South Africans are reeling in horror at a violent incident on 16 August 2012 which recalls the darkest days of the country's apartheid past: the killing by armed police of around thirty-four miners (the precise number is not yet confirmed) at a platinum-mine owned by the giant Lonmin company, near Rustenberg in the country's north. Government ministers and senior figures in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) are expressing simultaneous shock, outrage and perplexity at what has become known as the 'Marikana massacre'. The recurrent refrain is that the task now is to understand what lies behind the tragedy, and that it's too early to 'point fingers' in blame. President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, has promised the appointment of a commission of inquiry with a wide-ranging scope.
There is, in short, a mixture of surprise, puzzlement and remorse among the ruling elite. But why the surprise? The writing has been on the walls of the powerful for a long time now, even if it is indecipherable to those lacking the will to read it. In fact, the Marikana massacre has been a tragedy waiting to happen. When the commission of inquiry comes to write its report - though it is most unlikely to allocate any responsibility before the ANC's leadership election at Mangaung (Bloemfontein) in December 2012 - it might well choose to peel the Marikana onion in four stages.
The first, outer skin of the onion can be said to comprise the rivalry between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest affiliate of the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The AMCU originally split from the NUM in 1998, but has come to prominence only over the last two or three years - notably at the Implats and Lonmin mines in the emerging platinum-belt in Rustenburg, in North West Province, not far north of Johannesburg.
The AMCU has been growing at the NUM's expense, even while the latter has been dismissing its rival as promoted by the bosses to undermine it. Lonmin says it informed the NUM in March 2012 that the union's membership amongst the company's employees had fallen to less than 51%. This meant that in terms of the recognition agreement between the company and NUM, the latter had six months to restore its membership level, failing which new negotiation arrangements would need to be concluded. The immediate outcome was an aggressive recruitment campaign by the NUM which was met with an equally aggressive response by the AMCU (which probably claimed a membership level of around 20%, notably amongst rock-drillers).
The ensuing competition became increasingly violent, with both the NUM and Lonmin claiming to be victims - the former of rogue forces seeking to divide the unity of the workers' movement, the latter of an inter-union dispute which it claimed it was powerless to prevent. The commission of inquiry will do well to track the specifics, but when it comes to analyze the dynamics of the rivalry it will almost certainly point to a growing gulf between workers on the ground floor and their union officials.
The NUM itself is uncomfortably aware of this. Since 1994 it has commissioned five-yearly surveys of how its members see the union and how it addresses their needs. Just recently, it has been talking of making these surveys once every two years. Meanwhile, Cosatu general-secretary Zwelenzima Vavi has complained in his organisation's own annual report that the federation is increasingly bedeviled by its preoccupation with ANC politics, as major forces within Cosatu (including Frans Baleni, general secretary of the NUM) line up alongside the South African Communist Party (SACP) in order to boost the chances of Jacob Zuma's re-election to the ANC presidency in December 2012. Vavi's report was rejected by Cosatu's executive; this was no surprise, since the majority of the executive is said to be increasingly irritated by Vavi's loud and increasingly insistent critique of the ANC as presiding over a cesspit of corruption, and doing nothing to clean it up.
The standard critique of Cosatu from the right is that it is becoming the vehicle of a privileged stratum of formally employed workers amongst a growing sea of the informally employed and unemployed. This is undoubtedly unfair, if only because average wage levels for even formally employed workers remain dismally low, and wages need to be spread around households steeped in grueling poverty. Nonetheless, it can be argued that there is an increasing class dimension to Cosatu's internal politics, from which the NUM is not immune - notably the use of union office for purposes of personal upward mobility rather than as a project for fighting the battles of the working class.
Indeed, an irony of the more labor-friendly industrial-relations dispensation which has been put in place in post-apartheid South Africa, may well be that it has removed workers' struggles from the factory floor and the mines into the boardrooms, even as the unions themselves have established and grown investment companies which, whilst formally separate, offer prospects of opportunity, enrichment and profit. Unsurprisingly, the AMCU expresses the discontents, anger and frustration of some of those who feel they are being left behind and ignored by the powers-that-be - not only employers, the government and the ANC but the established trade-union movement as well. No wonder that the AMCU's demands are for a wage rise from around R4,000 (L310) a month to R12,000-plus a month, and the right to a decent standard of living!
Beneath the onion skin lies a second layer: worryingly apartheid-style policing. Television images of the Marikana massacre showed armed cops, some of them in camouflage uniforms, confronting the protesting AMCU workers. Yes, the workers were themselves bedecked with pangas, knives and anything else at hand. It is also not improbable, as police claim, that some of them were armed with guns and may even have started the gun-battle which had such disastrous consequences.
But it's all so predictable. Post-apartheid policing was meant to get away from the bad old days when police patrolled the rioting townships and the black majority was the enemy. Even now there is much lip-service to such heartwarming notions as 'community policing' and serving the public. And certainly, it's tough out there, with the police themselves suffering many violent deaths, as well as demoralizingly low pay levels. Yet alongside some progress towards more acceptable modes of policing, there are worrying signs of regression.
The arrest of a police hit-squad in KwaZulu-Natal which had taken the law into its own hands is one example; the disturbingly high incidence of deaths in police detention (albeit fewer than under apartheid) is another. But Marikana is a forceful reminder of a shift towards the militarization of policing, prefigured by events in 2010 (a call by the deputy police minister Fikile Mabalula for the transformation of the police into a paramilitary force, followed by the return to a system of military-style ranks). Even before then, controversy had erupted around statements by then top cop Bheki Cele which were widely interpreted as endorsing a 'shoot-to-kill' policy by police. Cele strenuously refuted this reading of his remarks, but nonetheless they appear to have set the tone for a tougher, 'no-nonsense' style of policing in which preparedness to resort to violence to confront crime has become increasingly acceptable.