South Africa’s Marikana Massacre: A Year Later, Workers and Unions Still Up in Arms

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Denis Farrell / AP

An unidentified miner contemplates as he looks over the area near Marikana platinum mine in South Africa, Aug. 16, 2013.

Christopher Samkelo, a 23-year-old quarryman, is standing outside Billy’s Tavern, a smokey pub in the heart of South Africa’s platinum belt with a sign above the entrance that reads “no weapons or guns.” The tavern has been a site of the turf war between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). In May, Mawethu Steven, a charismatic AMCU leader, was gunned down at the tavern, one of an estimated 20 union-related murders to have taken place in the Marikana area over the past year. “I have that fear,” says Samkelo, a 23-year-old employee at Impala Platinum, a mining company. “I ask myself, why black people? Why do they always die?”

One year after 34 striking workers from a Lonmin mine were shot dead by South African police in a massacre that captured the world’s attention, the turmoil continues. The tensions between the rival unions are a sign of political unrest in the sector, which is dominated by NUM, the powerful political ally of the ruling ANC party. Workers, poverty-stricken and desperate, have left NUM for AMCU, a more militant party that says it is fighting for the people, not the government. The country’s unions are politically influential heavyweights and the protracted union war promises sustained productivity losses and more strikes, scaring investors from South Africa and hurting the country’s economy, Africa’s largest.

Despite South African President Jacob Zuma promising change — “We must unite against violence from whatever quarter,” he said — and launching a commission to investigate the deaths, no charges have been laid and miners say their conditions have not improved. The Farlam Commission of Inquiry, convened by Zuma to investigate the deaths of 44 people at the Lonmin Marikana mine last August, has undergone multiple delays, most recently because the miners have been unable to secure legal funding, damaging its credibility. Zuma also set up a committee to find solutions to social inequities in the mining communities, but it has yet to make any recommendations.

Though some miners, who earn around $500 a month, have received salary hikes, they say life continues to be poor. Many struggle with debt and continue to live in squalid townships with homes made of rusted, corrugated tin sheets. AMCU, currently in gold sector wage negotiations, wants workers be paid an entry-level minimum of $1,251 a month, a demand that has so far been rebuffed by company executives.

Miners, integral to the South African economy, seem to trust AMCU to win them the concessions they demand. Yet in the run-up to the 2014 elections, the ruling ANC government won’t want NUM, a longtime political ally, to totally lose its hold of the mining proletariat to AMCU, the upstart union that has won majority status in some mines—promising continued unrest as workers feel their voices are marginalized. “The unions are better organized than the ANC branches, so they’ve been able to use union organizational power to get the vote out,” says Roger Southall, sociology professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. “If people like NUM are less organized, that could have major implications for the ANC.”

AMCU unseated NUM, the longtime union powerhouse, as the majority union in some mines, many of them platinum, this year. Its president, Joseph Mathunjwa, was a former NUM member before being expelled after a public fall out with the union’s general-secretary, now ANC general secretary, Gwede Mantashe. When Mathunjwa addresses the miners, the 48-year-old son of a Christian Salvation Army preacher, likes to quote from the Book of James, chapter 5: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.”

Mathunjwa says his union has traction because it is free of political connections. “We won’t cry foul and say we want to be cushioned by the government, then we will be no different than NUM,” he said, adding that he had recently presided over a funeral of an AMCU member shot late July. “You stay focused on the issues that affect your members, you don’t expect any help from anyone, except if you talk about supernatural powers, the trinity, the son and the holy ghost.”

NUM, whose membership is 280,000, down from 337,000 last year, has been reluctant to give up power and is disputing AMCU’s majority claims. “We think that this is a temporary measure,  a temporary issued caused by threats and intimidation,” says Lesiba Seshoka, NUM spokesman, about AMCU’s popularity. Seshoka was on his way to Marikana. That day, a female NUM shop steward had been shot in the head after leaving her house to buy a chicken.  Both unions say the violence is beyond their control. “The way things are going now, I’m afraid that things may go out of hand,” says Shesoka.

The ANC government has been criticized for failing to tackle the labor instability. Its longtime political alliance with NUM is partly to blame for the inaction. South Africa’s ruling coalition is a “Tripartite Alliance” between COSATU, the national federation of trade unions, including NUM, the Communist Party, and the ANC, the former liberation movement led by Nelson Mandela. Prominent members of the party’s top brass have origins in NUM: the union was formed by ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, and ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe served as the union’s general secretary, as did former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe.

“These unions played more of a role than in most places in radically changing the circumstances and bringing a political party to power,” says Douglas Foster, author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa. “Now what’s being figured out is the extent to which this movement is being called to account by members supposedly represented by it, saying we need more attention to the workplace issues, to the equality issues, to health and safety issues, and want to be less impacted in this political process.”

The sustained unrest saps investor confidence in South Africa, says Maurice Mason, a former employee at Anglo American who now works as a mining analyst at Peel Hunt, a broking house. “There are attractive mining environments with compelling economics, which means you don’t have to go to South Africa unless you have an established base there,” says Mason. The country’s economy has taken a hit with the mining industry slump, with its GDP forecast lowered to 2 percent, and the rand falling as low as 15 percent against the dollar. “Where the majority union status is under threat, that can be particularly damaging to productivity,” says Mason, referring to the turf wars between AMCU and NUM. “There is no exaggeration that there are lives at stake.”

Back at Billy’s Tavern, Shimane Phiri is drinking a Castle Lite beer from a can. Phiri works for the South African National Civic Organisation, a mediating group that seeks to prevent violence. But the unions “don’t want to negotiate,” says the 40-year-old, wearing a red beret. “People of AMCU don’t want to see people of NUM. The people of NUM want to destroy AMCU,” says Phiri. “People are miserable,” he says, “they don’t know what to do.”