Mining After Marikana: South Africa Marks First Anniversary Of Deadly Labor Dispute, But Little Has Changed For Workers

 
on August 16 2013 11:35 AM
  • Marikana South Africa Aug 2012
    Miners chant slogans during the one-year anniversary commemorations to mark the killings of 34 striking platinum miners shot dead by police outside the Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine in Rustenburg, 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, August 16, 2013. Reuters
  • Striking Lonmin workers in South Africa
    A miner holds a palcard as they gather at Lonmin's Marikana mine in South Africa's North West Province. Reuters
1 of 2

A full year has passed since a mineworkers' strike in South Africa erupted into bloody violence, leaving 34 people dead and sending shock waves across the country, and throughout the world. At least 60 people have since died in an ongoing series of labor disputes and clashes -- But the incident on Aug. 16, 2012 was by far the bloodiest and most divisive, when security workers clashed with miners at the Marikana mine, owned by Lonmin PLC (LON: LMI), the world's third-largest platinum supplier. The demonstrators had gone on strike to demand higher wages and better living conditions.

In the 12 months since, many mining industry laborers still complain that nothing has changed for them and their families. Political infighting and labor union divisions further complicate the issue, and the government is running behind on promises to address strikers' grievances. Meanwhile, South Africa's mining industry is slowing down -- it now accounts for an ever-diminishing portion of total GDP as the years go on -- and the national economy as a whole cannot seem to get itself out of an alarming rut. 
 
Indeed, one year after Marikana, South Africa still has some serious reckoning to do.
 
Out in the Cold
 
Marikana marked the most violent security crackdown in South Africa since the country broke free of apartheid rule in 1991. The strikers themselves were armed with little more than spears and clubs, but the police justified their use of firearms by claiming self-defense -- two security workers had been killed by strikers earlier in the week.
 
The bloodshed brought back memories of black South Africans' struggles against white security forces during their long fight for equality -- but this time, the men who unleashed their bullets on the crowd were both black and white. Race is still a hot-button issue in South Africa, but the divisions that splinter society are increasingly of an economic nature. Marikana was a symptom of South Africa's rampant inequality -- a yawning chasm between the haves and have-nots.
 
Many of the Marikana strikers lived in shantytowns around the mine, which is located on a dusty expanse of land about 62 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Johannesburg.  There, they occupied ramshackle homes with poor sanitation and, often, a lack of electricity. Communities like these are common throughout the country; they ring the mines whose gold, platinum and other minerals bring billions of dollars revenues to the South African economy. 
 
At Marikana in particular, Lonmin has offered to help clean up and renovate those houses. But over the past 12 months, it seems little has changed. "Our children still play in dusty roads, we do not have water and electricity,” Primrose Sonti, a local women’s rights activist, said to the Christian Science Monitor. “We still do not have proper houses. We live in shacks a year ...  after mineworkers were killed for fighting for a better wage to improve their lives.”
 
Digging Too Deep
 
The protests that raged across South Africa last summer may have culminated with Marikana, but they haven't died down. Right now, much of the focus is on gold mining; workers in that industry are currently engaged in tense negotiations with company executives and government officials. Union heads are demanding a 60 percent increase in entry-level wages, while producers are reluctant to even cross the 6 percent mark.
 
The problem is a tricky one to solve. Keeping miners working in dangerous jobs at low wages may be unfair and unsustainable, but South Africa already has an unemployment rate of 25.6 percent -- more if you count the men and women who gave up seeking jobs -- employment within the mining sector fell about 4 percent some four months after the Marikana killings.

Productivity is down too, making it hard for producers to stomach across-the-board pay increases. Overall mine output fell by 6.2 percent in June, Reuters reports, with platinum taking a particularly heavy dive with an 18.9 percent drop.

Place all these factors within the context of an overall economy struggling to grow, and the situation becomes even more dire. South Africa may boast the continent's largest economy, but it is also among the slowest five countries on the continent in terms of growth. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the African Development Bank projects a GDP growth rate for South Africa of 3.2 percent for 2013/14, and even that could be overly optimistic.

The rand, South Africa's currency, is losing value, spooking officials who might otherwise be tempted to cut the Reserve Bank's benchmark interest rate of 5 percent. Last month, the Bank's governor Gill Marcus said its Monetary Policy Committee continues to face conflicting policy choices in connection with rising inflation and slowing economic growth. Moreover, foreign investors complain that the government, dominated since 1994 by the African National Congress, or ANC, is plagued by corruption and interminable red tape.

Unions, Divided
 
Underpinning all of these problems is a deep schism within the labor community, making it difficult for union members to make their case with any consistency. Platinum industry workers, including those who demonstrated at Marikana, are mostly allied to The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, or AMCU -- a group that is engaged in a turf war with South Africa's pre-eminent miners' bloc, the National Union of Mineworkers, or NUM. In addition, NUM is closely tied to the ANC party, while AMCU members tend to be younger and more critical of the government. The animosity between the unions has led to violent clashes, claiming at least a dozen lives since last summer. One local NUM leader was killed as recently as Monday.
 
AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa has become the face of union opposition to the ANC and NUM in this ongoing drama. He spoke Friday about the country's failure to redress the wrongs that led to the Marikana showdown. “A year down, nothing has changed. The economy has failed the mineworkers,” he said, according to South Africa's Independent Online News. “We still have a long way to achieve economic freedom.”
 
In Memoriam
 
A gathering was held at the site of the Marikana massacre on Friday -- a rocky slope some now call the "hill of horror." Thousands were in attendance. Prayers, eyewitness accounts and a moment of silence marked the somber ceremony, which was dominated by AMCU members, along with their friends and families. Lonmin executives were also present, including chief executive Ben Magara. “I am here to pay tribute to our fellow workers,” he said, according to the South African newspaper The Post. “This should never happen again.”
 
ANC officials were not in attendance, nor were NUM leaders, though AMCU had extended an invitation to them. The government claimed that the ceremony has been "hijacked" for political purposes. The ANC's absence has been felt in more ways than one; it is still nowhere near finishing a public inquiry report on Marikana, which was scheduled for completion months ago. The people who lost loved ones at the "hill of horror" one year ago are still waiting for justice that may yet be a long time coming, to say nothing of long-term fixes that will make South Africa's mining industry profitable, fair and sustainable.

Share this article