‘Ye are many’ — the basic lesson for a better future

Posted on August 21, 2020


August of 2020 should be a major period for reflection, especially within the labour movement; a time to learn the lessons of the past and to honestly confront the failures, fumbles, defeats and all too frequent betrayals workers have suffered. And not only because this is the eighth anniversary of the most shocking incident in post apartheid labour history, the massacre at Marikana on August 16, 2012.

August is also South Africa’s women’s month, at a time of growing protest against an apparent surge of gender-based violence. It comes too, in the immediate wake of the start of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign, triggered by racist violence in the United States.

These are symptoms of the fact that everywhere, there are examples of representatives of the many rebelling against the exploitation and injustice meted out by the few. And they play out against a background of increasing cynicism about political and economic systems amid considerable thrashing about, seeking alternatives.

This has become even more obvious with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and a lockdown response that has highlighted the gross injustices regarded as normal by far too many in the recent past. Into this confused environment the poison of nationalism in all its ethnic, linguistic, regional and religious forms is becoming increasingly evident.

As such, August 2020 may turn out, with hindsight, to be a month to remember in a year to remember. Especially when it is considered that few of the most pressing issues were not faced, let alone openly and honestly dealt with.

Organised labour, that could have played a leading role in highlighting the need for the unity necessary to fight for universal human rights, was hardly in evidence. And, when it did emerge, it all too often reflected again the divisions that reveal how far so much of labour has strayed from its proclaimed anchors of worker unity and democracy.

The prime example of this locally was how the Marikana massacre was remembered. That none of those who pulled the triggers on that day and none of those who planned, ordered or were otherwise complicit in what resulted in the deaths of 34 miners has been prosecuted is just one factor.

What is very worrying is the fact that this month there were two Marikana commemorations. One organised, as in previous years, by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), now the major union on the platinum belt. The other was staged by mining company Sibanye Stillwater that took over the Marikana mine from Lonmin.

At the mining company memorial lecture, former public protector and now academic, Professor Thuli Madonsela noted: “We can’t heal without remembering.” However, remembering without justice can amount to meaningless ritual. It also tends to lead to lingering resentment that can erupt into expressions of blind rage.

Sibanye CEO, Neil Froneman also repeated the claim that inter-union rivalry between Amcu and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was to a large degree responsible for the massacre. On the evidence available, this is a myth, since Amcu came fairly late to the scene of what started as a worker rebellion against mine management and the NUM bureaucracy.

Amcu which, until the strike, had a minor presence in the area, was also an earlier breakaway from the NUM. It was founded in 1998 following the refusal of the NUM leadership to support a democratic decision of workers to strike at the Douglas colliery in Mpumalanga.

These are all issues that must be resolved. They are not. And it is easy to understand the bitterness of many workers and the claims of collusion between the state, capital, and private security. Explanations, perhaps apologies — along with urgent and agreed corrective measures — are certainly called for.

But Marikana was not the first local example of the state backing capital to the detriment — and often death — of workers, especially in mining. There have been several shocking examples over the years. The crushing, by bullet and bayonet, of the African Miners’ Union in 1946 and, for all its racist undercurrents, the use of the army, air force and judicial murder to quell the miner’s rebellion in 1922.

There are other examples too, in South Africa and around the world. They are part and parcel of the “normal” that has been so clearly highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the responses to it. It is a normal that has existed for far too long and one to which we should never wish to return.

There are many small — and not so small — steps to be taken on the road toward creating a better, more equitable future for all. But these should be on the basis of a fundamental reality and principle of unity outlined in the final verse of a poem penned exactly 200 years ago.

It is a verse that was chanted by striking women garment workers in New York in 1909, by protesting students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and by workers and students during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. It is a recurrent memory that mobilises masses.

The poem is The Masque of Anarchy written by the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to commemorate the 1819 massacre of working men, women and children by sabre-wielding mounted troops in Manchester. That final verse reads:

Rise like Lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number–/ Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you–/ Ye are many — they are few.