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How have trade unions fared in the ten years since the Marikana massacre?


Members of the mining community at the “Hill of Horror”, May 2013, where South African police killed 34 miners during a strike at Lonmin‘s Marikana platinum mine in Rustenburg, 100 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, on 16 August 2012.
Members of the mining community at the “Hill of Horror”, May 2013, where South African police killed 34 miners during a strike at Lonmin‘s Marikana platinum mine in Rustenburg, 100 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, on 16 August 2012. Photo: picture alliance / REUTERS | SIPHIWE SIBEKO

On 16 August 2012, the South African police killed 34 striking miners in the town of Marikana. The massacre marked a turning point in the history of the South African trade union movement and industrial relations. As the tenth anniversary of the fateful incident approaches, the need to examine the impact it has had on the organizational landscape of the country’s trade unions becomes more and more apparent.

Crispen Chinguno is a sociologist who works at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, South Africa. His research focuses on labour, unions, and social movements.

South Africa’s experience with colonialism and apartheid created a trade union landscape characterized by the articulation of workplace struggles to the broader struggle against apartheid. This precipitated the forging of alliances between trade unions and the leading political movements. In 1990, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, the main federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), brokered a “Tripartite Alliance” with the main political parties, the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

This strategic alliance defined South African trade unions’ political and organizational orientation in the initial years after the democratic transition. Trade unions became important strategic partners in state policy formulation through the tripartite social dialogue platforms and collective bargaining forums. Industrial conflict became highly institutionalized, forging space for the manufacturing of consent between labour, capital, and the state.

The Marikana massacre raised questions as to how we should understand the trade unions’ organizational and political orientation in the post-apartheid era. It questioned the essence of the strategic political alliance forged at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. Some of the answers to the questions Marikana raised can be drawn from a critical analysis of developments in the post-massacre trade union landscape.

The Continuity of the Cheap Labour Regime

Since the discovery of diamonds in 1869 and gold in 1884, the South African mining industry has historically been viewed as central to the shaping of the country’s socio-economic and political order. The industry was the crucial impetus behind several significant transitions in South Africa’s history, such as the transformation and development of capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, proletarianization, class formation, and class conflict. According to the South African trade unionist Solly Sachs, “not only has the mining industry exercised almost unchallengeable power over economic life, but it has also largely determined the hybrid of social development of the country and made and unmade governments and political parties and influenced the cultural and intellectual life of the country”.

The industry’s development was underpinned by the migrant labour and hostel system as part of its overarching accumulation strategy. Black workers were sourced from their rural homes to work in the mines on a fixed-term contract and housed in hostels under sub-human living conditions. These workers would return to their homesteads at the end of their contract and were paid at levels lower than the cost of social reproduction. This system allowed mining capital to externalize the cost of reproduction to the rural economy, which otherwise persisted as part of a secondary pre-capitalist mode of production.

Moreover, the system worked as a form of control over black workers by mining capital. This changed, however, following the rise of black mineworkers’ militancy, culminating in the emergence of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1982, which aimed to advance the interests of black mineworkers. The NUM subverted the employers’ logic of control by capturing the hostels and turning them into spaces of mobilization and building of solidarity among black workers. Pressure from the liberation movements, liberal capital fractions, and the trade unions culminated in a shift in mining capital’s strategy from the late 1980s onwards. The state, mining capital, and the NUM agreed to disband the migrant and hostel system overtime and move towards a more stable labour force sourced from the local communities. This simultaneously helped to restore the dignity of black mine workers and rationalize labour relations.

At the same time, it led to a shift towards externalization of costs to third parties such as subcontractors and labour brokers. This was marked by an increase in the number and categories of precarious workers, which in turn posed challenges to unions. Workers hired through third parties are often difficult to organize. At the same time, they are paid low wages as part of a long-standing strategy to sustain the cheap labour regime.

The shift to dependence on labour sourced through third parties constituted part of a new capital accumulation and labour organizing strategy distinct from overt racial capitalism. In many ways, the shift reflected how capitalism sustains itself by creating divisions, difference, and hierarchies characterized by inequality. Although migrant labour has declined significantly, a substantial number of workers in the platinum sector are migrants from various parts of South Africa and countries such as Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique. At the same time, South Africa has not made much progress in improving conditions for mineworkers since the end of apartheid. The Marikana massacre and the post-Marikana trade union landscape thus needs to be understood in a context of continuities and discontinuities with the apartheid past.

The 2012–2014 Platinum Strike Wave and the Rise of the AMCU

On 16 August 2012, the South African Police Service killed 34 mineworkers participating in an industrial strike action. These workers were demanding a minimum wage of 12,500 rand per month. The dispute precipitated the death of at least 44 people in Marikana, a further 78 injured, and at least 270 arrested and charged with the murder of their colleagues under the doctrine of common purpose.

The strike was part of the 2012–2014 platinum strike wave, which began at Impala Platinum in February 2012 when rock drill operators (RDOs) staged a strike not sanctioned by the recognized union, the NUM. The NUM was the largest union in South Africa in 2012, with 320,000 members across ten regions. It was the dominant union across the platinum belt, representing over 70 percent of the workforce at the three major platinum companies: Implats, Amplats, and Lonmin. Its dominance was secured through recognition agreements, which granted it organizational rights as the official voice of the workers.

The workers who launched the 2012–2014 platinum strike wave organized through informal workers’ committees outside formal union structures. It manifested as a culmination of worker insurgency challenging the NUM’s failure to improve working and living conditions. The strike wave was propelled by the demand for decent wages and challenged the NUM as the recognized voice of the workers. Many felt that the NUM had become too entangled in the industrial relations bureaucracy, which inevitably disconnected it from their daily lives. As a result, they came to reject NUM representation, which they claimed was captured by mining capital.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) became the most popular union in the platinum belt in the aftermath of the 2012 strike wave and the Marikana massacre, replacing the NUM. The AMCU emerged in the Mpumalanga coalfields in 2001 as a split from the NUM and gained ground as workers grew increasingly disenchanted with the NUM. AMCU promised to restore the worker’s voice. The president of the AMCU, Joseph Mathunjwa, emerged as a charismatic leader and symbol of the union.

A new industrial relation characterized by the decline of post-apartheid social dialogue institutions was unfolding. Wages and conditions at all major platinum belts were due for a review through collective bargaining between the union and the mining companies. Collective bargaining in the platinum sector had previously been decentralized at the company level, and mining companies had pushed back against the NUM’s move for a centralized collective bargaining system in the sector. However, the AMCU turned the tables by synchronizing its demands at all three major platinum producers, initially anchored around the demand for a minimum wage of 12,500 rand per month. The move transformed the demand into a de facto centralized collective bargaining process. The advent of the AMCU saw an increase in RDOs’ wages at Marikana from 6,000 rand before the strike wave to 8,000–9,500, depending on the grade and contract.

The Marikana massacre has had profound socio-economic and political ramifications, culminating in the unprecedented restructuring of organized labour and partly propelling massive corporate restructuring as an adaptive strategy. Amplats withdrew from the Rustenburg region and shifted the focus of its platinum mining to open cast mining mainly in the Limpopo province. Lonmin could not survive the aftermath of Marikana and was eventually acquired by a competitor. Sibanye Stillwater, which had previously focused on gold mining, emerged as the new giant in platinum after acquiring Amplats’s Rustenburg operations, Lonmin, and Aquarius platinum. It introduced stricter regimes of control and new ways of organizing production.

The AMCU pushed for 17,000 rand as the basic pay for entry-level mineworkers during the 2014 collective bargaining round, which Sibanye Stillwater resisted. Sibanye Stillwater offered a 300-rand raise per month for the lowest grade, which was below inflation. The AMCU viewed this as an attempt to force its members to strike. All the three major platinum producers rejected the AMCU’s demands, and a strike was declared from 23 January until 23 June 2014. It became one of the most protracted labour disputes in South African labour history. It also marked a shift from a pluralistic industrial relations system characterized by conflict resolved through collective bargaining to an adversarial system in which industrial conflict is often resolved by strike action. The protracted strike of 2014 presented an opportunity for the AMCU to consolidate its position in the platinum sector.

The economic context had an effect on how the union and its overall organizational strategy subsequently developed. In 2013, demand for platinum on the global market was subdued. At the time, the AMCU had assumed the dominant position and became the recognized union at all the major platinum mining companies. It was thus forced to abandon its militancy in the 2016 collective bargaining round and agreed to a wage adjustment deal with mining capital. This symbolized its embrace of a logic of industrial relations grounded in class compromise and institutionalization.

Marikana highlighted that workers’ collective power is not limited to the formal institutions of industrial relations. Workers have the capacity to draw on collective power outside the recognized institutions of industrial relations, invoking a new form of chaotic dialogue. However, the power of these new forms of workers’ collectives is limited, as the law only confers protection to recognized trade unions.

The strike wave represented continuity, particularly the resilience of the cheap labour regime and the migrant labour system — one of the apartheid regime’s long-standing facets. On the other hand, it also represented part of the workers’ struggle for decent work and against the cheap labour regime. Furthermore, Marikana uncovered the crisis of labour and the myth about the progressive role of trade unions as defenders of social justice. It highlighted the rupture of the post-apartheid social order and brought to the fore fissures in the social pact.

Collective Bargaining and Union Decline Post-Marikana

In capitalism, employers are constantly re-organizing production in order to maximize the extraction of surplus value. This may involve workplace re-structuring to adopt new and efficient modes of production. The post-Marikana era has been characterized by various forms of capital restructuring with effects on the trade union landscape. Technology in any context structures the workforce’s level of skill, degree of control over the productive process, relative homogeneity or differentiation, and job security. It also generates different types of unions.

It is important to highlight that the Marikana strikes and subsequent developments have seen significant changes in the wages of some mineworkers. Reports by the Daily Maverick drawing on 20 years of longitudinal data from the Mineral Council of South Africa and STATS SA shows a significant growth in some mineworkers’ real wages between 2001 and 2020. According to the report, mineworkers’ average annual wage rose from 59,874 rand in 2001 to 335,096 rand in 2020. This significant shift can be attributed to the rise in worker militancy and represents an important step in addressing the cheap labour question, which has characterized the sector from its inception. While these statistics mark a significant milestone, they fail to give us a comprehensive picture, as they exclude workers engaged by subcontractors and labour brokers, who have become important stakeholders in the sector in recent years.

Trade unions have not been very successful in organizing workers in these new forms of work. For a trade union to participate in collective bargaining, it must sufficiently be represented in a particular sector. Trade unions in many sectors fail to meet the sufficient representation threshold, which ends up threatening many bargaining councils. This partly accounts for the current national crisis in collective bargaining.

The post-Marikana period has also been characterized by a decline in the industrial model of trade union organization. Under this model, a trade union focuses on organizing workers in a specific sector such as mining. The expansion of precarious employment categories has created intense competition between and poses serious challenges to the industrial trade union model. The majority of AMCU members defected from the NUM. What this reflects is that the unions are literally fishing from the same pond, while doing little to organise unorganized workers, who now constitute the majority.

Several unions in various sectors including COSATU affiliates have abandoned the industrial union model and are pushing to expand their organizational scope. In mining, for example, NUMSA has expanded its organizational scope following the rise of the AMCU and decline of the NUM. In the public sector, unions such as the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) have expanded their scope beyond their traditional sectors, which has intensified competition and rivalry. This reflects a shift from industrial to general unions, which comes with intensified rivalry and competition.

The post-Marikana period has also been characterized by several protracted strikes or industrial disputes in the broader economy that could not easily be resolved by collective bargaining. The platinum sector experienced a five-month strike in 2014 and more recently in 2022. The Sibanye Stillwater gold division faced a protracted strike that also lasted five months. In the public sector, the unions and the state agreed on a wage adjustment through collective bargaining, which the state subsequently reneged on citing lack of financial capacity. The Unions appealed against this decision and were turned down by the Constitutional Court. This in many ways highlights the crisis and limitations of collective bargaining as a means of institutionalization of conflict and managing the labour relations.

What’s Left?

The Marikana massacre marked a turning point for the South African labour unions. It presented a challenge to the model of trade unionism advanced by COSATU unions. The post-apartheid socio-economic context dispensation has been characterized by pressure to enhance labour market flexibility through casualization, outsourcing, subcontracting, and general externalization of labour. Work has become more precarious, as the push for labour market flexibility has seen a rise in job insecurity. This has been associated with a rise in inequality and the weakening of the trade union movement.

This has in turn created a socio-economic crisis of labour. Trade unions face challenges in organizing workers in precarious forms of work. Marikana exposed the rift between the trade unions and the workers, and resulted in the unions losing organizational power and, subsequently, political influence. The post-Marikana period has been characterized by union fragmentation and serious internal clashes and rivalry, while at the same time pointing to the possibility of trade union fluidity towards autonomy and independence from the Tripartite Alliance.

The general decline in the trade union movement has a negative impact on social dialogue, labour relations, and politics more broadly as the workers’ collective voice grows weaker. In the South African context, this may strengthen those pushing for greater flexibility in the legislative framework, and the government may be persuaded to ease labour regulations in the long term.

Trade unions must accept that their political and organizational orientation is not cast in stone, but is fluid and dynamic. They should therefore adopt a broader social agenda not confined to political alliances and engagement with the ruling or main political party, but should frame labour rights as human rights to reverse their organizational and political decline. The story that Marikana and subsequent developments brings to the fore is that trade unions, collective bargaining, and other institutions through which workers pressure the state and employers are tainted by a series of tensions and restrictions that render them ineffective as vehicles to protect or enhance worker’s rights and broader interests.