South Africa: paranoid politics of platinum mine massacre

At least 30 people were killed when an elite Tactical Response Team of the South African Police Service opened fire on striking workers at South Africa‘s Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg in North West province on Aug. 16. An estimated 3,000 strikers, many armed with clubs and machetes and chanting war songs, had gathered on a hill near the mine, and refused orders to disperse. Police used tear gas and water cannon before resorting to gunfire; there were some reports that strikers also used firearms. The mine, owned by British platinum giant Lonmin, had been shut two days earlier following the deaths of 10 workers in clashes between rival unions vying for control of the strike. Lonmin considers the strike illegal, and had threatened to sack 3,000 rock-drill operators if they failed to return to work.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), affiliated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and a  close ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is facing a rebellion at the Marikana facility by the more intransigent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said AMCU was responsible for the violence because it was pressing unreasonable pay demands. Yet, paradoxically, NUM secretary general Frans Baleni charged that AMCU is a creation of oil and mineral giant BHP Billiton and the Chamber of Mines, in a stratagem to weaken the NUM. 

COSATU secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi said after the massacre: “Broadly, we believe there is an orchestration, a planned violence, because the violence people are seeing today has been going on since January. Scores of people have been killed and systematically targeted. We can’t put our finger on it, but someone is orchestrating that violence.”

AMCU secretary general Jeffrey Mphahlele flatly blamed the massacre on the police, telling Reuters, “There was no need whatsoever for these people to be killed like that.” He portrayed the NUM as having sold out the workers: “Our opposition [the NUM] has been there for 30 years. If you’ve been there for 30 years, people get tired of empty promises. That’s what’s brought the downfall of NUM.”

The two unions also fought a bloody battle in the midst of an “illegal” strike called in January by rock-drillers at Impala Platinum (Implats), the world’s biggest platinum mine, also near Rustenburg.

Lonmin is the world’s third-largest platinum producer, and its share prices fell sharply immediately after the massacre. However, the price of platinum surged on global markets in the wake of the massacre, rising nearly $30 to $1,435.20 per ounce. Lonmin announced the day of the massacre that it is unlikely to meet its full-year production target of 750,000 ounces because of the lost work time. South Africa has 80% of known platinum reserves. While the country remains the world’s top producer, several platinum mines have stopped construction or suspended operations this year because of low prices, rising operating costs and labor strife. (Eye Witness News, South Africa, IOL, South Africa, Daily Maverick, Johannesburg, Aug. 17; COSATU, COSATU, CSM, Bloomberg, SAPA, BBC News, Daily Maverick, Global Post, Aug. 16; Reuters, Aug. 15; Daily Maverick, COSATU, Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, Aug. 14; Reuters, Aug. 13)