The story that emerged to explain why 34 South African platinum miners were killed by police last Thursday has so far been painted as an inter-union spat.
The reality is that the massacre reveals far more troubling fault lines for a country struggling to make its way since movements that fused Black liberation, radical politics, and militant unionism upended apartheid in 1994. The moral legitimacy of the African National Congress, the organisation that has ruled the country since liberation, now has been squandered.
In the first few days after the massacre at the Marikana mine, amid the shock and horror of watching people being shot dead on TV, there have been few who want to take responsibility. To do so would be to acknowledge blame.
Some pundits have warned of "pointing figures" or "stoking anger," helping President Jacob Zuma appear statesmanlike as he set up an inquiry to investigate the massacre at Marikana, owned by the UK-based Lonmin.
But this is not just a story of hardship, violence, and grief. To speak in those terms would add insult to the injuries perpetrated by the police on the striking workers—by seeing the strikers as mere victims and not as agents of their own future and, even more importantly, as a source of a new movement in the making.
More than Rivalry
So far the 3,000 strikers have stood firm not only against the police, and Lonmin, which has threatened mass firings, but also against the media labelling their strike "illegal."
Strikes are not illegal in South Africa; they are only protected or unprotected. They are not criminal acts for which law and order can be invoked. But if they are not protected, strikers can be dismissed by their employer.
The major labor organizations, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the federation to which it belongs, COSATU, are rallying behind their ally—the governing ANC.
They are all stigmatizing the strikers and the breakaway union they have joined, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), as a "yellow union" that is "paid for" by corporate interests.
Why corporations would pay to form a striking, volatile union rather than a union like NUM that enforces labor peace makes no sense. But some people choose to believe this nonsense.
NUM has accused the breakaway union of fomenting violence, even though it was NUM that called for police action against the strikers. The entrenched union noted that the Lonmin strike was the third to hit the platinum sector recently. All involved the AMCU, which workers have joined in growing numbers, with the new union providing an outlet for their frustrations.
The frustration has soared as the NUM membership has changed over the last 15 years.
NUM grew out of the less-skilled job categories of South African mineworkers, mostly among illiterate migrant laborers. But they make up just 40 percent of the membership now. An increasing portion of the NUM's membership is skilled, higher-level mining staff, who dominate the union's structures.
The morphing membership acted to protect its interests. According to the trade journal Miningmx, NUM stipulated a 50 percent plus one member threshold for recognition in 2007 contracts, foreclosing any role for workers to form new unions and challenge the company-recognized union.
NUM has also struck cozy deals for more skilled workers, which led to a strike at another platinum mine, Implats, earlier this year, after rock drillers learned they had been denied a 18 percent bonus granted to other workers.
NUM is moving on from its history as the union of coalface workers to a union of white collar above-ground technicians. It is these developments within NUM that led to the formation of the AMCU in 2001. The breakaway was pushed along when NUM ousted Joseph Mathunjwa, a popular leader in the platinum sector who now heads the AMCU.
New Means, Old Methods
Mining itself also has changed. Much of the hard work underground is now done by workers sourced from labor brokers. These are the most exploited and insecure workers who work the longest hours and have short-term, unstable jobs. In some cases contract engineering firms, hired by mine owners, are responsible for the actual mining. Into the mix are so-called "illegal miners" who literally mine with spades and their own dynamite and then sell on to middlemen who themselves have links to big businesses.
Lonmin has exploited these divisions, exacerbated by the old mining industry strategy of recruiting along tribal and regional divisions. The drill workers at Lonmin, who break apart the rock containing the ore, were Xhosa-speaking and brought from the Eastern Cape into an area where most people speak another language, Tswana. This was a conscious move by the company to heighten exploitation in the mines.
Add to this the toxic mix heavily armed mine security, barbed-wire enclosures, and substandard informal housing—and a picture of institutionalised violence emerges.
The mine owners have been aided by the ANC in maintaining this scenario. By sending police to attack workers, the ANC moved to defend the new elite in South Africa: old white business owners garnished with a sprinkling of politically connected Blacks.
The ANC is stepping squarely into the shoes of its apartheid predecessors, acting to secure the profits of corporate mining interests through violence. Successive governments always have done what was necessary to ensure a cheap, divided, and compliant labor force for the mines.
House of Labor Divided
Whatever the merits or faults of the AMCU, its emergence is a direct challenge to the control of the NUM and COSATU.
As such the federation has embarked on a disgraceful campaign of slandering the striking workers and their union. They have been joined by the media, which has relied on NUM sources for information on the strike.
Together they have painted the rock drillers as uneducated and easily manipulated by the AMCU, which has supposedly promised $1,500-a-month pay. The incumbent union and the media have termed that "unreasonable." Nobody has even bothered to check what rock drill workers actually earn at present (between $500 and $1,000 a month).
The slander here is that workers are so open to manipulation that they will believe any empty promises. This plays to the prejudice that rock drill workers are ignorant, and it bolsters the idea that AMCU is some kind of slick-willy operation that must take responsibility for the massacre.
Anyone with any experience of organizing in South Africa knows that trade unions don't come to workers like insurance salesmen. In the main workers form their own committees and then send a delegation to the union office—or go on strike, leading the boss to call in a union to resolve it.
Nor is any strike decision ever taken lightly, let alone such a strike such as this one—unprotected, under the umbrella of an unrecognised union, in a workplace with mine security and where the workers themselves are in a strange region far from home.
Wildcat strikes are probably the most conscious act of sacrifice and courage anyone can take, driven by anger and desperation and involving the full knowledge that you could lose your job and your family's livelihood.
The irony of COSATU's vicious criticism of AMCU is rooted in its own origins. In 1973, workers from companies like the Frame Group in Durban came out in a series of wildcat—then really illegal—strikes, and faced criticisms of being violent and "splitting the liberation movement."
Now this event is celebrated by everyone as part of the revival of the anti-apartheid mass movement and the birth of a new phase of radical trade unionism—which culminated in the formation of COSATU in 1985.
Fork in the Road
The strike and the massacre mark a turning point for COSATU.
Unlike its partners, COSATU's moral authority has remained intact since 1994. COSATU has publicly attacked corruption within the state, has criticized the ANC's kowtowing to business interests, and protested limitations on media freedom. Whatever activists were challenging, they sought out COSATU as a partner. Its standing was high because it was simply the most organized voice among the working class.
But today COSATU's links to the majority of the working class are tenuous.
It is almost intuitive that we consider the notion of a worker as someone working for a clearly defined employer, on a full-time basis, in a large factory, mine, or shop.
In South Africa, this structure of work was accompanied by the residential spaces of townships. From the 1950s apartheid increasingly came to accept the existence of a settled urban working class, which was shunted into large industrial sites and brick houses in large sprawling townships.
Since the 1980s, this has begun to change. Today outsourcing, homework, labor brokers, and other ways to make work informal and precarious have become dominant. Homelessness and shackdwelling are the mode of existence for South Africa's working class, a direct result of the withdrawal of the state from providing and supporting housing.
By way of contrast, the dominant trade unions in South Africa have largely moved towards white collar workers and away from this increasingly precarious majority. Today the large COSATU affiliates are public sector white collar workers.
Blue collar workers now find work through labor brokers and in services that have been completely outsourced, like cleaning and security, so they do not fall within the unions' bargaining units.
The poor of South Africa are rebelling against these conditions. For years now South Africans have engaged in nationwide protests against the government's failure to deliver basic services.
According to Wits University's Peter Alexander, there has been an average of 2.9 "unrest incidents" per day in the last three years. This is an increase of 40 percent over the average recorded between 2004 and 2009.
COSATU, however, has not sided with the local community struggles that have been the dominant form of working class resistance in recent years. It is entrenched in ANC leadership politics and its membership is becoming removed from these social realities.
The revolts have failed to register on the laptops and Blackberries of the chattering classes. This is because of the social—and even geographic—distance of the middle classes to the new working classes and the poor.
The sight of the police shooting striking workers on TV has brought the real world of struggle right into the lounges of public opinion.
In the midst of our outrage at this brutality let us acknowledge something new is emerging. Early signs do not indicate it is grand and well-organized. Movements, after all, are notoriously messy. But the struggle to build new militant unions may succeed in bringing organized labor closer to the new majority of informal workers.
In normal times trade unions can be almost as much a huge bureaucratic machine as a corporation or a state agency, with negotiations conducted by insiders far from rank-and-file members.
Strikes change all that. Suddenly unions are forced to be conduits of their members' aspirations. Whatever the merits of AMCU as a democratic union, or as one with any vision of transformation, the workers of Marikana made their choices, to become members of AMCU and risk everything, for a better future. For that we owe them more than just pious sympathy.