by President Zuma was given a broad mandate, to look into the conduct of Lonmin Plc, the South African Police Services, two rival unions (AMCU and NUM) and their respective members and officials, the Department of Mineral Resources and any other government departments or agencies. The commission will also look into the conduct of individuals and loose groupings in fomenting and/or promoting a situation of conflict and confrontation which may have given rise to the incident.

The government has voiced concerns about outside “instigators” who have gained the confidence of the mineworkers. The “instigator” who has received the most public attention is Julius Malema, a 30-year old populist and former ANC Youth League President. Malema, once a political ally of President Zuma, was expelled from the ANC in April 2012 for having brought disrepute to the party. The mineworkers have greeted him warmly, and he has called on the workers to make the country “ungovernable,” while telling the domestic and international media that he favours nationalization of the mines. Several weeks after the Marikana incident, Malema was charged with 16 counts of alleged “money laundering.”

All of this plays out against the political background of the December 2012 leadership conference and the question of whether President Zuma will be the party’s nominee for a second term. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is the likely challenger, but he has not played his hand.

The commission is expected to focus on the issue of violence and whether the police response was appropriate. Many questions await responses. On the fateful day of August 16 many mineworkers had homemade spears, sticks and machetes. Who supplied these weapons and what were their motives? Why were the police shooting live ammunition instead of water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades? The mineworkers and supporters were not gathering in a public place where passersby were present. Did the police feel threatened, and if so why did the police not simply retreat? Between 2008 and 2010, police killed 1,092 people in the exercise of their duties across South Africa. Is there a “law and order” mentality that has gotten out of hand?

But there are a number of wider and more profound questions that the commission’s mandate does not appear to cover. The answers to these questions will prove crucial to the economic and political future of South Africa:

  • The mines are critical for the South African economy and platinum is coming to occupy the preeminent place once held by gold. Platinum prices have gone as high as US$2,000 an ounce and fell to $1,400 before rising again in the wake of the Marikana tragedy. Some experts as well as mining companies suggest that there is enough supply to satisfy the demand even with the mine closings. If that is the case, will the mining companies reopen once stability is restored? Given the small number of decision makers in the industry, are there institutional arrangements in place to ensure fair play in pricing and labour relations over the long term?
  • What are the roles, responsibilities and commitments of the key nongovernment stakeholders (mine owners, financial institutions, unions, traditional leaders, community organizations, churches, nonprofit organizations) to improve the living, working and overall socioeconomic conditions of the working poor in the short, medium and long term?
  • What can be done to redress poverty and unemployment in South Africa, and the related inequality between rich and poor, which according to the World Bank report in 2011 is the greatest in the world?
A “Walk Together” approach

These are difficult questions to which there are no simple answers. But South Africa’s new democracy cannot afford the luxury of ignoring them. Mamphela Ramphele, herself a moral icon of the struggle as a leading activist in the Black Consciousness Movement, a PhD in social anthropology and the recent founder of Citizens Movement, articulated the challenge at the Carnegie3 Conference in September 2012 where she focused on the historic alignment between the political elites and the “Captains of Industry” and its effect on poverty and inequality. She concluded her remarks as follows:

We need a new approach that binds citizens, the government and the private sector in a “Walk Together” approach for a more equal society. Citizens must hold those in the government accountable at all levels, but many need to be enabled through vigorous civic education. Government must return to serving the public and not feed the greed that is driving corruption and failure to regulate and manage the socioeconomic system effectively and efficiently. The private sector must take a longer-term view of its best interests and use its considerable skills and economic muscle to tackle the skills crisis that is robbing young people of hope about a future that is inclusive.



The Bench Marks Foundation’s research team visits to Marikana concluded that the residential conditions of Lonmin and other mine company employees were appalling: “This can be seen in the proliferation of shacks and informal settlements, the rapid deterioration of formal infrastructure and housing in Marikana itself, and the fact that a section of the township constructed by Lonmin did not have electricity for more than a month during the time of the last visit. At the RDP Township we found broken down drainage systems spilling directly into the river at three different points. Residents informed the Bench Marks Foundation team that they have been reporting the matter to both the Local Government and Lonmin for five years now, and it still remains unaddressed. The Bench Marks Foundation team interviewed residents living next to the spills and found that children showed symptoms of chronic illnesses associated with such spills …

“The Bench Marks Foundation is also concerned about the appearance of bilharzia warning signs appearing next to surface water streams in Marikana. The presence of bilharzia in the surface water is a direct consequence of informal settlements, a major cause of which is the housing policies of mining companies, and failure to maintain and repair sewage and drainage systems by Local Government.”


The National Deputy President of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe, worked for ten years for NUM before becoming Secretary General of the ANC. In a recent address he offered this analysis:

“Rock drillers are an important category in the production chain of a mine. If there is no drilling, if they don’t drill, all other operations are superfluous. And yet they are regarded as unskilled labour. They don’t even have to know the depth of the holes they drill, that’s determined by the length of the bit. But the work that is regarded as skilled labour is work that is done by geologists, people who are trained … So these workers do that single work of drilling, in the olden days they did exactly that same work for 17 up to 20 years, so they gain job-specific experience and so they can’t be transferred or promoted to other areas, but they know one thing and that is that if they don’t drill there is no production. So if you get to them and say ‘well you are underpaid, withdraw your labour power,’ they will go along with that.”

Although mine workers are given a housing allowance, most of them send the money back home and live in shacks in the worst conditions imaginable. Motlanthe alleged that there are dark forces of small secret groupings of four to five people who have conspired to mobilize the Marikana workers through a ritualistic process involving the killing of someone in order to generate a “trance”-like state of mind, procure weapons and lead the process to mobilize the workers to go on strike.

He also referred to the “stratified” relationship between unskilled labourers such as the rock drillers and their union representatives who negotiate on their behalf: “All of the shop stewards who get elected and are also full-time shop stewards, are the most articulate, they earn better, so when they negotiate, invariably they are likely to sign once the percentage offered makes sense to them as individuals, and so the lower rung has no voice, and their interests are only addressed in mass meetings.”