What the Marikana massacre highlights

Cape Town anarchist Shawn Hattingh on the Marikana massacre.

The sight of policemen gunning down striking workers at Marikana was truly galling. Reports too have now emerged that on the day of the shooting some workers may have been executed far from the view of the press’s cameras; and allegations have also surfaced that strikers arrested in the aftermath were tortured. While any human being with any sense of justice should be appalled by the actions of the state, and Lonmin, the events at Marikana, however, should not come as a surprise. Marikana did not happen in a vacuum: there is a long history that led up to it. In fact, Marikana and the events surrounding it, reveal much about exploitation by the ruling class in South Africa both today and in the past; they reveal much about the role that the state plays in society; and they reveal that the black working class continues to face national oppression in South Africa.

Indeed, platinum mines are notorious for harsh working conditions and poor pay. They are a continuation of the practices that have historically defined mining in the country. Not only are the jobs dangerous, but mineworkers are also subjected to oppression on a regular basis from management, foreman and security guards. Outsourced security companies like G4S brag about their ability to end labour ‘unrest’ with armed guards and dog squads. It is in this environment that the Marikana strike, and the violence that has surrounded it, happened.

The Marikana wildcat strike has also not been an isolated event, even when one only considers recent history. For the last 5 years, wildcat strikes and sit-ins have occurred at companies across the platinum sector. Most of these have been undertaken or spearheaded by low paid, contract or labour broker workers. On almost every occasion the state and mine security have dealt harshly with the striking mineworkers. During at least 2 previous wildcat strikes, and 1 community protest, in the platinum belt, protestors have been killed by the police or security guards. Ending protests and strikes, including using lethal force, it must therefore be stressed is not unusual for the police; it is not a break with their task, but rather part of their role. The scale of the killings was far larger at Marikana (and the largest since 1994), but it is in not new for the police to kill, intimidate and even torture in the name of protecting the interests of the rich and powerful.

The outright violence of the state in the platinum sector and at Marikana, therefore, lays bare the true nature of the state; and the role it plays in protecting the ruling class. It is not an unfortunate accident that the state has been protecting the mines of huge corporations, like Lonmin, and that it has been willing to use such violence to do so. It is rather one of the main functions of the state (and hence its police): it is what it is designed for. For capitalism to function, and for class rule to be maintained, a state is vital. It is central to protecting and maintaining the very material basis on which the power of the elite is derived. Without a state, which claims a monopoly on violence within a given territory, an elite could not rule nor could it claim or hold onto the ownership of wealth and the means of production. In fact, the state as an entity is the defender of the class system and a centralised body that necessarily concentrates power in the hands of the ruling classes; in both respects, it is the means through which a minority rules a majority. Through its executive, legislative, judiciary and policing arms the state always protects the minority ownership of property (whether private or state-owned property), and tries to squash any threat posed to the continuing exploitation and oppression of the working class. As Marikana, and other protests and strikes show, that even includes and goes as far as killing those that pose a threat.
All states, wherever and whenever they have existed, also have always intervened in the economy in favour of a ruling class of some sort, and the events around Marikana and other platinum mines also highlights this. As noted by organisations, such as Benchmarks, huge platinum mining companies have been involved in what amounts to land grabs in the platinum belt: effectively forcing communities off land that, in theory, belongs to them through traditional authorities. This takes place with the collusion of the state. We should not be suprsied though. As Peter Kropotkin pointed out, under capitalism:
“the state has always interfered in the economic life in favour of the capitalist exploiter. It has always granted protection in robbery, given aid and support for further enrichment. And it could not be otherwise. To do so was one of the functions – the chief mission – of the state.”

This is why the South African state has essentially legalised the land grabs of platinum companies, like Lonmin. It is also why it does little or nothing to stop the massive pollution they are causing – to do so would not economically favour these corporations.

State managers, who comprise a section of the ruling class, based on their control of the means of coercion, administration and sometimes production, also have their own reasons for wanting to protect the minority ownership of property: because their own privileged positions rest on exploitation. This is why the state in South Africa has been so willing to protect companies like Lonmin: the pay checks of high ranking state officials, mostly tied to the ANC, depend on it. Certainly we must raise demands from the state, and mobilise to have these met, but we must realise that the state is part of the problem: it is inherently in opposition to the working class and Marikana highlights that clearly.

The state, nevertheless, can’t simply rule by force alone – force is ultimately the last pillar upon which its power rests – but for its own stability and that of capital, it also tries to rule through consent. To do so, it pretends to be a benefactor of all; while in reality facilitating, entrenching and perpetrating exploitation and oppression. Certainly, most states today do have laws protecting basic rights, and some provide welfare – including the South African state. Such laws and welfare, however, have been won through massive struggles by the oppressed, and that should not be forgotten; states simply did not hand out these rights. But even where such laws exist, and sometimes they merely exist on paper, the state tries to make propaganda mileage out of them. It is this duplicity that led the anarchist revolutionary Errico Malatesta to argue that the state: “cannot maintain itself for long without hiding its true nature behind a pretence of general usefulness; it cannot impose respect for the lives of the privileged people if it does not appear to demand respect for human life, it cannot impose acceptance of the privileges of the few if it does not pretend to be the guardian of the rights of all”. It is in this context that the South African state’s announcement that it is setting up a Commission of Inquiry into what happened at Marikana must be seen. Even within this, however, it must be recognised that the Commission of Inquiry will not be neutral. It will, itself, be part of the state, it will be centralised, and its functioning will be based on laws which are against the majority. Consequently, it will be inherently bias towards the state and the company.
What the events at Marikana and on the platinum mines also highlight is the nature and form capitalism has taken in South Africa. Ever since capitalism emerged it has been based on the exploitation of both black and white workers. However, in South Africa, black workers have also been subjected to national oppression; and this has meant that they were systematically turned into a source of extremely cheap labour and subjected to institutionalised racism. The history of very cheap black labour enabled white capitalists – traditionally centred around the mine-owners – to make super profits, and it is on this basis that they became very wealthy. Without extremely cheap black labour, mining in South Africa would have never been as profitable and the riches of the white capitalists would have been much less.

Today, as seen by the situation on platinum mines, this continues: the wealth of the ruling class still rests mainly on extremely cheap black labour: it is the reason why certain sections of the economy, like platinum mining, are so profitable. Since 1994 the entire working class has fallen deeper into poverty, including sections of the white working class, as inequality has grown between the ruling class and working class as a whole. However, the black working class, due to mostly holding the lowest paid jobs and thus facing continued racism, remains both subject to exploitation and national oppression. Until this is ended, along with the capitalist system on which it is based and which it serves, true freedom and equality for both the black and white working class will not be achieved in South Africa. As was vividly highlighted by Marikana, therefore, central to the struggle to end inequality, and the capitalist system that generates it, has to be the ending of the national oppression, and accompanying racism, that the black working class is subjected to. As has long been pointed out, however, if a just society is to be achieved the means and the ends in struggle have to be as similar as possible. Hence, if we want a future genuinely equal and non-racist society, our struggle to end the national oppression of the black working class, and the accompanying capitalism and racism in South Africa, must be based firmly on the ideals of non-racialism.
While it is clear that the black working class remains nationally oppressed, the situation for the small black elite, nevertheless, is very different. Some, through their high positions in the state, and hence having control over the means of coercion and administration, have joined the old white capitalists in the ruling class. They themselves have used their positions in the state to amass wealth and power. Others, have also joined the ruling class, but through the route of Black Economic Empowerment. This can be seen in the fact that all of the top ANC linked black families – the Mandelas, Thambos, Ramaposas, Zumas, Moosas etc. – have shares in or sit on the boards of the largest companies in South Africa, including the platinum mining companies. In fact, Ramaphosa not only owns shares in, and is on the board of, Lonmin; but a number of functions at Marikana are outsourced to various companies he has interests in, like Minorex. The wealth and power of this black section of the ruling class in South Africa too rests on the exploitation of the working class as a whole, but mostly and specifically on the exploitation and national oppression of the black working class. Hence, this is the reason why the black section of the ruling class has been so willing to take action – whether during platinum strikes, Marikana, other strikes in general – against the black working class.

Mikhael Bakunin foresaw the possibility of such a situation arising in cases where national liberation was based upon the strategy of capturing state power. Bakunin said that the “statist path” was “entirely ruinous for the great masses of the people” because it did not abolish class power but simply changed the make-up of the ruling class. Due to the centralised nature of states, only a few can rule: a majority of people can never be involved in decision making under a state system. As a result, he stated that if the national liberation struggle was carried out with "ambitious intent to set up a powerful state", or if "it is carried out without the people and must therefore depend for success on a privileged class" it would become a "retrogressive, disastrous, counter-revolutionary movement”. He also noted that when former liberation heroes enter into the state, because of its top down structure, they become rulers and get used to the privileges their new positions carry, and they come to “no longer represent the people but themselves and their own pretensions to govern the people”. History has proven his insights to be correct; former liberation heroes in South Africa rule in their own interests, they wallow in the privileges of their positions, and they exploit and oppress the vast majority of the people in the country, including at Marikana and in the platinum sector.
The hope for a better society rests with the working class, including workers in the platinum sector. The struggle to end inequality in South Africa, as Marikana, shows is not going to be easy. Even unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are becoming distanced from struggles in the platinum sector. This is partly because NUM itself now focuses mainly on better paid workers in the mining sector. The low paid, contract and labour broker workers, those spearheading struggles like Marikana, are now a minority in the union. Added to this, NUM is tied completely to the ANC (limiting its independence); it is mired in social dialogue; and wedded to formalised collective bargaining – all of these are recipes for a power union bureaucracy to emerge and become entrenched. In fact the bureaucracy within NUM has not taken kindly to wildcat strikes in the platinum sector, including at Marikana, because it is not in their interests for them to happen – their pay checks rather depend on labour relations carried out within the law. This means workers, if they are going to take struggles forward, have to reclaim their unions and rid themselves of this union bureaucracy and/or create new structures like assemblies and worker councils to take their struggles forward – Marikana too has made that clear.

It is vital for the future of working class struggles that mineworkers in the platinum sector and at Marikana win their demands. If they do, it could rejuvenate workers struggles across the country, which have been on the decline since the late 1980s. In fact, workers need to win better wages, safer working conditions, and end racism. In the long run though, and if inequality and injustice are to be ended, the working class (workers and the unemployed) need to take power, and run society through their own structures. This means confronting the state, which is not theirs (it is an instrument of ruling class, including a state bureaucracy and capitalists; not the working class). This too means abandoning faith in the state to nationalise companies, which would essentially mean ownership by a state bureaucracy; not the working class. Indeed, calling for nationalisation builds illusions in a higher power, the state; and it does not show faith in, or build the power of, the working class itself. The state is not a lesser evil to capitalists; rather they are part and parcel of the same system. Rather workers need, and Marikana highlights this, to use struggles for reforms, such as wining higher wages, to build towards seizing the land, mines, factories and other workplaces themselves so that they can run them through worker self-management for the benefit of everyone in society. Only when the working class has done this, and runs society through its own structures and not a state, will the power of the ruling class, the power of its violent state, and inequality be broken and ended: only then will the Mariakan massacres and other killings in the name of profit be part of history.