Two years ago, thousands of striking mine workers gathered on a rocky hill outside this impoverished town in the heart of South Africa’s platinum belt, demanding wage increases from their employer, Lonmin plc. Wrapped in blankets to break the winter chill, they chanted and sang, waving clubs and spears as they marched toward a waiting knot of police.
Suddenly a shot rang out, then another.
Minutes later, 34 miners had been killed by police, and 78 more injured — the most deadly confrontation between South African police and protestors since the high days of apartheid.
Yesterday, thousands returned to this scraggly outcrop to mark the second anniversary of the killings, whose aftershocks continue to rattle South Africa’s economy and its ruling African National Congress (ANC), who many here blame for the workers’ deaths that afternoon.
"There's no doubt that the sixteenth of August was a turning point in post-apartheid South African history,” says Luke Sinwell, a researcher at the University of Johannesburg who studies the platinum strikes. Marikana set a militant tone for labor negotiations in the country and created an opportunity for a new “left, socialist politics” to emerge to challenge the ANC, which has governed the country since the end of apartheid.
But two years later, what exactly South Africa’s young democracy is turning towards remains deeply uncertain.
“This place is very rich, but we are still very poor,” says Nontuthuzelo Sikhuni, a former mine worker who is now unemployed, standing on the outskirts of the crowd. “We are seriously angry — the police failed us, the ANC failed us.”
Life has begun to improve for some workers and families in the shacks beneath these hills and scattered along the rim of the towering platinum mines nearby. Thanks to two years of near continuous strikes on the platinum belt — which produces 80 percent of the world’s supply of the precious metal — wages are higher, union politics more muscular. Workers here now have a political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), focused on ending poverty for mineworkers.
“Marikana, you are the Soweto of today,” EFF leader Julius Malema told the crowd to loud cheers, referencing the Johannesburg township that became the center of anti-apartheid activism after police violence there in 1976. “You the lead the struggle against oppression … we draw courage from you.”
But for those living in the shadow of the world’s largest platinum mines, much remains unchanged. Workers still live in slumped tin shacks, most without electricity or running water, and send large chunks of their wages to extended families elsewhere. South Africa, meanwhile, has watched its currency lose 30 percent of its value in the past two years, largely as a result of mining unrest. Credit rating agencies say the risk of a South African default has increased.
And the inquiry into the killings drags on.
The battle over responsibility for Marikana has ensnared some of South Africa’s top politicians, most prominently deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, a front runner to succeed president Jacob Zuma at the end of his current five-year term.
Mr. Ramaphosa in many ways embodies the contradictions of South Africa’s ruling elite. A fiery union boss and leading anti-apartheid activist in the 1980s, he once told reporters there was “no such thing as a liberal bourgeoisie. They’re all the same — they use fascist methods to destroy workers’ lives.”
But 25 years later, he is one of the richest men in Africa, worth an estimated $675 million, and on the board of Lonmin, the mine that employed the men killed at Marikana.
This week, Ramaphosa appeared before the Marikana commission. The day before the killings he wrote to a Lonmin executive saying that the actions of workers during the strike, which at that point had already claimed 10 lives, “are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such.”
In his testimony, Ramaphosa deflected any responsibility for police actions, but said he accepted “that we [Lonmin] did fail the people of Marikana. We all had a role to play and somewhere along the line we may not have fulfilled those roles as we should have done.”
For many in Marikana, the actions — or inactions — of Ramaphosa and the ANC are unforgivable.
“It’s this thing of having money — it changes who a man is,” says John Lepota, a mine worker at Lonmin since 1978 who proudly marched behind Ramaphosa in strikes during the 1980s. At the anniversary rally, he carried a sign reading, “Ramaphosa has blood on his hands - don't let the politicians get away with murder."
The ANC was not present at Saturday's rally, but hundreds arrived in the bright red berets of the EFF. Others wrapped themselves in the green banners of the AMCU — the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union — an upstart union that helped organize the Marikana workers and has spread across the platinum belt since 2012.
Bukelwa Dwenga, who works in another mine nearby, arrived in an AMCU t-shirt carrying a banner that read, “They killed our brothers. Why SAPS [South African Police Service] why?”
“I can’t support the ANC now, after this,” she says. “They are the ones who caused this massacre.”