Some 50 workers celebrated outside the jail as South African authorities announced on Sept. 2 that they were provisionally dropping murder charges against 270 miners. All the jailed workers were scheduled to be released by Sept. 6.
The group had been charged with murder after police on Aug. 16 shot and killed 34 miners during a wildcat strike at the Marikana platinum mine, 80 miles northwest of Johannesburg.
Miners from the Lonmin Platinum facilities at Marikana are continuing to pressure their bosses, demanding higher pay and better working conditions. The rock drill operators have been blocking production at the platinum facility for weeks.
Early last month, 10 workers had been killed in clashes between miners represented by two rival unions. The police then massacred the 34 workers in a confrontation after failed efforts to break up their occupation of a hill near the mines. A video of the shooting was seen widely.
In the aftermath of the unrest and shootings, the prosecuting authorities in the North West Province brought murder charges against 270 mineworkers based on an old apartheid-era law related to “common purpose.” Under this law, any form of unrest resulting in deaths allows the state to prosecute any people involved in the struggle, even if they were fighting against injustice.
Broad sections of the South African public expressed outrage at this use of “common purpose” legal provisions against the mineworkers. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the main federation of trade unions, which does not represent the jailed miners, called the murder charge “absurd.”
That’s why the National Prosecuting Authority announced Sept. 2 that it would suspend the murder charges pending the completion of an investigation. South African President Jacob Zuma had launched a commission of inquiry in the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 16 massacre.
Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe on Aug. 31 demanded that the NPA provide sound legal reasons for charging the mineworkers with murder. Radebe noted that the charges had sparked “shock, panic and confusion” inside the country. (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 31)
The continued detention and murder charges were egregious, since it was the police who fired on the miners. While some workers were armed with traditional weapons, the police used automatic rifles, teargas and water cannons. Autopsies showed many of the miners had been shot in the back.
Mathew Phosa, secretary treasurer of the governing African National Congress, spoke out: “Charging some of the role players in the face of a Commission of Inquiry is reckless, incongruous and almost absurd — the consequences too ghastly to contemplate.” (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 1)
Mathole Motshekga, the ANC’s chief whip in Parliament, indicated on Sept. 2 that he was glad to see the charges dismissed for now. Nonetheless, the NPA suggested that the prosecution of the miners may resume if the Commission of Inquiry unearths evidence of wrongdoing on the workers’ part.
Acting NPA director, Nongcobo Jita, said that those jailed miners who could prove their places of residence would be released pending the outcome of the government inquiry. She blamed the initial murder charges on the North West Province prosecutor, Johan Smit.
The Marikana mines are located in the North West Province. Smit continued to defend the murder charges, saying the decision had legal merit.
Unrest continues in other mines
Since the Marikana massacre, miners have opened struggles at other mining facilities throughout South Africa. In late August and early September, the Royal Bafokeng mines experienced three days of work stoppages. There were strikes and other disruptions in the gold sector.
Four workers were injured when police opened fire Sept. 3 with rubber bullets at the Gold One mine located in Modder East. Just four days earlier, Julius Malema, the expelled president of the ANC Youth League, had spoken at the Aurora Mines, where workers from Gold One had been present. However, there had been unrest at Gold One since June. Malema blamed the government for what he called collaboration between ANC officials and mining bosses.
At Gold One, bosses dismissed 1,000 workers in June for participation in what the bosses say was an “illegal strike.” Of the fired workers, some 300 have been rehired and mine executives claim that others may be taken back if they apply and go through an interview process.
Gold One bosses also claimed that two of their employees were killed in the unrest and another injured due to intimidation by wildcat strikers against other workers. The company has offered a reward for the identification of those responsible.
Most people blame the outbreaks of wildcat strikes throughout the mining sector on the low pay rates and unfavorable conditions of employment. At the profitable Marikana mine, rock drill operators are making less than $500 per month, which cannot sustain the workers and their families.
Fundamental change needed
The ongoing problems in the mining sector of the South African economy stem from the lack of fundamental transformation in the relations of production. The ANC government, which has been in office since 1994, is coming under tremendous pressure to institute changes that would transfer ownership of the mines and other sectors of the economy to the workers and the communities in which they live.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions — COSATU — has 2 million members and is the largest workers’ federation in the country. Founded in 1985 during the struggle against white-minority rule, the federation was instrumental in building support for the ANC in the struggle against apartheid and in winning the first one-person, one-vote elections in 1994. That vote resulted in an overwhelming victory for the ANC and Nelson Mandela, who became the first president in the new South Africa.
However, the world capitalist crisis has had a tremendous impact on Africa’s largest economy. Unemployment remains high. The high rates of poverty are totally unacceptable to the majority of people.
That the ANC has not instituted sweeping industrial and agricultural reforms has resulted in internal struggles within the union movement itself. The breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which called the Lonmin strike, is a reflection of this crisis within labor.
The problem of the declining wages of the working class is not confined to South Africa. In U.S.-backed Kenya, for example, the national teachers’ union has been on strike demanding better salaries. Kenya’s educators say they are not making enough money to send their own children to schools and universities. (BBC News, Sept. 3)
The economic crisis is, in fact, worldwide. Even within the imperialist states, workers are facing similar challenges with declining wages, high unemployment and an all-out onslaught on unions within both the private and public sectors.
These developments in Africa and in the West illustrate the need for a total break with the capitalist system. Socialism, where the workers control the means of production, is the only real solution to overproduction and the decline in real wages.
Socialism can only be won through the building of a revolutionary party of the working class and the oppressed. World socialism can be brought closer when these revolutionary organizations are allied through a process of struggle that places the most oppressed at the center of the fight for equality and self-determination.