/ 16 August 2022

The major economic and political questions of Marikana remain

Marikana: A Wound That Must Be Healed

When one asks people in Marikana how things have changed over the past 10 years many say, “nothing has changed”. Indeed, the material conditions of everyday life in the Nkaneng shack settlement fit this statement. Yet, the further the conversation goes the more one realises how many things had to change for things to remain the same. 

One important element through which we can understand the afterlives of Marikana is the way in which the massacre and subsequent events have underpinned this process. One major change that underlies this was the acquisition of Lonmin by Sibanye-Stillwater in 2019. Through this acquisition, seven years after the massacre, Sibanye has focused on crafting a new corporate identity for itself through using narratives of cooperation, participation and, most importantly, cultural sensitivity related to the Marikana massacre. These narratives seek to relegate Marikana to a version of history that views the past as cut off from present realities.

In a recent issue of Mining Weekly, an article titled “Sibanye continues to make reparations at Marikana” announced its new Memorial Park project. The park is part of its Marikana renewal programme launched in 2020 by the esteemed Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. The park, to be situated between the two koppies, has been “conceived as possibly an amphitheatre, with walkways, indigenous landscaping and a remembrance monument erected in honour of the 44 people who lost their lives in the clash”. 

Positioning himself as a sage and conscientious actor, Fritz Jooste, the Sibanye group manager of properties for South Africa, stated: “Previously, Lonmin’s proposal was to almost commercialise it, which we don’t think is appropriate.” Lonmin emerges as an ugly exploitative big sister in a shameful history. On the other hand, Sibanye imagines the park as a “co-creation” between family members of the victims and Sibanye facilitated through the “Letsema process”, a Tswana word which is translated to mean “voluntarily working together.” 

The process is supported by the Reimagine SA Foundation and described on their website as follows: “Rooted in ancient cultural values and traditional practices, The Letsema process is a powerful conversational tool passed down from our common heritage. Letsema convenes circles of people to engage in face-to-face encounters in a level, inclusive setting where everyone’s voice is heard and respected.”

Reimagine SA was co-founded in 2016 by Dr Mamphela Ramphele and former Eskom executive, Dr George Lindeque, as an advisory and advocacy organisation, “guided by the ancient ancestral wisdom of ubuntu” which “reimagines approaches to healing, governance, and economic inclusion”. 

Yet, if the Letsema process, galvanises “traditional” modes of non-hierarchical conversation and inclusive decision-making it is precisely these forms of politics that were criminalised before the massacre in 2012 when striking mine workers demanded that Lonmin officials come to speak to them at the koppie and were met instead with bullets. 

The “Five Madoda,” who led the strikes, and representations of striking workers as rural “traditionalists” were used to invalidate the strikes and wage demands. Cultural practice was cast as flouting standard union practice and collective bargaining structures and the miners were portrayed as driven into a frenzy by muti. Through these representations, cultural practice was depicted as violent and dangerous and therefore bad for business and democracy. In other words, the opposite of the dialogue-based and inclusive approach of Reimagine SA.

We see emerging a corporatised version of  “culture” capable of demarcating the line between legitimate and illegitimate cultural practice. This is important for several reasons. First, it is embedded in the narrative of how Marikana will be memorialised by Sibanye and its stakeholders. If one of the major state justifications for violence at Marikana was that strikers were ultimately responsible for police action, the Mining Weekly article restates this by claiming that on “August 16, 2012, when hundreds of strikers armed with knobkerries, pangas and guns stormed police lines and were shot down after non-lethal riot control methods failed”.

Second, it consigns Marikana to the past, as having no afterlife except in memorialisation. By approaching it as merely an incidence of history, Sibanye is able to individualise and compartmentalise the effects of Marikana through the various interventions that it has built around the massacre, like providing individual counselling, pledging houses for the widows “excluded by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu)” and even pledging to pay the legal costs of the Bapo baMogale traditional authority to “win back” royalties from the provincial government, at its online memorial for Marikana, in 2020, in which Amcu did not participate.

These interventions reduce the struggles at Marikana to the individual progress of those, in the main, who have been “left behind”. It follows the paradigm of most corporate “development” schemes which seek to channel collective resistance into individual strategies for self–development: “skills training”, “trusts” for children’s postgraduate education, qualified housing and upgrading promises. 

Through this future-oriented programme, demands by residents that are immediate, public, and collective can be subverted. The massacre itself, consigned to history, becomes the basis of this individualist approach in which the present is constantly deferred in the promise of a “brighter future” for a lucky few. Moreover, it ignores the mass resistance of workers in the aftermath of the massacre and how one of the largest wildcat strikes led to the longest strike in South African history.

Members of a new women’s organisation in Marikana, Sinethemba, confirmed this in their conversations with me in July 2022. Although there have been calls for a memorial for some time now, and counselling services are welcomed by the women, who often perform counselling for local people after receiving training from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, the major economic and political questions of Marikana remain. Demands by the women’s organisation for free clinics, creches, water, electricity, and satellite police stations, to name a few, go unheeded. Ongoing strikes by mine workers’ collectives for higher wages are responded to in a piecemeal fashion and often through violent encounters.

One woman described Sibanye as a “new and improved Lonmin”. She argued that they often want local residents in their programmes but they expect them to be, “‘yes and no’ people, when you start to ask questions, they move the meetings to Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town”. In the past, Lonmin had an agreement to provide water to Nkaneng free of charge, but now residents must pay. The situation has also declined since the local chieftaincy is in dispute and it is not clear who is “in charge” of making deals with Sibanye. 

For many, life is worse under Sibanye — contrary to their new brand — yet it is precisely this marketing that has allowed mining corporations to sustain their methods of exploitation for over a century. The afterlives of Marikana continue to raise questions about how the post-apartheid political economy is being constructed through this relationship between its ideological underpinnings and its extractive practices. 

This requires us not to merely see continuities in economic exploitation but to pay attention to the changing corporate self-imaging, which functions to ensure these continuities. Whereas capital aided by corporate NGOs has capitalised on a narrative centred on “culture” that subverts collective demands for political, economic and social justice, attempts by various actors to work with struggles on the ground in Marikana have failed to grapple adequately with local popular politics.

For example, although Marikana stimulated a break in the labour movement, the emergence of Amcu and the Economic Freedom Fightersas well as other “solidarity” groups — largely a result of absorbing the popular energies of worker and women’s collectives — have failed to sustain themselves as representatives in places like Marikana. Attempts in the academy and elsewhere to understand why this occurred have often followed the same tired script — we need a more radical politics, more progressive unions, more discipline and more progressive workers to “build the left”. This too hedges its bets on a discourse that is “future-oriented” — always awaiting “true transformation” or “real political consciousness” for the collective and the revolution that is always yet to come.

Perhaps it is time for us to set aside this nostalgia for past struggles and future utopias and to deal with the present by asking: why is it that these representative bodies seem constantly to fail as adequate vehicles for these struggles? What is it about these vehicles themselves, the union, the party, the so-called left, that seems incapable of capturing the demands of constituencies they so desire to represent? 

Moreover, what kind of collective is seen as desirable? It is clear that mineworkers and residents have collective demands in Marikana, most especially for a living wage. This has been the organising principle that led to historic strikes and in many cases winning wage increases, often outside trade unions which failed to secure such increases. This should be considered a radical tradition and a singular demand that can be upheld in the present.

What is at stake in Marikana, and its afterlives is, simply put, the material conditions of life for the majority of South Africans. The fact that those people who are often depicted as mere victims are constantly constituting themselves as collectives through political forms and practices that best suit their ends is what should attract our attention and direct our inquiries as we consider how many things have changed since Marikana, 2012 so that some things could remain the same in Marikana 2022.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Africa is a Country.

Camalita Naicker is a lecturer in historical studies at the University of Cape Town.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.