The Marikana Massacre: One Year On

Can it really be a year since the fatal shooting by the police of 34 striking miners at Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa? The shocking events captured by TV cameras made headline news around the world at the time. A memorial service was held on Friday 16th August 2013 to mark the anniversary of the massacre. At the time, comparisons were made to the Sharpeville shootings of 1960, which was one of the defining incidents of the apartheid era. In making such a comparison the implication is that Marikana was an event that will ultimately change the course of South African history. For example, eNCA’s documentary ‘The Marikana Massacre: Through the Lens’ introduces it as “a story that changed South Africa forever”. Now that the initial international outrage has passed, what has happened since? What are the legacies, if any, of the Marikana massacre? Has anything changed since this use of lethal force by the post-apartheid state?

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

An obvious place to start is the ongoing Farlam Commission of Inquiry, which began its investigations in October of last year. It has made very slow progress – not a single police officer who was present on the day of the massacre has testified as yet. Delays have also resulted from a court battle over who should foot the bill for the legal representation of the miners. Meanwhile, the relatives of the deceased are unable to pursue a civil case for compensation until the inquiry has completed its investigation. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) did call for an alternative ‘independent’ inquiry to consider the wider impacts of the mining industry, but has not backed this up with significant efforts to push for such an investigation.

What was most remarkable about the memorial service held at Marikana last week was the absence of the ANC. This decision is related to an ongoing feud between the ANC and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) who organised the event. The ANC’s nonattendance played straight into the hands of its opponents. It was described by a BBC reporter as having the feel of an opposition rally. Julius Malema in the guise of his new political party – Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – was in attendance. The EFF used its platform to define the problems at Marikana within its wider narrative of the need for the nationalisation of South Africa’s mines, which is problematically offered as something of a panacea for South Africa’s poor black majority.

Part of the cause of tensions within the workforce last year was a feeling amongst a number of the miners that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which is affiliated to COSATU, was failing them. As a result some began to join AMCU and since last August we have seen AMCU gain momentum to the extent that just two days before the anniversary of the massacre, it was officially recognised as the majority union at the Lonmin mine.

A year later violent clashes between the NUM and AMCU continue.

The rise of AMCU at the mine is reflective of the increasing tensions within the wider trade union movement most recently demonstrated by the campaign by some within the largest federation to discredit Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU’s Secretary General. Support for Vavi, who has been publicly critical of Zuma’s government, has exacerbated tensions within COSATU. There is clearly an increasing disjuncture between many trade union leaders and the rank-and-file, which is compounded by the political connections that result from COSATU’s continued membership of the tripartite alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). It is the questioning of this relationship with the ANC that has helped AMCU to recruit members from the NUM.

So what has changed in South Africa since last August? Apart from increased divisions within the labour movement, very little! There appears to be limited faith in the ability of the inquiry to get to the truth of what happened last year and the distrust of the ANC is part of a wider and longer-term trend of sporadic and localised protest against the lack of progress enjoyed by the majority of the South African population. The events at Marikana last year raised serious concerns over how the ANC government responds to protest and critique. It seems highly unlikely that such criticism of the government will translate into meaningful change at the ballot box in elections scheduled for next year.

2 thoughts on “The Marikana Massacre: One Year On

  1. The growth of more independent or autonomous labour organisations such as the AMCU is a very interesting development. Obviously the membership of COASTU in the governing tripartite coalition doesn’t totally prevent its members from mobilizing or criticizing government policy, but on the whole the situation does appear to be one of co-optation and subordiation; COASTU have supported the ANC government, but in return there has been very little for the working masses.

    Maybe open confrontations, and organization into more autonomous movements, are inevitable given the inability of established organisations (COASTU and the ANC) to meet peoples immediate needs? I suppose the hegemony of the ANC is very strong in the realm of culture and ideas, but in material terms it is doing little for the vast majority. I don’t doubt that criticism of the government will not translate into any significant change at the ballot box as you state, but there could be more confrontations between labour and capital in which the contradictory roles of the ANC are brought into the open (liberator of the people vs. governor of capitalist state).

    Malema is capitalizing on legitimate anger over continued social injustice and particular events such as the Marikana massacre, but really he cuts the figure of a “caudillo” – his clientelism, corruption, and authoritarianism (see for example his self-aggrandizing title as “commander in chief” of the EFF) are very worrying, and behind his disjointed far-left discourse there is not a coherent programme. I agree that nationalization of the mines is not a panacea to South Africa’s long-standing and complex social ills, but surely as part of a coherent programme some more heterodox and radical policies could be enacted without the economic apocalypse which neoliberals predict?

    I’ll be curious to see how these issues play out in the run-up to the general election next April. As time goes by, maybe younger voters who do not have experience of the struggle against apartheid will be less reluctant about voting against the ANC?

    1. Thanks Laurence for the thoughtful and highly informed comments.

      COSATU is at an interesting point in its history and it will be interesting to see the direction it takes in the coming months. I do think that the significance of the rise of AMCU at Lonmin should not be over-estimated. There was a good piece recently in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian on COSATU’s future – see

      I totally agree with your analysis of Malema and the EFF!


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