The Marikana Tragedy: South Africa's Social Contract with Its Working Poor Breaks Down

By Cohen, Robert | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Marikana Tragedy: South Africa's Social Contract with Its Working Poor Breaks Down


Cohen, Robert, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


On August 16 the South African Police Service killed 34 mineworkers, injured 78 and arrested 270 others who had gathered on a rocky outcrop a 90-minute drive from Johannesburg near the Marikana Platinum Mine owned by Lonmin Plc. A week earlier, ten other people died: six mine workers, two security guards and two policemen.

The deaths of 44 people sparked shock, dismay and profound soul-searching throughout South Africa. In 2010, South Africa took so much pride in hosting the 2010 World Cup of soccer, seeing it as an example of what can be done when everyone works together. Now the country has been forced to look at its darkest side and assess how far it has moved toward the aspirations expressed by Nelson Mandela in 1994 when he became the first black president and the first to be elected by a majority: "We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination."

Underlying the tragedy brought on by the working conditions and violent protests there is something deeper. The Marikana crisis is a wake-up call bringing to the foreground the challenges from the nation's impoverished majority, and the unfinished promises to that majority. If left unresolved, these issues will imperil democracy, the rule of law and the hard-won civic, social and economic rights enshrined in the South African constitution.

A crucial industry

The South African Department of Mineral Resources acknowledged that there were 127 deaths in the mining industry in 2011 due to "falling of ground." This was 25 fewer deaths than in the previous year. In addition, there are high incidences of silicosis, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

South Africa's economy is the largest on the African continent--32.7 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa's GDP in 2011, according to the World Bank--and mining is its cornerstone. The mining industry currently employs 500,000 people. It has had a crucial political and economic impact on the growth of the country since the discovery of gold and diamonds in the mid-nineteenth century. Mining represents 6 per cent of South Africa's economy --down from 21 per cent in 1970, but still almost 60 per cent of export revenue, according to South Africa's National Development Plan.

There has been a worldwide boom in commodities since the year 2000, with growth of 5 per cent a year in the 20 largest producing countries. South African production actually declined by I per cent a year during this period, a missed opportunity to grow the economy.

Platinum is a precious metal used as a catalytic converter in automobile exhaust systems to reduce harmful pollutants. It is also used in laboratory and dental equipment and jewellery. South Africa produces upwards of 80 per cent of the world's supply and is estimated to have more than 90 per cent of the known global reserves. Different estimates in the National Development Plan foresee growth of between 100,000 and 300,000 jobs over the next 10 to 12 years, based primarily on platinum mining.

A history of mining conflicts

After World War I the mine owners, through their Chamber of Mines and supported by the government, decided to increase their use of cheaper black unskilled labour. This had a major impact on the white mineworkers who earned seven to ten times more. Blacks and whites formed separate unions and organized at cross-purposes. The historic confrontation with the white unions was the 1922 Rand General Strike which saw 81 workers, 43 soldiers and 29 policemen killed and more than 650 people injured. Charges were laid against 853 people, of which 46 were for murder. Eighteen were sentenced to death, though public reaction led to 14 being reprieved.

The African Mine Workers Union was created in 1941, backed by a broad coalition seeking to promote and defend the interest of the black mineworkers. …

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