Interview: South Africa after Marikana

Issue: 137

Peter Alexander

The massacre of 34 striking miners at Marikana, near Rustenburg in North West Province, on 16 August 2012 marked a watershed in the history of South Africa, ruled by the African National Congress (ANC) since the end of apartheid in 1994. Peter Alexander, who led a research team to the area immediately after the massacre, talked to International Socialism.

Peter, you are a historian of the working class movement in South Africa, so from the perspective of the history of that movement where would you place the Marikana strikes and what has developed since then?

The massacre is unique in its scale and character. In terms of the killings in a strike you have to go back to 1922 to find anything on a similar scale, and that was a much more even battle between capital and workers. 1 In terms of massacres more broadly, you have to go back to 1976 and the Soweto massacre to find anything that’s bigger than what’s happened in Marikana. There was a massacre of about 40 people at Boipatong in 1992, but if you assume that this particular massacre included 44 people—that is 34 people on the day and ten in the preceding week—this is even bigger than that one. So this is a massacre on a very large scale and given that it has involved a democratic government rather than an apartheid government it is very significant politically.

You’ve talked about what the strike represents in terms of the actions of the state, and it’s remarkable from the point of view of violence in strikes that the comparison is with the Rand Revolt of 1922, when white workers clashed with the South African state. But there’s also the angle of what this means in terms of the development of the working class movement in South Africa. The organised working class today is essentially the one that emerged from the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, and that had been defined by the unions that emerged in that period and their federation in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). This is a strike, or a series of strikes, that are at least partially against Cosatu and that are in the key industry in South Africa. This is a strike in the heart of the so-called minerals-energy complex.2 It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about those sorts of questions.

I think that there are two points that are important. The first is that what emerged from the massive working class struggle of the 1970s and 1980s into the 1990s was the class compromise sealed in 1994, which legitimised capitalism in South Africa. In return the capitalists agreed to economic empowerment to develop black capitalists and agreed to support the form of democracy that was introduced at that point. At the heart of that compromise was the development of a particular labour relations regime which was emerging before 1994, but was formalised and codified in the Labour Relations Act of 1995. That involved a number of different components.

It was a tripartite arrangement at one level, in that it involved the state, for instance, in the labour courts, but it focused on centralised bargaining at an industrial level. In gold mining and coal, for instance, there are bargaining chambers which involve the workers and employers (workers through the National Union of Mineworkers mainly, but not only) and the employers of different kinds. In platinum it worked out slightly differently in that bargaining occurs at company level. Nevertheless, the key features are similar in both instances in that the system works on the basis of majoritarianism. In other words the main union in particular job categories negotiates on behalf of those categories and in this case (the case of Lonmin and other platinum companies that have faced strikes) this means in practice the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM); so it has had a monopoly of bargaining rights in platinum companies.

The second aspect is the check-off system. This means that the union gets a guaranteed flow of income. The third component is that the legislation provides for the possibility of protected strikes; that is strikes in which the employers are not allowed to sack the workers. But to have a protected strike you have to go through a whole long set of procedures. In this particular case—Lonmin and the other strikes—workers have gone on strike without them being protected; that is they are unprotected strikes (sometimes referred to wrongly as illegal strikes), and they have challenged the majority union, NUM, and hence its capacity to continue to benefit from the check-off arrangements, and a number of other aspects we can talk about.

So that’s one point in relation to a past that was institutionalised through the Labour Relations Act and which carries through into the present. The LRA in a sense froze a particular balance of forces that existed in 1994 and now what we see is a shift in the balance of forces and the old arrangements can’t continue. Now they have shifted essentially because of this massive strike wave in the key industry in South Africa, and that strike wave echoes what happened in 1973 with the emergence of a new black trade union movement that was organised separately from the mainly white unions of the time. A key question is whether this will lead to the development of a new movement of the kind that developed post-1973.

Before we go on to talk about the new workers’ movement that is developing, I’d like to explore the background political economy a bit more. These are strikes that are taking on the most powerful capitalist companies in South Africa and although both the mining industry and the wider South African economy have changed massively over recent decades it remains the case that mining is the place where local South African capital and transnational capital intersect to extract massive profits from the industry, much of which is then integrated into global circuits of financial capital. This is then a series of strikes that are confronting the very core of South African capital. Do you have any thoughts about how capital is responding and about the relationship between mining companies and the state, especially the ANC government?

The mining companies clearly feel threatened by the strike wave. Although Anglo-American in particular has massive interests in both, it is useful to distinguish between the platinum and gold mining industries. Platinum expanded very rapidly during the first decade of the 21st century, though profit levels subsequently fell slightly.3 There was expansion, with new workers coming into the industry, people with heightened expectations because the industry was making such large profits, directors getting enormous salaries, and so on. There was a new younger workforce, not the same as the organised working class of the pre-1994 era. Those who have been leading the strikes, they are a younger generation, most of whom have come into the industry post-2000. So there is a younger generation in platinum and, in addition, there are possibilities for getting substantial wage increases where workers push hard because the companies, even though their profit levels have gone down, nevertheless are still making very substantial profits.

Things are somewhat different in the gold industry where there has been a long-term decline and where the capacity for large pay increases is attenuated. This is a key factor. I believe that Lonmin, particularly because this is where the most significant strike had been, could have paid increases but was probably put under pressure by the government not to concede increases because of their implications for the mining industry in general, including black capitalists aligned with the ANC. We do not know this for certain but it does look as if the initiative to take a firm line with the workers at Lonmin was coming from the government and also, for the reasons that I have indicated, from the trade unions.

Let’s go on to talk about the new workers’ _movement. Can you say something about the ways in which they are organising themselves and about the kind of tactics that they are using?

Organisationally the movement is taking two forms. Firstly there has been a recent development of a committee that brings together delegates from the different strikes. Now this is going to be a temporary arrangement because the strikes won’t continue for ever, but it provides the potential for workers to get to know each other, initially across the different mines. That is very important as one of the things that has become clear at Lonmin is that to a very large degree people didn’t know each other on the different shafts, even within the same mine. The strikes unite people from different workplaces within particular mines, and now, in addition, we have workers from Lonmin meeting workers from Anglo-American, Impala, Goldfields’ KDC mine, elsewhere in the gold mines, etc. So there is the development of a network of militants that will continue to exist and provide the possibility for new movements in the future, even when the current movement subsides.

A second aspect is the development of a relatively new union in the mining industry—the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). In some respects this is a very traditional union and therefore will be constrained in some of the ways that the NUM has been and may well begin cooperating with the mining companies in a similar fashion to the NUM. But it is not affiliated to Cosatu and has no association with the ANC and so unlike NUM, which has two pressures on it, one from the mining companies and one from the ANC, AMCU only has one. This creates space for new political developments—there are not going to be the same top-down pressures on people to comply with ANC politics.

Are there NUM members and activists who are involved in the strikes, ie is there an overlap between these new workers’ organisations and the established Cosatu unions?

In the case of Lonmin there were figures presented for people who died in the massacre and 11 were NUM members and 17 AMCU out of the total of 34. So a lot of people involved in the strike were NUM members and the same is true in the other cases. They are NUM members who have become profoundly disaffected because of the way NUM operates, particularly at the local level, and one of the important things here is that NUM’s senior shop stewards are paid by the companies at the level of junior managers, so they get paid about three times as much as the ordinary members. Also they do not have to work at the rock face, ie don’t have to do an ordinary job. They get an office, the ability to move around and enjoy a degree of autonomy—including the ability to attend conferences and all sorts of other perks from management that don’t exist for ordinary workers. So the character of NUM and its relationship to the government and the mining companies create all sorts of possibilities for careerists, and indeed for corruption, and a very large part of the current rebellion in the mines is a rebellion against the NUM leadership as well as against the mining companies.

So, presumably for those material reasons, would it be right to say that there hasn’t been a significant degree of differentiation within the NUM apparatus and that there are no NUM leaders who have attempted to identify with the strike?

There are factional divisions within the NUM and the present general secretary only won his position by a very narrow margin, and some people even suggest that he didn’t actually win a majority of people voting, and the main opposition to him came from an official from the Rustenburg area. So there are fractional divides. But my impression is that at the current time with these massive strikes there hasn’t been any significant movement against Frans Baleni, NUM’s general secretary.

About the AMCU: there was a very interesting film on YouTube of the victory rally at the end of the original Lonmin strike. While we shouldn’t overstate it, there appeared to be a slightly Africanist version of traditional African nationalist politics represented by the union leader who spoke of the need to nationalise the mining industry, perhaps implicitly associating himself with Julius Malema, the exleader of the ANC Youth League (expelled for his opposition to the leadership of President Jacob Zuma) who has campaigned around that slogan. But there was also an emphasis on the mining industry being controlled by South Africans, and the implication was black South Africans. Would you say that that characterisation is accurate about the mood of those involved in the strikes?

I think that people involved in the strikes are happy to go along with that position. I don’t know the extent to which they are driven by it or will mobilise behind it in a very active sense, but I attended a mass meeting immediately after the Marikana massacre where Malema spoke and his call for nationalisation was very well received. So there is support for nationalisation from the rank and file, and that position puts the rank and file into conflict with the NUM leaders, who have carefully distanced themselves from calls for nationalisation. It has been difficult for them because historically they have supported nationalisation—in fact in 1987 the NUM leadership backed a call for nationalisation under workers’ control—so the present leadership has had to carefully separate itself from its own past in order to bring itself into alignment with the ANC leadership. To the best of my knowledge, AMCU does not have a pro-nationalisation position, so it is quite likely there will be tension between the union’s leadership and its new militant membership over this.

And I suppose that we shouldn’t forget that the famous Freedom Charter of 1955 calls for the nationalisation of “the monopoly industry“, and if there is a monopoly industry in South Africa it is mining. So the call for nationalisation is one that must have deep resonances for anyone who is vaguely political in South Africa.

It has resonances, but there are many political people who are sceptical about the call for nationalisation, partly because it is identified with Malema and there is widespread scepticism about Malema who is seen to be an opportunist who is campaigning in his own interests, and partly because, to the extent that there are nationalised industries in South Africa, there is a widespread feeling that they are not well run. So the argument for nationalisation is not always an easy one to make.

I now want to ask you how you think the whole crisis produced by Marikana and the associated strike wave is playing out within the ruling Congress alliance, which brings together the ANC, Cosatu, and the South African Communist Party.

So far the centre has held, and one of the reasons for this is because of the South African Communist Party, which provides very important linkages between Cosatu—not just at the top level but also among a layer of shop stewards—and the government. So there are very few dissident voices within Cosatu, for instance. Even the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), which put together a very good statement initially, in the end went along with the consensus position on Marikana at the recent Cosatu conference. That consensus position avoided saying that the police were responsible for the massacre. The one element of the ANC alliance that has positioned itself outside the consensus is the ANC Youth League, which immediately after the massacre backed the Marikana workers and supports nationalisation, though not under workers’ control, of course.

Why do you think they have been so successful at holding the line, particularly since the massacre has such terrible echoes of the massacres that took place in the apartheid era? Isn’t it surprising that there should be so few fractures opened up by this crisis?

I think there is a growing mood among rank and file workers that is sceptical at the very least about what is happening within the ANC and within particular unions, but the Cosatu conference represents a layer of older workers who have a long history of being disciplined SACP and ANC activists and they feel strongly that they should identify with the largest union in Cosatu, which is seen to be, and is presented as being, under attack. It’s not clear who it is under attack from, except rank and file workers, but nevertheless it was possible at the Cosatu conference to whip up an atmosphere in which people felt it was necessary to defend their largest affiliate. The question then is, “Why does NUM take the position that it has taken?” The reason for that is associated with the ways in which the NUM leadership felt profoundly threatened by the possibility of rank and file members negotiating their own pay increases. This cuts out the union, cuts out the necessity for NUM to exist.

But it’s not just material interests, is it? Although I’m sure that must be a very powerful factor binding together not just the trade union bureaucracy in Cosatu but also the broader components of the Congress alliance. There is also the role of ideology – I was very struck first of all by the speech that Blade Nzimande, the general secretary of the SACP, made at the Cosatu conference. This speech could have been made by Maurice Thorez or any one of a number of classic Stalinist leaders invoking the national democratic revolution and the need to defend it against lackeys of imperialism and so on. But what was also interesting, and which struck me very strongly, was that Numsawhich, as you said, made a much better statement initiallyalso made reference to colonialism of a special type which is quite an esoteric concept but is a very important part of the ideology that the SACP developed in the 1950s and 60s that sees change in South Africa as going through stagesfirst the national democratic revolution to get rid of colonialism of a special type (ie apartheid), then eventually socialist revolution. So presumably one thing that binds the Congress alliance together apart from material factors is this common ideology.

Yes, that’s true, but the notion of colonialism of a special type can be read in different ways. There are people within the Youth League, and indeed within Numsa, who are pushing for economic democracy and they can defend that in terms of a theory of colonialism of a special type. It is quite a vague notion and that vagueness can be used by Blade Nzimande to pull people into line. But it also means that there is a certain tension, and certain possibilities, for people to mobilise despite their ideological commitments and on many other occasions Cosatu has mobilised often large numbers of people against the government, most recently over the question of labour brokers and over the tolling of roads.

It’s important to bear in mind that Cosatu, partly because of its role in the Congress alliance but also because it is dominated by a trade union bureaucracy that has the same kind of material interest in class compromise that any trade union bureaucracy has, operates as a conservative force but also has a significant recent history, particularly in the public sector, of leading very big strikes. So it would be a mistake to say that Cosatu is simply rotten and that alternative unions have to be built. There is clearly an issue in the mining industry but it would be a mistake to generalise from that case.

I think there are possibilities for a degree of generalisation but I don’t think that other industries are the same as mining. Nevertheless, while the mining industry has special features there are still movements towards militancy in the other unions and these can bring active members into conflict with their leaders. We saw that in 2010 with the public sector workers’ strike, for instance.4 So the mining industry is not entirely exceptional. But let me make another point about Cosatu, which is that it is necessary to look at the details of the recent history of Cosatu and the battles for leadership within it, because the present general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, has been a critical voice within the alliance and there were indications that he was beginning to develop an alternative vision of the future for South Africa, a vision which linked workers with the poor and was much more critical of the government.

What has happened over the past year, in my view, is that a deal was struck. Vavi’s own capacity to win a majority of support to continue as general secretary of Cosatu has been undermined by the growth of the Communist Party within the leadership of a number of unions, and effectively the SACP said to him, “We will continue to back you as Cosatu general secretary as long as you toe the line, or as long as you don’t speak out of line to any considerable degree.” So he’s been under a lot of pressure from within Cosatu not to challenge the mainstream line on Marikana. It’s fairly clear from body language, and from the things he doesn’t say, that he is uncomfortable with that, but nevertheless he goes along with it.

One thing that is worth underlining is that the ambiguity and the contradictions that you are describing help to provide an explanation of why the ANC government has been able to ride this crisis. There is a quite dense network of organisationsalbeit that the closer one gets to the base the weaker they seem to bethat binds very large sections of the population, particularly workers and the poor, to the government and it’s possible for at least some steam to be let off and some opposition to be expressed through them. Obviously there are limits to this, and we have seen what happened with Malema, but the ability of people to be at least partially oppositional from time to time helps to keep the show on the road.

Yes, but I wouldn’t push that argument too far. What I sense from research we’ve been doing in townships, as well as from the recent rebellion in the mining industry, is a shift away from looking at the alliance as the vehicle through which people can advance their interests.5 There is a growing disillusionment and some of it is associated with what the ANC represents on the ground in particular municipalities, which is very often corruption. So increasingly people are willing to take action independently of ANC cadre.

That leads nicely to my final question, which is about the role of the independent left in South Africa. South Africa has a small antiStalinist left with very rich traditions going back many decades and which is now largely organised under the banner of the Democratic Left Front (DLF). From what you are saying the space in which they can operate, which has been very restricted, should be widening now.

And that is the case. As you say, the DLF has had difficulties, as has the left in general, because of the hegemony of the Communist Party within the trade unions in particular. But, as we can see, that is waning and this creates opportunities for the DLF to connect with the changing mood. It is beginning to do that through meetings organised in a number of communities where it has a presence. Its base is mainly in the communities, which means, in practice, among the poor rather than in the unions. It has benefited to some degree from people moving away from social movement type organisation towards the politics that are associated with the DLF. So that community base has largely shifted towards the DLF, which has also been able to garner some new support in areas where there have been very big community protests over the last two or three years.

And it is now responding to the strike wave in the mines?

It is indeed. In particular it is centrally involved in the Marikana Support Committee which has been the main means of mobilising solidarity, initially for people who had been directly involved in the massacre—their families, people who had been injured, strikers and so on. But more recently it’s been involved in mobilising wider support for the strike. The Marikana Support Committee has operated at a number of different levels. One has been to connect with the legal campaigns, another has been to give practical support to AMCU, which has been under attack from the state and the media, and another has been to begin to provide support for mine workers outside of Lonmin. Some of this support is just very practical stuff that people need: for instance, money for transport to get to meetings is important, and that means not only people from Marikana going out but also getting families to come from the Eastern Cape so that they can participate in the inquiry. So transport is very important but so too are all the other things that go with campaigning activity—specifically in South Africa T-shirts are what people expect if they’re going to become involved in a campaigning activity.6

I think that’s all I wanted to ask. Is there anything you wanted to add?

Two issues in particular have concerned me. One is how to characterise the trade union leadership in South Africa. It seems to me that the notion of a trade union bureaucracy is a somewhat blunt tool because there are different forms that the bureaucracy takes. The trade union bureaucracy in South Africa is different from that in Britain because of the character of its relationship with the ANC, which is different from the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy in Britain. So partly because of the character of the liberation struggle the mainstream trade unions in Cosatu still regard the ANC as providing a leadership. This means that there is a top-down approach to trade unionism in South Africa, a political alignment that doesn’t exist in Britain, for instance. So I was wondering about the notion of “labour lieutenants of capital”—in some ways it’s too crude and not really dialectical in the way that the idea of a Janus-faced bureaucracy is. Nevertheless there are different shades that exist within the trade union leadership, and the one in South Africa at the moment seems to me to be more towards the notion of “labour lieutenants of capital”.

The second issue concerns the characterisation of the nature of the regime in South Africa at the moment. One can use the idea of corporatism which certainly applied to what I referred to as the labour relations regime that emerged around 1994, and I wonder whether that might be a concept that is useful more generally now in South Africa to describe the way in which there is a close relationship between the state and capital, or at least sections of capital, and the key elements within the trade union movement. That seems to me to be what has become clearer as a consequence of Marikana and the subsequent debates.

Those are very big questions. I’d make a couple of points. Firstly it sounds a lot more corporatist than anything that we’ve known in Britain since Thatcher, ie for over 30 years, but it is corporatism qualified by large doses of neoliberalism and a very internationally integrated capitalist class, which is a bit different from the models of corporatism where national capital collaborates with national trade union leaders. Take Glencore, which has just taken over Xstrata, as an examplethere is a strong South African element but it is based in Switzerland. Similarly, the mining houses have been allowed to move their corporate headquarters, share listings, and so on out of South Africa. These factors complicate the picture of corporatism.

On the question of the “labour lieutenants of capital”, what you are saying is interesting because you are showing that the absorptive powers that the ANC alliance has had are weakening. That seems to me to be what you are describing, and the integration with capital and the state in the case of NUM has gone so far that it has provoked an irrevocable breakaway. But I would still say that there is the other side of the picture, which is that Cosatu has organised very big strikes, much bigger strikes than the British trade union leaders have organised, with the exception of 30 November 2011. I suppose that everyone thinks that their own trade union bureaucracy is particularly awful.

I agree, and if one is going to use the word corporatism then it has to be qualified in some way—it’s a contested corporatism. It’s contested partly through the strength of international capitalism in South Africa, which operates through the mining industry but also through the finance houses. But it’s also contested from below: South Africa’s working class hasn’t been defeated and there is a lot of confidence among workers as well as expectations which bring them into conflict of the kind we have seen.

One of the difficulties that we need to think through is how the ruling class is likely to respond to the current developments. I had expected the trade unions, and NUM in particular, to move to the left because if they are going to retain, and to some extent rebuild, their base among mine workers they have to be seen to be delivering, and that can mean, at least rhetorically, a greater level of militancy. The analogy of Zimbabwe might be useful. There was a big rebellion among workers in 1996, led by the rank and file, who pushed the trade union leadership, particularly in the public sector, to the left, so that in 1997 there were more strike days than in 1996. So I had thought that the South African trade union leadership might respond in a similar way, and it might well still do so. On the other hand, the immediate indications are that the state may become more repressive in South Africa and I don’t know how that will resolve itself. I don’t believe at the moment that the state has the capacity or political possibilities for large-scale repression and perhaps the most important thing about Marikana is that the workers refused to be cowed. Amazingly, they continued their strike after 34 people had been massacred. The bravery involved in that is tremendous—for workers’ leaders to pick themselves up after watching their friends being killed and then the very next day decide that the strike must continue is something which I think is unique.


1: In February-March 1922 the Transvaal Chamber of Mines, with the support of the government of Jan Smuts, provoked a strike by the white miners’ union that developed into a general strike and armed uprising. The Rand Revolt, as it came to be known, was crushed by the South African Defence Force using artillery and air power-see Yudelman, 1984, chapter 5, and Krikler, 2005.

2: See, for example, Ashman, Fine and Newman, 2010.

3: Capps, 2012.

4: Ceruti, 2011.

5: Alexander, 2012.

6: More information about the Marikana Support Committee can be found at Justice Now for Marikana Strikers,


Alexander, Peter, 2012, “Barricades, Ballots and Experimentation: Making Sense of the 2011 Local Government Election With a Social Movement Lens”, in Marcelle C Dawson and Luke Sinwell (eds), Contesting Transformation: Popular Resistance in Twentyfirst Century South Africa (Pluto).

Ashman, Sam, Ben Fine and Susan Newman, 2010, “The Crisis in South Africa: Neoliberalism, Financialisation and Uneven and Combined Development”, Socialist Register 2011: The Crisis This Time (Merlin).

Capps, Gavin, 2012, “Victim of its own Success? The Platinum Mining Industry and the Apartheid Mineral Property System in South Africa’s Political Transition,” Review of African Political Economy, 39.

Ceruti, Claire, 2011, “The Hidden Element in the 2010 Public-Sector Strike in South Africa”, Review of African Political Economy, 38.

Krikler, Jeremy, 2005, The Rand Revolt: The 1922 Insurrection and Racial Killing in South Africa (Jonathan Ball).

Yudelman, David, 1984, The Emergence of Modern South Africa: State, Capital and the Incorporation of Organised Labour on the South African Gold Fields, 19021939 (David Philip).