by Boniface Mabanza, Ecumenical Service on Southern Africa
The massacre eight years ago
Eight years have passed since 16 August 2012, the afternoon on which South African police, spurred on by hardliners in the government and mining sector, decided to violently end a long-running strike by Marikana miners: 34 miners fell victim to police targeting that afternoon. Since then, 16 August has taken on a special significance in the collective memory, as Marikana represents the first and so far, the largest massacre of the political post-apartheid era, comparable in scale to the massacres of Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976. Over the past seven years, small and large initiatives have mobilized across the country and even beyond South Africa on each anniversary of 16 August to keep alive the memory of the miners killed and their struggle for fair working and living conditions. The central and largest of these commemorative events has always taken place in Marikana, not far from the Koppies, the place where the miners gathered until the massacre in August 2012 to make their voices heard.
This year, due to the corona pandemic that is still spreading in South Africa, the central commemoration event in Marikana will not take place physically. However, the Marikana massacre will be omnipresent in a context where the miners’ struggle for decent working and living conditions takes on a new meaning. In 2012 the miners protested against their poor housing situation, lack of access to running water and electricity, sewage systems and adequate sanitation for most of them, who then as now live in informal settlements in and around Marikana. In addition, the workers demanded a minimum salary of 12500 Rand (as of 2012 the equivalent of about 1182€). According to the calculations at that time, this amount should make it possible for them and their family members remaining in their home provinces and in the surrounding countries of Southern Africa to live in dignity. This sum was also considered the minimum amount of money that could enable the miners and their families to build up resilience and future prospects. 8 years later it has to be stated that 12500 Rand (as of 2020 converted to approx. 605€) in South Africa, taking into account the high inflation, the loss of value of the national currency Rand and the high prices for food and many everyday items, among other things, no longer have the same value. And not only among the mineworkers but also in multiple other sectors there are many workers whose monthly salary is lower than 12500 Rand. All these people in the different sectors of the South African state protected low wage economy, including the many workers in the informal sector, have always found it difficult to build up resiliencies. They are more likely to engage in crisis management by trying to ensure their day-to-day survival.
8th Anniversary of the Marikana massacre in the context of protests against precarity
This precarity in the form of extreme poverty, which in South Africa affects 25.2% of the population according to Statistics South Africa, has now been exacerbated by the lockdown imposed to contain the corona pandemic. This year’s anniversary of the Marikana massacre is thus being commemorated in a national context that is again marked by protests. One of these protests, for example, took place at the beginning of the month on the “National Day for Working Class Action”:
“Saturday 1st August saw communities and organisations across the country unite in action to protest the state’s dismal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the devastating effects of that response on the working classes and poor of South Africa. In deep rural areas and main urban centres alike, farmworkers, healthcare workers and casual workers joined forces with communities, including the unemployed, shack dwellers, activists against gender-based violence, housing movements and human rights movements. While most marched and demonstrated, others took over patches of urban land for community food gardens, dug over the earth, and planted seedlings.”
The organizers count this protest as the largest since 1994, not in terms of the number of people who participated in the various actions, but “because of its national reach and the combination of rural and urban communities, workers and many different organizations that had not worked together before.” The fact that these actions had a national reach is interpreted by the organisers as “an indication of the anger of large parts of the population, which has been plunged deeper into precarity by the actions of government and employers. Government and employers have failed to protect protesters, workers and poor communities from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the many demands made by protesters across the country, the following were heard: An immediate universal basic income, a universal health care system and mass testing to combat Covid-19, permanent jobs, decent housing and clean water for all, rapid release of land for settlements and communal agriculture, a moratorium on dismissals and forced evictions, an end to police repression and gender-based violence, as well as the closure of all schools and a scrap of the academic year. The organisations involved in the protests do not see the protests on 1 August as an isolated event, but as the first action of a programme with several subsequent activities that aim to unite the struggles of the working classes throughout the country in order to create new synergies that will permanently change their situation through profound changes.
The struggle continues
The demands of the coalition, which protested at the beginning of August, would probably have been agreed to by all the miners killed 8 years ago. The demands for permanent jobs, decent housing and clean water for all were at the core of their own protests even back in 2012: Many of the workers were confronted with precarious employment contracts as temporary workers, not to mention the catastrophic situation in Marikana regarding housing and water supply. When the protesters of August 1 talk about a universal health system, they also mean the situation of many mineworkers who have been exposed to health risks such as tuberculosis and silicosis for decades due to their work in the dangerous mines, return ill to their home regions and wait for death there without consistent medical care.
We are talking about people here who are pulling some of the most valuable metals such as platinum and gold out of the ground, with which their respective companies, in the case of platinum yesterday Lonmin and today Sibanye Stillwater, are making huge profits. The miners of Marikana 2012 would also have agreed to the demand for a universal, unconditional basic income, because back then their salaries did not allow them to live a life of dignity. A consistent basic income, which would also benefit their family members, would have relieved them of the pressure as the only bread winners of their families, and the families as a whole would have more at their disposal to satisfy their own basic needs without an everyday struggle. Yet even today, eight years after the Marikana massacre, the families of the deceased are still confronted with the mere fight for survival, and Marikana is now considered synonymous with the struggle for human dignity and appreciation of the lives of the miners, which has not lost any of its relevance. On the contrary, the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic make the contours of the daily struggle for survival even more visible to the entire South African society. The mineworkers are an integral and important part of this society. What makes their situation a particular scandal is the paradox that they belong to a sector that generates wealth on a large scale for a few profiteers in South Africa and worldwide, while at the same time plunging their own workforce into deep poverty. Therefore, the struggle for structural change must continue. For the miners, the communities affected by the extraction of raw materials and the South African population must finally be able to experience justice. “Aluta Continua, Victoria Ascerta!” – “The struggle continues, victory is certain!”