On August 16th, 2012, the South African Police Service fatally shot 34 miners at one of South Africa’s largest platinum producing mines, Lonmin. A further 54 miners were injured, and 270 arrested for attempted murder, and the most ruthless show of police brutality since apartheid rule in South Africa was quickly dubbed the Marikana massacre.

Image courtesy of Werner Vermaak, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Six weeks later and with a 22% pay increase, Lonmin miners are back at work, but the mining industry isn’t settled as widespread labour unrest rocks the backbone of South Africa’s economy. Marikana unveils and strips bare South Africa’s troubling economic inequality, bound by the legacy of apartheid. 

Lonmin miners initiated their strike action in August, calling for a salary increase to 12,500 South African rand per month, approximately $1500 USD. The increase demanded would triple the salary of rock drillers. A turf war between the long-standing National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) was the backdrop of the Lonmin negotiations. NUM, a strong ally to the African National Congress (ANC), had lost significant union membership to AMCU, as NUM members were increasingly weary of NUM’s backing of big business and the ANC elite in South Africa. Vying for member support, AMCU and NUM continuously blame each other for inciting violence during strikes, and NUM, most notably, blamed AMCU for wildcat strikes that occurred earlier in January 2012.

Peaceful protests turned violent when negotiations broke down with Lonmin’s management. Leading up to August 16th, four miners and two police officers were killed. Violence culminated in the shooting at Marikana, where a group of breakaway miners charged police lines, resulting in the use of live bullets to subdue protestors.  Coined as a massacre, a dizzying commentary propagated across South Africa.

South Africa’s Police Commissioner maintained that the police reacted in self-defense, dismissing any allegations that poor training or panic caused the deaths of Lonmin miners.  Miners charged the police line wielding pangas and guns, and therefore, the police had no choice but to shoot in self-defense. This hard-line stance was hotly debated as videos of the shooting went viral.

Subsequent debate polarized quickly over Marikana. Emphasizing the illegal nature of the Lonmin demonstrations, many justified the violent response under the premise of self-defense and for the greater good of society—the mantra used to justify limiting human rights in times emergency. Others were less sympathetic to the use of live bullets, claiming disproportionate force and poor training resulted in 34 unnecessary deaths.

Divided camps reduced Marikana into who perpetrated the violence. However, the massacre isn’t about who shot at who first; Marikana violently exposes the toughest economic and political challenges that post-apartheid South Africa faces. 

Marikana encapsulates the underpinnings of chronic—and growing—economic inequality in South Africa. Eighteen years since apartheid, South Africa is among the most economically unequal countries in the world. According to the World Bank, the top 10% of South Africans earn 58% of South Africa’s income, whereas the bottom 10% account for 0.5% of South Africa’s income. Marikana raises unavoidable questions: why has the ANC been unable to address widespread poverty in South Africa?  Why has apartheid-era economic inequality not transformed with the advent of political and institutional change in 1994?

One of the fundamental reasons why miners left NUM in favour of AMCU was because of the perception that NUM is working with ANC elite to serve the interests of corporations, effectively bolstering the upper echelons’ 10% on the back of the bottom 10%. Breakaway unions like AMCU flourish as union members take off their NUM hats for organizations they believe will better represent their interests. Ironically, Cyril Ramaphosa, once the leader of NUM who lobbied for the rights of disenfranchised black miners during apartheid, is now an ANC heavyweight and owns a stake in Lonmin. Mr. Ramaphosa, like Marikana, epitomizes the perception that the ANC only serves a select black elite. Increasingly, the ANC elite is accused of being disconnected from the economic realities of the masses they once fought for.

Ex-ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, capitalised on Marikana to strengthen his call for the nationalisation of mines. Visiting Marikana shortly after the massacre, his message of radical change in South Africa’s economy resonated with miners who are disillusioned with NUM and the ANC. Of course, Malema strategically called for the resignation of Zuma over his mishandling of Marikana. Whether you agree with Malema or not, his calls for a radical transformation of South Africa’s economy matter and will continue to feature in debate over what a transformed South African economy will look like.

Creating a more equal South Africa will not be easy. It certainly won’t happen overnight, especially since much of South Africa’s wealth is based on its mining industry, which has been hit hard by labour disruption this year. It is estimated that South Africa’s gold and platinum sector has lost 548 million USD this year, something that could push South Africa into economic recession. Investor concerns aside, South Africa needs strong leadership and renewed dialogue on how to create a more equitable and sustainable economy that benefits all, not just the elite. 

Lonmin miners settled for a 22% pay increase, largely out of fear that they would permanently lose their jobs. As strikes sweep across South Africa’s mining industry, everyone is awaiting the outcome of the Commission of Inquiry created to investigate the use of force by the police to subdue miners. Like any inquiry, if the results are not sanctioned by the masses, the legitimacy of the police and the Zuma presidency will only weaken.  Perhaps more importantly, politicians and citizens alike ought to use Marikana to initiate dialogue on how to build economic equality in South Africa. Marikana is the epicenter of labour unrest that is reverberating across the country, but it can also serve as an opportunity to initiate a real transformation of the South African economy.