Jumping the gun on Marikana backfires
MARIKANA: A VIEW FROM THE MOUNTAIN AND A CASE TO ANSWER by Peter Alexander, Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope, Luke Sinwell and Bongani Xezwi (Jacana)
There seems to have been a mad dash for the finish line in the compilation of Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer, the first of what is sure to be a slew of books and films on the subject. With its focus on finishing first, the team behind the book (led by University of Johannesburg sociology professor Peter Alexander, and including independent researchers based at the university) suffers a false start, scuppering an opportunity to give us a well-rounded overview of a massacre that represents the lowest point of what we once called “the new South Africa”.
Although the book sets itself up as an alternative “to the dominant view put forth by the media, government and [the] National Union of Mineworkers [NUM]”, it offers little that has not already entered the public domain through the media.
Broadly, the book consists of an introduction that outlines the book’s premise, interviews with mineworkers, a narrative account based on workers’ testimonies and an analysis and conclusion penned by Alexander. There are also transcribed speeches by the likes of strike leader Tholakele “Bhele” Dlunga (and possibly Xolani Nzuza, although he is not named) and Jeff Mphahlele, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) general secretary. There are also interviews with an unnamed wife of a mineworker and the Amcu president, Joseph Mathunjwa, an obviously charismatic but largely enigmatic figure.
In some ways, it is this interview that saves the book from itself.
Mathunjwa went to ground soon after the massacre and would speak to the media only after testifying at the Farlam commission of inquiry. But he still remains one of the more difficult Amcu figures to track down.
One of the book’s highlights is hearing the man fill in biographical gaps, talking about some of the early campaigns he initiated and, even as early as 1986, identifying deficiencies in the outlook of the NUM. “I was the first person at Douglas [colliery, a BHP Billiton-owned mine in Witbank] who led a campaign [for] workers to have houses outside the mine premises,” he says.
“That was ’86. NUM was there but it was not really … more instrumental about living outside the mine. It was more focused on disciplinary hearing[s], but not this global approach on social issues.”
We hear how, after joining the NUM, its management targeted Mathunjwa and at some point isolated him from the rest of the workforce before the union expelled him. But he doesn’t dwell on this and it becomes clear that Mathunjwa had the allegiance of most members in his branch. After resigning en masse from the NUM, there being no alternative, they spurred him on to form his own union.
Scratching the surface
Although you get a sense from the Mathunjwa interview that the Amcu membership grew because of the union’s commitment to adequate representation of its members, especially after winning a labour court battle over the retrenchment of workers at BHP Billiton, the interview is more superficial than rigorous.
The Impala platinum mine strike is mentioned only in passing but it presents us with an opportunity to understand the full complexities of the labour environment that Amcu operates in, especially in the mining sector, where its furious rise to power has been met with delaying tactics and, as the union alleges, retributive threats of retrenchment.
For a long time after the 2012 strike at Impala, Amcu operated by proxy through an “independent” workers’ committee that, in the period leading up to and after the strike, had no qualms in unleashing violence to take over a NUM office.
Academically, it was the research of Crispen Chinguno, a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand school of social science, that dared to lift the lid on the violent workforce that Amcu inherited. Chinguno writes in his research notes: “After the strike, Amcu consolidated its position and simultaneously NUM attempted to retain its position.
“The NUM northern branch at number six hostel called for a report-back meeting after the strike. This was aborted after some workers brutally attacked union officials and some were seriously injured and admitted to hospital. The workers accused NUM of selling out and hijacking a struggle they never initiated. NUM suspended meetings of its structures citing violence.”
For other researchers, the ideological expediency of the Marikana situation and the downfall of the NUM were just too fortuitous to let the inconveniences of balance get in the way.
Although Impala’s delaying of the verification process probably served to confirm that workers who did defect from the NUM did so willingly, the same workers cannot be portrayed as non-violent saints.
Of course, it can be argued that the violence of years of misrepresentation suffered at the hands of the NUM — a violence funded by the workers’ dutiful subscriptions — was just as abominable and, in fact, more sustained than the sporadic anger meted out on strike breakers.
Although the interview is a tad too agreeable, Alexander saves some of his more incisive commentary for the book’s analysis and conclusion. In analysing the road ahead for Amcu, Alexander writes that, “in rejecting political affiliation, Amcu should not reject political participation. In the 1980s, unions affiliated to the Federation of South African Trade Unions generally abstained from politics … creating a vacuum that was filled by unions aligned to the ANC … Most issues raised by the Rustenburg committee, for instance, require an engagement with politics and, if Amcu does not provide this, workers are likely to be drawn in other directions.”
Although his subsequent assertion that workers could be drawn back to the NUM seems unlikely, given the intensity of discontent after Marikana, Alexander does give Amcu something to think about.
A political awakening within the ranks of Amcu could, in fact, chart a new, leftist, worker-led political course for South Africa. In the press, Mathunjwa, who favours nationalisation, appears to speak socialism, which is why he has been courted by the left, as evidenced in this book.
Much of the book’s mid-section is devoted to interviews with Marikana’s workforce, many of them participants in the strike.
Undermined by discrimination
Hearing women tell of why they do not openly participate in strikes is informative and valuable in understanding the entrenched patriarchy that governs gender relations on the mines.
Not only are women vulnerable underground but also their entire sphere of existence on the mines also seems to be undermined by discrimination.
Although the interviews with workers are important and reveal that most workers resorted to carrying dangerous weapons only after the shooting incident at the NUM offices, sadly, workers underplay the death of two Lonmin security guards, which took place on August 12 as the strike descended into episodic violence. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth as the interviewers don’t seem willing to press the issue with sufficient rigour.
Also, these interviews are presented in raw form, with direct translations. In some of the transcripts, one gets the sense that miners were forced to speak in English — a grave mistake — and their subsequent grammatical errors were left untouched, making it harder for the reader to understand their arguments in a more nuanced manner.
Was this done out of a reluctance to interfere with the workers’ narratives, or was this the result of hurriedly processing raw data in order to meet publishing deadlines?
One will never know, but what is clear is that the book would have benefitted from more time, balance and precision.