Marikana shows gaps in Piketty thesis

The Marikana massacre spurred on the longest strike in South African mining history. (Delwyn Verasamy)

The Marikana massacre spurred on the longest strike in South African mining history. (Delwyn Verasamy)

“On August 16, 2012, the South African police intervened in a labour conflict between workers at the Marikana platinum mine … and the mine’s owners: the stockholders of Lonmin, Inc … Police fired on the strikers with live ammunition. Thirty-four miners were killed.”

These are the first lines of the first chapter of Thomas Piketty’s bestselling Capital in the 21st Century.

For Piketty, Marikana represents “distributional conflict” between workers living in “wretched conditions” and mines’ “excessive profits”. It symbolises the inequalities at the heart of his concerns and is a glimpse of the threat to “democratic societies” and the “values of social justice” posed by “a market economy … left to itself”.

Piketty observes the massacre from afar with his telescope of historically grounded economics. What can be added if we see it close up, with the magnifying glass of forensic sociology?

We now know the workers were gathered peacefully on “the mountain” when police encircled them with razor wire and armoured vehicles. A contingent walked north, towards a settlement where many lived. Police blocked their advance with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets; some scattered eastwards, many now running. It was then that they were shot with live ammunition. They were not attacking; they were attempting to escape. Seventeen of the 34 dead workers were killed at this first site.

Two days later, with colleagues and students, I attended a 10?000-strong rally of the strikers and their families. Neither the leaders’ speeches nor interviews with workers were recorded in the media. We were served a one-sided version of the event.

On August 20, I returned to Marikana with two field workers. We had a simple goal: to get the workers’ version. What we were told – and then saw for ourselves – was horrific. In response to the initial gunfire, some workers had fled west, across open ground, where many took cover on a rocky outcrop. Another 17 workers were killed there, surrounded and murdered, away from the TV cameras.

The ongoing Farlam commission of inquiry has answered some but not all of our questions.

The main demand of the strike was for a salary of R12?500 a month. This was first raised by just one category of workers, rock drill operators, at just one section of the mine, Karee.

Karee’s manager said that, when he first heard the figure at a meeting with two delegates of the rock drill operator, it “stunned me a bit” because they were in effect “seeking an increase of approximately 150%”. According to him, workers did not base their claim on specific calculations, but felt it was reasonable, given the difficulty and physically demanding nature of their labour, the long hours they toiled, and the wet conditions in which they worked. When he pointed out that R12 500 was more than their team leaders received, they responded, he recalled: “Team leaders do not work much anyway.”

Lonmin decided to award the drill operators a special allowance, partly because of competition with the two bigger platinum companies, which paid higher salaries. But Lomnin bypassed established collective bargaining procedures, so it set a precedent – and also damaged the prestige of the dominant union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The workers were still dissatisfied, but had gained confidence. The R12?500 demand was taken up by the drill operators across the whole mine, and on August 9 they went on strike and marched to Lonmin’s Marikana headquarters. Inconsistently, management now refused to meet workers’ delegates, and said that demands had to be channelled through the NUM. That night, the strike spread throughout the mine.

The NUM had developed a cosy relationship with the employer and was already losing support, especially at Karee, where workers had joined a new union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Partly to unite workers across the union divide, the drill operators had organised their own committee. This soon expanded to include other categories of workers.

On August 10, 3?000 workers marched to the NUM office, calling on the union to take up their demand. One of the local NUM leaders, possibly more, shot at the marchers. Two protesters were severely wounded, but workers thought they had been killed – and perception mattered. The shootings are widely seen as a turning point in the lead-up to the massacre. Workers retreated to their gathering place, where they armed themselves with “traditional weapons”. The NUM’s credibility collapsed.

By August 12, after phone calls to the minister of police by Lonmin bosses and the NUM, the South African Police Service (SAPS) had established a joint operations centre at Marikana. Lonmin provided the police with offices, intelligence, access to more than 200 CCTV cameras, accommodation, food, transport, a helicopter, ambulances, a temporary jail, back-up from 500 security officials, and a convention centre for later debriefing. It also helped to develop the plan that led to the massacre.

The Farlam commission has verbatim minutes of a meeting, two days before the massacre, of the SAPS provincial commissioner and Lonmin’s executive vice-president for human capital. The latter explains that he wants to avoid similar militancy elsewhere, wants existing labour relations reinforced, and to undermine calls for nationalisation. The commissioner says: “We need to act such that we kill this thing.”

On the morning of August 16, the commissioner told the media this was “D-day”. Police ordered four mortuary wagons, each with space for six corpses. These would soon be needed. The police planned for deaths, and Lonmin participated in the planning.

But who was behind this action? In the minuted meeting, the SAPS commissioner said the minister told her somebody “politically high” was calling him: Cyril Ramaphosa, the first general secretary of the NUM, former secretary general of the ruling ANC and, at the time, a member of the Lonmin board. In May this year, Ramaphosa became the deputy president of South Africa.

The day before the massacre, Ramaphosa emailed fellow Lonmin board members to say he had had a meeting with the mines minister, who would brief the president and the Cabinet and “get the minister of police … to act in a more pointed way”.

This year, Amcu led an official strike of platinum miners demanding a minimum salary of R12?500. After five months – the longest strike in South Africa’s mining history – the workers won a partial, but very significant, victory. The massacre was a major factor in maintaining the workers’ solidarity. The deal, which covers three years from 2013, will lead to many of the workers, perhaps most, securing R12?500 by mid-2015.

Marikana was an “egalitarian movement”. The platinum workers helped to close the “apartheid pay gap”, but also fought for a flat-rate increase, not a percentage adjustment, consciously aimed at reducing income differences among them.

They also made a “claim to justice”. They wanted compensation for the jobs they did; they fought for dignity, and their bosses will doubtless treat them with greater respect in future.

Let us return to Piketty. An account of Marikana could point to accidents of history or focus on peculiarly South African aspects.

Piketty draws our attention to a bigger picture, and this has considerable merit. But what he describes has an opaque quality.

Marikana was a “distributional conflict” – but it was more than this. Workers’ dissatisfaction was about rewards for the quantity and quality of their work and the conditions under which they laboured. When they protested, they did so by halting production, and it was strike action that eventually brought success.

On the other side, employers’ ability to determine income was rooted in ownership of the mines, and they were disturbed by losing an element of control over labour relations, and even feared growing support for nationalisation.

So, Marikana was also about ownership and production, and the connection between both and distribution. Though Marikana did reflect problems with the “market economy”, it was linked to the 2008 crash – that is, a specific crisis. From 2000 to 2008, Lonmin benefited from a profit to labour ratio that averaged 62:38; from 2010 to 2011, after the crash, the ratio was 42:58. It was still making a profit, but not enough to satisfy shareholders. By 2012, its space to make concessions was much reduced.

At the end of his book, Piketty returns to Marikana to argue that “what would matter most would be the publication of detailed accounts of private corporations”. Yet these accounts were available by the time of the five-month strike. Their impact was marginal.

In some respects, the post-apartheid state has been progressive, and this is partly why the massacre was so shocking. The ANC has sought to build a new black bourgeoisie while sustaining a pact with trade unions and, although this provided a base for social reforms, it also produced a tightknit grouping with a common interest in repressing the Lonmin strikers.

For South Africa, Marikana was a turning point. It unmasked private ownership as well as the unequal distribution of income. It underscored the negative role of the police and the ANC, created new political movements and showed the potential of collective mobilisation.

Piketty has exposed the role of wealth and the wealthy in the growth of global inequality and threats to democracy.

But Marikana shows that his analysis has limitations. Michael Burawoy, president of the International Sociological Association, has ascribed these to Piketty’s dearth of theory. I agree.

But, more than this, and in contrast to the author of Capital (in the 19th century) his account suffers, in particular, from a lack of a theoretical and practical commitment to struggle from below, to “self-emancipation”.

This is an edited version of a paper delivered at the International Sociological Association World Congress in Yokohama. Sociology professor Peter Alexander holds the South African Research Chair in Social Change at the University of Johannesburg. He is a co-author of Marikana: The View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer



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