The Marikana watershed

Posted on August 4, 2013


Marikana was a watershed, a turning point that is likely to have a profound and long-term impact on South Africa’s social and political environment. But, unlike other watersheds over the past 53 years, it may provide the basis for political diversification rather than uniting disparate opponents of a single authority.

The Sharpeville massacre of 1960, the student revolt of 1976, the unbanning of liberation movements and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 were all culminations of political pressures coupled with often desperate, ill-considered or opportunistic reactions by those in power. But they all signalled the beginning of the end of a particular era or aspects of a way of life.

The adoption of progressive labour laws, a Bill of Rights, and a constitution at the same time as the liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution programme in 1996, also qualifies as a watershed, although one riddled with contradictions. And it is many of these that laid the ground for the bloody watershed of Marikana on August 16, last year.

But when 34 miners lay dead on the rocky outcrop known as Wonderkopand and on the fields below, the horror and the tragedy opened up opportunities for political opponents of both the government and the economic system itself. It also triggered the biggest upheaval the modern labour movement has faced as thousands of miners deserted the once dominant National Union of mineworkers (NUM).

It is the veritable collapse, certainly on the platinum belt, of the NUM, that has been the most obvious, immediate, change wrought. But it is the involvement of political groups and parties that may have as big, if not bigger, an impact in the longer term.

The major beneficiary of the desertions from the NUM has been the Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu) that, so far, remains determinedly non-aligned politically. However, Amcu is affiliated to the politically non-aligned National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) that is headed by general secretary Narious Moloto who currently doubles as the general secretary of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Moloto says he has no political ambitions and has “stepped in on a temporary basis” to help the PAC get back on its feet. But just as the large-scale influx of members to Amcu boosted the flagging fortunes of Nactu, there are obvious hopes within the PAC that it will have a similar impact on their party.

In publicity terms, however, it is Julius Malema who has had more impact. Not only by quickly intervening after August 16 and organising legal representation for mineworkers, but also by being barred from the area by police.

Malema and his newly launched Economic Freedom Fighters clearly hope to win electoral support on the platinum belt. So too does the also recently formed Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) that has — in the form of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) — had a presence for some time in the Rustenburg area.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe provided a considerable boost to the DSM and Wasp with his allegation that Wasp member Liv Shange was solely responsible for the “anarchy” in the mining sector. But the DSM is only one of several groups that have seized the opportunity to try to win support and members among the disillusioned miners. Elements of the Democratic Left Front, an umbrella group that contains a number of small Left groups, has also been active.
However, a political party that has had little public exposure but which may have the greatest impact is the United Democratic Movement (UDM), headed by former Transkei leader, Bantubonke Holomisa. His main electoral base is the Eastern Cape, home to most of the migrant miners of Marikana and to their extended families. These families, in their turn, have familial links to the Western Cape.

Some indication of who might be the beneficiaries and who the losers — and the level of impact the Marikana watershed has had may become clearer after next year’s elections.

Posted in: Commentary