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South Africa: The Marikana Syndrome

AfricaFocus Bulletin
August 5, 2013 (130805)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"What took place on August 16th could just as conceivably have occurred with similar violence at just about any mine in South Africa - because of workforce similarities, common historical residues inherited from apartheid and preserved so exactly in the world of mineral extraction, similarities of geological conditions, the nature of industrial relations nationwide, the appalling state of safety in South Africa's "hard rock" mines or, perhaps most importantly of all, because the local mining industry has, albeit to differing degrees, experienced common discomfort in coming to terms with the transformative demands being made upon it by a new regime in the twenty years since apartheid. Perceived on this landscape the Marikana massacre is but a symbol or outcome of wider developments." - Philip Frankel

16 August will mark one year since the "Marikana Massacre" in which 34 striking platinum mineworkers were killed by police on one day at the Marikana mine northwest of Johannesburg (see - "The Marikana Era?" and (The Price of Platinum). A formal government commission (, is pursuing an investigation of the events of that day and of the violence both preceding and following it, including the deaths of police and mine security staff as well as mineworkers (the website includes transcripts of some 117 days of hearings to date).

The new book by Philip Frankel, Between the Rainbows and the Rain: Marikana, Migration, Mining and the Crisis of Modern South Africa, does not go into detail about the events at Marikana. Instead it focuses on the underlying realities exposed by the event, namely that, despite some improvements, the fundamental structure of the mining system in South Africa remains based on that under apartheid, and that the drive for "production" above all undermines regulations and reproduces the marginalization and exploitation of the mining work force, particularly those who do the most dangerous work and are paid the least.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from the introductory chapter. The full book is must reading for anyone who wants to try to understand the gap between the promise and the reality of postapartheid South Africa, which is most glaring in the mining industry.

To order e-book or print edition of the Frankel book, or to contact the author, visit

To order a Kindle version from Amazon, visit

For a detailed description of events and eyewitness reports by mineworkers, see Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer, by Luke Sinwell, Peter Alexander,Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope, and Bongani Xezwi (

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on South Africa, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Philip Frankel, Between the Rainbows and the Rain: Marikana, Migration, Mining and the Crisis of Modern South Africa.
Johannesburg: Agency for Social Reconstruction, 2013.

[The following excerpts, from the introductory chapter, are reposted in AfricaFocus with permission of the author]

To order e-book or print edition, or to contact the author, visit

To order a Kindle version

A print edition will be available soon outside South Africa from African Books Collective

Introduction: Democracy's Sharpeville

This historical moment has, from all accounts, irrevocably altered South Africa's industrial and political landscape. Perhaps more importantly in the longer term Marikana has become a moral barometer against which future developments in mining and wider South Africa will be measured for many years to come.

A government-appointed investigative commission has been at work to examine the preconditions leading to the deaths on 16 August 2012. I believe this legal mechanism will deliver at least some of the proverbial "goods" on the agenda but by no means will that investigation cut close enough to the truth and complexity of the whole matter. This is precluded by its narrow terms of reference, its legal orientation and hence is preclusion from venturing more deeply into the underground sociology of Marikana, other mines and, ultimately, post-apartheid South Africa. ...

About a decade ago I wrote a book about a comparable event - the massacre at Sharpeville - which is at first sight a far more prepossessing place than Marikana. This little town, east of Rustenburg and north-west of Johannesburg, seems a most unlikely place to stir world imagination. ...

From all accounts, even after the sinking of the first mine shaft, Marikana was an entirely normal, small and relatively isolated agricultural village in the surrounds of a still-standing but also unexceptional Dutch Reformed Church. This, under apartheid was patronised by the white farmer population. The arrival of the mines on a large scale changed almost everything. Marikana then became what it is now - a fairly shabby mining settlement no different from the many others strung along the sides of what is currently the N4 Pretoria-Rustenburg highway.

This is, not without reason, known colloquially as the "platinum highway". Marikana is in fact an integral part of a vast string of mines stretching through the bushveld from Rustenburg for hundreds of kilometres northwards to the Zimbabwe border and then along the outlines of the Kruger National Park. Together the eastern and western limbs of this bushveld complex are the richest platinum mines on earth, containing 80 percent of known deposits. Most of its ore, when extracted and processed, is utilised as catalytic converters in just about every car in the world.

The Marikana mine owned by Lonmin is, in fact, the third biggest platinum mine in South Africa with over 30,000 workers - of whom 3.000 were in the veld on the fateful day. Perhaps more importantly the Marikana mine (with three working shafts) is not very different in its operations and social composition from other huge abutting mines owned by transnational companies, including Anglo-American, Impala, Aquarius and Xstrata. ...

What took place on August 16th could just as conceivably have occurred with similar violence at just about any mine in South Africa - because of workforce similarities, common historical residues inherited from apartheid and preserved so exactly in the world of mineral extraction, similarities of geological conditions, the nature of industrial relations nationwide, the appalling state of safety in South Africa's "hard rock" mines or, perhaps most importantly of all, because the local mining industry has, albeit to differing degrees, experienced common discomfort in coming to terms with the transformative demands being made upon it by a new regime in the twenty years since apartheid. Perceived on this landscape the Marikana massacre is but a symbol or outcome of wider developments.


As we shall show in the next chapter, people died violently, not only on the fateful Marikana day of August 16th, but long before. Perhaps more significantly, people continued to die in brutal circumstances with Marikana as the instigator for months thereafter. Conceived in this way, Marikana, is once again, less about a single massacre with all its horrible specifics, and more about a fundamental degenerative process in mining and in civil society in general. This encompasses not only the North-West Province, where poor governance, exploitation and atrocities against human rights are among the worst in South Africa, but all of the other eight provinces that make up the supposedly new democracy.

The mining industry continues to be in its worst crisis for decades as we enter the first moments of 2013. Massive companies like Anglo Platinum are threatened financially by production downtime, the labour relations system is in tatters and the main unions, NUM and AMCU, remain divided and at each other's throats. At least half a dozen mines are expected to close, at least temporarily, during the new year (2013) in the face of declining profitability and internal conflicts within the workforce. The anticipated "unbundling" of Goldfields is most likely to set off a disinvestment momentum that will leave mining uncomfortably under-capitalised in local hands.

South Africa is, as inferred on our cover, nowhere near the "rainbow" status it previously enjoyed on the international and domestic front. Once the "flavour of the month", or even the icon of political transformation, South Africa is now, two presidents on from Mandela, a deeply troubled country. ...

As a major mining country we have, as one industrial journal tritely puts it, "forgotten something". Indeed we have - and what has apparently slipped our memory are the people in mining - the (linguistically sanitised "human factor" in mining new-speak - the vast numbers of often de-humanised mining employees outside management, below supervisors, deep underground, down at the rockface.

This does not, of course, apply equally and everywhere because of the enormous diversity in the "mining industry", despite the stereotypic tendency of people to reduce it to a large clutch of powerful organisations whose core business is to blast, break, process and then sell precious rock on the world market.

Some mines, especially the gold mines, run thousands of feet beneath the earth at least partially because most of the easily accessible shallow gold reef has been mined-out after decades of extraction. Other South African mines are open-caste, on the surface, including one of the largest platinum mines on earth in Limpopo. Needless to say, the deeper the mine goes, the more dangerous and greater the technological, organisational and, not least, the human challenges.


Some of the older mines are truly dreadful operations, using redundant, makeshift, unsafe and unproductive equipment. Other newly commissioned mines such as the South Deep Mine at Carletonville, near Johannesburg and owned by Goldfields, are inevitably crisp, efficient, cutting edge and may consist of the most advanced operations available for ultra-deep-level mining in the world.

Otherwise, in many mines conditions can be primitive in terms of mechanical integrity, human relations and compliance with health and safety legislation. This was one of the findings of the National Mine Health and Safety Audit commissioned a few years by the Office of the President (then Thabo Mbeki) from the predecessor that is currently the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR).


There are, I believe, three key issues or themes, each worthy of a book in its own right, that we need to examine above all else in understanding the specific violence of the Marikana massacre and the dissemination of its "spirit" in fueling the worst industrial disturbances in South Africa since 1994. These features reflect, in turn, the character of a "post-miracle" South Africa twenty years down the line, and its mining industry in particular.

Firstly there is the workplace, the mine.

The local mining industry is without doubt the most conservative sector of the post-apartheid economy and, as we have already inferred, most resistant to transformation. This means that the dynamics of leadership, communication, culture and human risktaking are all still relatively de-coupled from many core values involved in driving the "new South Africa".

Secondly, there are the workers themselves. This refers to their working conditions, remuneration and behaviour, both on-the-job and in an extramural context.

At Lonmin, for example, this involves life in the mine hostels and in the sprawling informal settlements around Marikana shanties where most miners prefer, or are obliged, to live. ...

Thirdly, but by no means lastly, we need to scrutinise the "exit" point from the mine at the interface with the community.

Here we need to look at the impact of extraction activity on communities, especially adjacent communities that service the mine with labour and whose social problems are, in turn, transmitted back into the workplace itself. Especially important in this context is what mines do, don't do, or can't do for a range of people from workers to their dependents, in promoting sustainable development.

These key issues largely correspond to the organisation of the book that follows:

The first descriptive chapter deals with the dynamics of the violence that led to the massacre. Much of the methodology in this section is based on my own previous experience with massacre dynamics from the time of Sharpeville.

Chapter Two looks at the deeper issues in the typical South African underground mining workplace that, in my opinion, fuelled the killings of 16 August and the subsequent industrial violence that cost many more lives of miners, police and ordinary members of North-West province communities in the last few months of 2012.

Chapter Three goes beyond the social geography of Marikana to examine the recruitment process in the platinum mines (and to a lesser extent in other mining sectors), i.e. the dynamics under which migrant labour enters mines through a complicated system of labour brokers. ...

The ease with which these industrial transactions are carried out by not only Lonmin but also the other big mines in the nearby Bojanelo District owned by Anglo Platinum, Impala Platinum, Xstrata and Aquarius is enabled by the increased and often irresponsible use of contracted labour in the entire industry.

Most of the big companies around Marikana violate the principle agreed with the traditional authorities that workers should originate within 50kms of the shafts. At Marikana about 40 percent of workers are human imports. There are allegations of collusion between mine management, labour-brokers and corrupt brokers-cumtraditional chiefs who ask, and are asked, no questions in the provision of workers. Exchange of sex and money is common in return for placement on the mine lists.

The fourth part of the book examines what we see as the final element, or ingredient, in the Marikana "syndrome", i.e. the environmental and social impact of extraction activities on communities not only in the North- West province but in other areas across the country that have been seriously degraded by mining activity. ...

The concluding chapter is a kind of "whither-to-now SA mining", now that the much vaunted South African experiment has run into stalemate, if not worse. We are clearly somewhere over the rainbow but there is no pot of platinum at its end. Gold, the mineral that once defined South Africa is also a "sunset" industry. Outside mining everyone, even government, accepts the need for fundamental change.


Take Nkaneng, Marikana's "township", which is only one of many vast informal settlements dotting the bare veld around the gold and platinum concentrations mines stretching far afield through the North- West Province and beyond into Gauteng near Johannesburg. Entering it and similar settlements in the platinum belt is to veritably confront "the wretched of the earth". There are many reasons behind this seemingly extreme statement.

Most of the structures glorified as "houses" are, for example, little more than jerry-built constructions of iron, paper, mud and waste materials highly susceptible to social pathologies associated with household over-crowding, disease, cold, heat and the summer storms that strike the Highveld area with brute force. Some habitats housing Lonmin workers are no more than tiny sheds or lowslung kennels more appropriate for housing pigs or dogs. Yet they are shared by up to a dozen miners who sleep and work on a rotating basis according to the weekly shift schedule. Women and children also inhabit the larger of these dwellings designated, perhaps with irony, as "family units".

The whole "town" is a lethal, breathing health hazard, foulsmelling and foetid with transmittable disease. In the course of my work with translators- cum-research assistants we frequently ditched our high-rise vehicle in knee-deep mud and then trudged delicately on islands of unknown material through a sickening mixture of sewerage-run off, animal excrement and mounds of garbage in order to reach the interview sites of various miners and community influentials. ...

The water table is in any case dangerously polluted by cavalier and largely unregulated mining activity all along the "limb". Water is unpotable so that many people resort to slaking their thirst with cheap home brews leading to diarrhoea and chronic stomach or colonic illness.

Mine labour of course attracts the least skilled South Africans who are, for the most part, people otherwise unemployable in the market. Those who work under the most arduous underground conditions are also migrants from Lesotho, Mozambique, the Eastern Cape and other poverty nodes in the country, following in the footsteps of their forefathers. Most of this large lower-end group come to the mines for purely survivalist reasons and few have, despite the public relations of the mining houses, a vocational appetite for a hard, hazardous and poorly paid underground existence.

As the industry has sought to cut costs and undermine the labour movement the proportion of total labour who are contracted workers has increased. This migrant-contractor group enters and leaves the mines on a periodic basis from a few months to many years during which contracts are renewed - or, more ominously, workers are laid off under the pressure of organisational restructuring aimed at rendering local mines competitive in the global industry.

The mines have few responsibilities for this in- and ex-filtration because a very good proportion of the messy business of recruiting labour has been hived off to brokers. Some of these brokers are legally registered, but as we shall point out in a later chapter, some use practices akin to human trafficking. Most contracted labour - about 30 percent of those at Marikana - live in a troglodyte netherworld punctuated by breaks in appalling rural slums, or adjacent to mine property just beyond the line of vision from the shafts or - to use a more evocative term - the pitheads.

Much of this dismissiveness of human beings, their needs and rights, derives from the driving requirement for cost containment (particularly labour costs), the lingering viciousness of apartheid in social relations, the profound economic inequality to which we have referred, and the moral degeneration that has become embedded in South Africa down the line since its "miraculous" rebirth. ...

The safest mines in the world are almost inevitably the most highly productive, while the most productive are those which ensure that work takes place in a low risk environment. Yet, South African mines have done relatively little to address this problem, other than a few safety programs for safety incentivisation among their most progressive members. Production remains "king" and this means that our mineworkers function in severely dangerous conditions. It is this combination of low rewards for high risk which ultimately fuels situations like Marikana.

Marikana is, at least on the surface, about poor pay, police brutality and the temerity of people working in atrocious circumstances to demand what amounts, in South African circumstances, to a lower middle class wage. It is, at its simplest, about people who are abysmally rewarded for doing work that no one other than the desperate will do. Yet, as the recent study by the Benchmarks Foundation has indicated, it also clearly about many other complex factors including an unequal and unsustainable system of production and distribution, environmental disaster with multi-generational impacts, exclusion of people living on the bare margins of existence, and denial of human rights to life and freedom.

I have pretensions to be a mine safety expert, not only through moral conviction and a sense that what we see in South African mines represents only one facet of the extreme exploitation of people despite a regime change in the country of my birth, but also because I am appalled that most mining companies have not, cannot or will not, absorb the simple universal fact that mining safely is inextricably good for production and world-class entrepreneurial performance.

... In no mine, way beyond Marikana, can it be said that any worker or supervisor can feel reasonably sure that he will return home with life and limb intact at the end of each the working day - as is the case in, for example, the Canadian or Australian mining industries.

This continuous dread is worse as one goes deeper down the mining hierarchy and into the stopes where most people work under the worst - and worstpaid conditions. Many of those on the veld at Marikana cannot "live safely" as mine leadership admonishes, because everybody on the mine, their peers, shift bosses and even managers, are prisoners of a production mania in which the preservation of human life is not necessarily the primary component.


In the following chapters I examine this ongoing lack of concern, this zeal to produce at any human cost, or as they say in the industry, to "mine at risk". This means that many of those who populated the Mountain at Marikana up to, and during, the massacre are simply fodder in an enormous machine where it is ethically acceptable to kill per ton. If I might be exceedingly more generous, then the following chapters are about the inability of the mining industry to find the right formula for preventing deaths, injuries and organisational conflicts in a global market where their competitiveness depends to a large degree on cheap labour. This occurs in a society where we have one of the most developed systems of human rights and some of the most progressive mining laws - some of which apply some of the time.

I must admit that much has been done at the tactical and operational (but less so at the strategic) level to alleviate conditions on and around the mines. Lonmin and the other big companies have also taken steps, if totally inadequate and often misguided, to address community under-development both in near-mine communities and labour-sending areas in the countryside.

The industry is not often given credit for what it has achieved and this is dealt with in the final chapter which refers to some of the annual reports and sustainability reports of the major mining companies. These reflect huge investment amounts supposedly being pumped into corporate social investment (CSI), corporate responsibility (CSR) and interventions to reduce accidents and injuries. Unfortunately much of this money for environmental assessments, feasibility studies and the social and labour planning required by law (SLP's) has little discernible impact, (least of all sustainable impact) either on the ground or under it.

This book is purposely pitched at a high level of generalisation and will no doubt generate protest from some companies in this diverse sector of economic activity. But when readers or shareholders respond "this does not happen in our mine", they should bear in mind that it is probably happening at the mine down the road which works in the same or another mining sector.


It goes without saying that this book is dedicated to those who lost their lives at Marikana and Marikana-related conflicts post-16 August 2012. In the end most of these people derived little to nothing from the advent of the rainbow nation.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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