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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 11, No. 33, 13 September 2012

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Demagogues circling like vultures over the Marikana tragedy

By Jeremy Cronin, SACP 1st Deputy General Secretary

Both before and after the Marikana tragedy on August 16th, the SACP has consistently sought to analyse and explain the brutally oppressive dynamics at play in the South African mining sector in general, and in the platinum sector in particular. It was the SACP, for instance, that first made the link between the demagogic calls for "nationalisation" of the mines and the over-exposure of BEE interests particularly in the platinum sector with the onset of the 2007 global economic crisis.

Underpinning the crisis is the super-exploitation of workers by major transnational mining companies like Anglo Platinum, Impala Platinum, and Lonmin, along with a host of increasingly indebted "junior" platinum miners. Over the past two decades, sitting on top of 86% of the world's platinum mineral group resources, these corporations have made super-profits out of perpetuating a semi-colonial extractive economy based on "cheap" labour - cheap, that is, for the capitalists.

This is the fundamental underlying reality, but layered on top of it are a host of other intersecting oppressive realities and legacies. Between one-third and a half of the work force on the platinum mines is sub-contracted labour - the perpetuation of the migrant labour system in a new and often harsher form. Nor is it entirely fortuitous that the eye of the storm in the current troubles is located in ex-Bantustan territory. Along with the former Inkatha dominated KwaZulu, and Sebe's Ciskei, the Bophutatswana Bantustan was cultivated in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a base for an eventual counter-revolution. As a result of intense Bantustan repression, trade union organisation got off to a late start in the platinum sector, and still today there is no centralised bargaining for this sector.

The Bantustan legacy is also directly implicated in the awful squatter-camp conditions in which much of the platinum mines work-force is living. With the scaling down of the old mine hostels, the majority of workers have taken the R1,800 "living out allowance". This is insufficient, obviously, for a bank mortgaged home, and as wage-earners they don't qualify for RDP subsidised housing. The result has been a mushrooming of squalid shanty-towns around the mines. Much of this is on "communal land" under the control of traditional leaders. The traditional leaders regard this as their "tribal" land (which it is legally) and see the shanty-towns as invasions. As a result, they often refuse permission for basic sanitation and other social infrastructure to be erected, further exacerbating the misery of the work-force.

What we have then is the perpetuation of a brutal, century-long mining extractive economy pattern, but in a changed social reality in which, in many ways, the plight of the work-force has become even more desperate. It was the South African Marxist activist and academic Harold Wolpe who, back in the early 1970s, provided an incisive analysis of the nature of this extractive economy. The super-exploitation of the mine work-force, and the resultant super-profits for the mining companies, was based, he noted, on what he called the "articulation between two modes of production". On the one hand, there was a highly capitalised, technically advanced capitalist mining sector (still symbolised today by the impressive concrete towers, the head-gear that rises above the veld across the platinum belt). On the other hand, Wolpe argued, there was a subordinate communal/peasant subsistence "mode of production" based in the native reserves (later Bantustans) and impoverished neigbouring countries. The existence of this subordinate mode enabled the mining houses to transfer many of the costs of the social reproduction of mine labour onto these labour reserves under the "indirect rule" of "traditional" patriarchal domination. Costs of health-care, education, housing and the like, which are typically borne by the state (and therefore tax-payers) in developed capitalist societies, were largely displaced onto subordinated social structures in SA.

In simple terms, the cost of caring for and rearing children (the future mine-workers), the sick, the old, and the retrenched was displaced from the mainstream capitalist economy onto the impoverished reserve economies - and particularly onto women "subjects" of "tribal authorities". Law and order in these labour reserves was maintained through colonially hand-picked chiefs who collaborated with the mine-recruitment centres. This patriarchal control was also carried into the hostels through the "boss-boy" system, and the deliberate "tribalisation" of labour. It was this system that made mine-labour "cheap" and "disciplined", guaranteeing super-profits. And it was this system that lay at the heart of the development of capitalism in SA, and the construction of a white minority system of colonialism of a special type.

At the time of his developing this analysis, Wolpe was aware that the underpinning "articulation" between a capitalist economy and labour-reserve economies was increasingly under strain - primarily because of the increasing collapse of the productive capacity of the reserves - due to overcrowding, over-grazing, and serious erosion. Now, in 2012, while the brutal shadow of this system is still present, it is present within a very different social, economic and political reality. The agrarian crisis and rural underdevelopment in places like Pondoland (from where the core of the Lonmin rock-drillers originate) has deepened. Since 1994 we have failed to embark on effective rural transformation in impoverished regions like the north-eastern Eastern Cape. Democracy and unionisation has also seen the downscaling of the hated mine-compound and single-sex hostel system. But (again particularly, but not only, in the case of platinum mining) it has not been replaced by effective housing for the work-force - whether supplied by the mines, or the local municipalities, or traditional authorities, or a combination of all three.

Instead, we have sprawling, unhealthy and often dangerous and crime-ridden informal settlements. The old patriarchal tribal chief and work-place boss-boy system has been displaced by a new lumpen-patriarchy (ethnic vigilante groups) that have seized control of these settlements through a mixture of violence and patronage.

It is impossible to understand the tragedy at Marikana and the continuing turbulence in the mining sector without understanding all of this. None of this is asserted in order to displace responsibility from all of us in the ANC-led alliance. We all need to learn lessons from these events. Have the established unions, operating under tough conditions, sufficiently adapted to the new social realities on the mines? Has the democratic state failed to provide basic daily safety and security to these mining communities? Has the absence of democratic authority created the space in which vigilantism and demagogy has gained a foot-hold?

But the possibility of thinking honestly and soberly about these matters is bedevilled by the way in which the mainstream media and even some who should know much better seek to frame the Marikana tragedy and the events surrounding it. Prior to August 16th the dominant interpretation of what was unfolding at Lonmin was that it was just "union rivalry" (note how this exempted the role of the mining corporations, and how it established a supposed equivalence between NUM and a pseudo-union originally funded by BHP Billiton and reliant entirely on demagogy, violence and intimidation). After the August 16 tragedy the dominant framing in the mainstream media was that we were dealing with an "authoritarian", "Sharpeville-era" state on the one hand, and "civil society" on the other.

These ways of reading the events have become so entrenched in the media despite a great deal of evidence to show that we are dealing with a much more complex reality than simply "union rivalry" or serious (and they were serious and tragic ) "crowd control" blunders by the police. Take for instance the sub-headline in New Age last week. New Age carried cde Solly Mapaila's "Umsebenzi Online" piece from last week (the "Marikana story that isn't being told"), conveying voices of NUM shop-stewards and terrorised local community members at Marikana. We appreciate the fact that New Age re-published the story - but what was the sub-headline they gave it? It was: "Union rivalry or an authoritarian state?" - as if these were not exactly the simple alternative explanations that cde Mapaila was seeking to debunk.

Or take The Times of Wednesday September 12. On page two it has story about an "unidentified body of a man in black clothes, found in the Nkananeng informal settlement…lying face down, with two deep cuts in the back of the neck." Next to the story is a photo of heavily armed striking miners, in the foreground one is licking a sword. And what is the headline to the story? It is: "Death no deterrent to strikers". As if the only source of the violence were an "authoritarian state", and the "heroic" strikers were undeterred by this state!

It would be wrong to demonise the strikers who, no doubt, find themselves in a desperate situation. But contrariwise demonising the democratic state (whatever its mistakes and serious shortcomings), or the NUM (whatever its challenges) is an even more serious blunder that plays straight into the hands of the many demagogues circling like vultures over the tragedy of Marikana.