Thirty-four miners were shot dead by police at a mine outside Rustenburg, South Africa last week. The 3000 rock-drill operators, from a Lonmin owned platinum company, had been gathered on a hill for four days, demanding a wage increase from recalcitrant owners.
Heinrich Böhmke, 22 August 2012            (originally in Africa Report)

marikanaThe leaders belonged to Amcu, a militant breakaway from the Cosatu-aligned National Union of Mineworkers.  In the days before the massacre, ten people were killed in skirmishes, including two police officers and a NUM shopsteward.  Police gave a final ultimatum for the workers, carrying pangas and spears, to disperse.  They refused.  Television footage showed a group of approaching workers sprayed with automatic weapon fire by police.  They fell in heaps upon the ground.

Within hours, the Facebook timelines of progressive South Africans lit up in outrage. They combined menace and hopefulness in their proclamations that the Marikana massacre heralded a new era in South African politics. The ANC and the mine bosses they served, would regret it.  Articles and listserv comments soon followed. They compared this event to Sharpeville and, more suggestively, to the Bullhoek massacre, wrapped up in political and spiritual fatalism.

Some commentators inserted Marikana into a list of police repression against new social movements who have been agitating for service delivery throughout the country these last ten years. They named real events, such as Andries Tatane’s killing by police in Ficksburg but also the boosterism of Ayanda Kota’s misadventures with a Grahamstown constable. Trade union, Amcu, too was appropriated as a critique, in organisational form, of the ANC government and its ‘anti-poor’ policies.

The tone of all this writing is breathless, both in anger and expectancy. This has to be it. People will be revolutionized by such a traumatic event. The moorings of the post-apartheid order are bound to break.  Workers will see that they are pincered between dehumanising work for slave wages and police mowing them down.  The poor are left with no choice but uncompromising struggle against both the ANC and the wider economic order it maintains.

I suspect that the repertoire of counter-insurgency, (for lack of a softer term), available to those working on behalf of the status quo is too great to allow much to come of Marikana.  From the coaxing of human resource people at the mine, the bite of no-work-no-pay, mass arrests of strike leaders, the vengefulness of rival unionists, revelations of ‘barbarism’ to come at the commission of enquiry, blue-light visits by inter-ministerial task teams, flags at half-mast, Zuma at the hospital, cynical journalists, woebegone churchmen, and, yes, the sound and advocacy of civil society is all going to have an essentially moderating effect. The wound will be sutured.

A year after Andries Tatane was killed, the protest movement of which he was a part welcomed a provincial government minister as keynote speaker to the anniversary event. A movement spokesperson effused about houses that had been delivered but said the pace could be a little faster. How do these coagulations happen?

They happen with essential input from ‘progressives’ themselves. Elizabeth Povinelli defines late liberal democracy as a mode of government focused on the problem of how much pain can be administered to sections of the population while maintaining a remotely plausible claim that their sacrifice is for the sake of a future common economic and legal good.  By the timing and pitch of their indignation, progressives disagree about how much pain was administered in this particular dose.

On two crooked legs

There are many mechanisms that ‘democracy’ provides for handling disagreement, many safety valves.  These include the space being taken by left intellectuals to denounce, at R2 a word, what essentially comes down to the poor quality of crowd control.  They also include ineffectual displays of free speech and assembly on posters carried at fringe pickets, proclaiming “We are all Andries Tatane / Marikana miners”.

Except ‘we’ are not.  The indignant commentators are not in the least representative of the mind of South Africa. At the heart of the expectation that something good and militant will arise from Marikana is an almost comically mistaken assumption that ‘ordinary’ South Africans are specially inclined towards social justice.  That they will not lightly stand for this sort of thing.  The assumption rests on two crooked legs.  These are that Black people in general have a recent tradition of sterling struggle against oppression and exploitation that they will take up again and that Blacks are made ripe for revolution by the obscenity of South Africa’s wealth gap – the widest in the world.

What is ignored in this analysis is the deeply conservative, pro law and order mindset of a huge, cross-class lump of society. What is ignored is that the promise of jobs and economic windfalls from the platinum cycle is the only foundation of an illusory but believed political economy in the North West province that allows hosts of local ANC leaders (“traditional” or otherwise) to claim legitimacy over those they rule.  It is also a silly canard that only a sprinkling of BEE beneficiaries have a stake in the system. This analysis forgets about the over one million strong civil service, 80% Black, who, from clerk to director-general, have profound investments in stability, even if it is built on exploitation. It forgets the individualizing of success and failure drummed into a generation of graduate fortune seekers. It forgets how parochial other struggles in South Africa have been, unable to jump the ‘firebreaks’ of place and issue.  It gets excited at tyres burning and rubbish strewn on highways and attacks on hawkers, when these days, these are but the opening gambits in protest, an invitation, only gilded in antagonism, to fairly conventional negotiations with the local state.  It forgets about the residual pull and aura of the ANC that defeated white rule and it forgets, if City Press is believed, the distaste bound to be felt for the ‘backward’ scenes of men smeared with muthi charging about with pangas.

At best, only a slice of the poor of South Africa are a viable agent for post-Marikana social change.  However, if the violence issuing from the poor in recent years is any measure, they are readily available to ‘loyalist’ reaction.  Participants to COP17 who ran up against pro-Zuma marshals, know this quite well as do Somali shopkeepers.

A postcard from 1922

If I were to seek a historical lens through which to understand contemporary events, I would not choose Sharpeville or Bullhoek. They obscure a crucial factor, race. The massacre of dozens of white mineworkers in 1922 by the Smuts regime provides, I think, a better perspective from which to see where Marikana might lead.

Ninety years ago, a mixture of Afrikaner nationalists but also many Communist stalwarts, took Johannesburg in a general strike.  Mine bosses like Lionel Phillips insisted on using African labour in the mines. By getting rid of the more unprofitable aspects of hick racism and bringing in cheaper workers, mines would enjoy unprecedented rates of profit.  White workers opposed this policy to the point of insurrection. Smuts called in the troops who surged into the shantytown of Fordsburg, killing scores.  Smuts also used the airforce, like Assad, to strafe mineworker positions on the Brixton Heights, near where the SABC tower now stands.

This was a crushing blow to the militance and independence of white trade unions in South Africa.  It occurred a mere twenty years after the Boer hero had hung up his Mauser as a guerrilla fighter against England.  Now with the levers of state in his hands, Smuts demolished both Afrikaner and communist resistance to the cost-saving endeavours of big capital.  After the massacre, strike leaders were arrested and four communist organisers hanged.  A bloody line was drawn in the sand: mineworkers were ruining a critical foreign exchange earning industry. As it turns out, Smuts’ government did not survive the next election but big capital thrived just as well.

Unlike Smuts, the ANC has no serious electoral rivals. Its slow unraveling will, I think, be slowed not hastened by spectacular acts of violence like this.  I get the impression that there is an appetite in this land for a little bit of authoritarianism now and again.  That is, as long as what functions as a crackdown is deniable behind excuses, running in parallel, of poor police training or evil instigators.  What else shows the true power of a government than its tacit ability to exempt itself, from time to time, from normal legal niceties like the right to assemble, strike and breathe?

I suspect that Amcu has effectively been brought to heel by the Marikana killings, owned by Zuma himself.  I also think that employers, municipal managers, police commanders and any other officials facing protest action are going to find protestors complying with ultimata to withdraw a little more swiftly than in the past.  This is especially when nervous cops cock their guns.  Bosses of all hues will consider this a boon.  Instead of menace and the hope for an upsurge in struggle, what Marikana may end up marking is the beginning of a tripartite backlash against what government, established trade unions and business have all called ‘anarchy’.  It will be a backlash bemoaned by most of those who are moved to blog but which impresses most of the rest.