This year marks 10 years since the Marikana massacre and its implications for the legitimacy of South Africa’s post-apartheid democratic order. The violence, social division and contestations over socio-economic redistribution, which characterised the Marikana massacre, reminded society that mining has shaped the country’s political economy and macro-social trends significantly since the 19th century.
Some prominent examples of ruptures and turning points include the 1922 Rand Revolt and the 1946 African mineworkers’ strike. Mine worker collective agency, which was largely oriented towards social movement unionism, equally shaped the political and economic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s. All these worker strikes produced noticeable changes in the country’s political economy and broader societal structural make-up.
The 2012 massacre should be understood as a continuation of this historical trend, highlighting the connections between economic and political social justice in South Africa. However, our 2018 publication on the relationship between structural change, worker insurgency and shifting trade union strategies in mining amplified the following three major themes that point society towards salient lessons to be gleaned from Marikana.
First, the changing nature of work and social reproduction strategies in contemporary mining communities. South Africa’s transition towards a market-oriented economy over the past 28 years has deepened labour and community development precariousness and fragmentation in several ways. It also weakened human development and decreased livelihood standards for both unemployed and poor working groups in society. Government, employers and the labour movement have struggled to create adequate responses to the changing socio-economic conditions, which exacerbate long-standing industrial relation conflicts over socio-economic and political disparities. South Africa’s industrial relations system is not compatible with the contemporary structure of labour markets, especially in sectors such as mining with expanding precarious employment.
Secondly, workplace labour market struggles cannot be separated from livelihood social reproduction challenges in mining communities. The ethnographic research conducted by Asanda Benya and Crispen Chinguno in the platinum belt illustrates that mineworkers’ livelihoods cannot be fully understood within the confines of workplaces or shop floors. Workers reside in mining communities with multiple local socio-economic disparities and battles over limited resources and opportunities for social mobility. They need access to municipal public goods, such as housing, water, transport infrastructure and community health services. Yet, their low wages, employment insecurity and decreased access to trade union representation impede them from obtaining these public goods equitably. Women in mining communities often carry the burden of trying to improve the livelihood standards of male mineworkers. This assistance includes undertaking care labour within households or engaging in survivalist informal economic activities to supplement low wages. Marikana has taught us that care labour, informal economy strategies and public goods relate to workers’ struggles.
Thirdly, Marikana has highlighted that the current model of mining thrives on creating or amplifying social differences and hierarchies. This is designed to secure the reproduction of cheap (mostly black African) paid and unpaid labour to maximise accumulation. The precarity of work, community socio-economic development and livelihoods are recurrent parts of this model of mining, which is grounded on creating estranged workers and communities controlled by violence. Marikana represents a rapture that has precipitated the reorganisation and restructuring of work and trade unions. The strike wave was organised through informal workers’ committees outside the unions. These were later absorbed into the structures of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) which emerged as the new dominant union after the displacement of the NUM. This form of worker agency outside trade unions highlights the limitations of traditional organising strategies used by trade unions.
AMCU emerged from the strike wave as the new worker collective voice. In the face of threats from retrenchment, AMCU brokered an agreement with Sibanye Stillwaters in 2019 to terminate all subcontractors. This was meant to save its members in permanent jobs from the chop. As a result, 1 709 workers employed by subcontractors lost their jobs. In 2021, subcontracted workers at Implats revolted against AMCU, claiming that it did not have their interests at heart. Some of the subcontracted workers shifted to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and this generated tension, inter-union rivalry and a series of violent strikes. This once again highlights the crisis and limitations of trade unions in articulating the collective interests of all workers in the context of neo-liberal capitalism, which thrives in creating social differences and hierarchies among workers. Marikana questioned trade union movement, political and organisational orientation and on the other hand, reflected the possibility of its renewal and fluidity towards autonomy and independence from the political alliance.
However, some positive socio-economic outcomes point to the possibility of restoring the dignity of black mineworkers. The 2012 unprecedented worker militancy and solidarity culminated in a significant rise in real wages for an average mineworker. Research drawing from longitudinal data in the last 20 years from Stats SA and the mining council reported highlights a marginal increase in real wages of 5% for an average mineworker. This is attributed to a rise in solidarity among workers and trade union militancy. The statistics may be excluding subcontracted workers, but they do illustrate a significant shift in the right direction. Marikana rekindles hope that workers’ collective agency, militancy and solidarity could potentially transform the apartheid exploitative cheap labour regime. But, this requires three systemic changes: restructuring trade union organising, radical industrial relations reform and linking workers’ advocacy to broader community struggles against the dispossession and exploitation inherent in South Africa’s racialised capitalist system.
*Dr Crispen Chinguno is a senior lecturer in the sociology department at Sol Plaatje University. Khwezi Mabasa is the economic and social policy lead at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung SA.