Women in Marikana still fighting for justice, five years after the massacre

13.10.17

The fatal police shooting of 37 striking workers at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in August 2012 was the worst recorded instance of police violence in post-apartheid South Africa. Five years on, there have been no prosecutions and no real improvements – no compensation for the families living in grief and dire poverty.

There has also been no apology, although staggeringly Lonmin has created a commercial out of the incident. But as always with the Marikana story, the most important characters were left out.

A few weeks after the massacre there was another death in the community. Amidst a brutal crackdown Paulina Masuhlo, a powerful community leader, died after being shot by police. Paulina’s death helped galvanise the birth of Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana.

As well as demanding criminal prosecution for the killings and compensation for the families, Sikhala Sonke also carries forward the demands those workers died for: a living wage and dignified conditions.

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Image: the women of Sikhala Sonke – photo by Sikhala Sonke

We cry together

It’s anyone’s guess how Lonmin accumulated its impressive collection of corporate social responsibility awards. More than ten years after signing a legal obligation to build 5,500 homes in exchange for mining rights, the world’s third-largest platinum producer has erected just three show homes, while the families of its workers live in shacks without electricity or running water. This despite a staggering $15million loan from the International Finance Corporation solely for the social development of Marikana.

Like many killings in black communities, wherever they occur, the horror is not easily absorbed by white society. It will be a stretch for many in the UK to imagine that a British mining company would rather let employees be shot and killed than pay a fair wage. But is it any more unimaginable than cutting corners to cut costs on the Grenfell tower blocks? Or fighting wars for oil even as our dependence on them threatens millions of lives with climate chaos? It becomes clearer every day that we live in a system fuelled by the unimaginable.

Marikana might be far away, in a country very different from our own, but the struggle at the heart of Sikhala Sonke is one we should be able to identify with: the struggle of those hurt most by a powerful corporation to hold it accountable for its crimes. In Britain too, we are searching for ways to take back control of our lives and country from elite interests that see us as expendable.

In August I met and talked with two of Sikhala Sonke’s leading figures, Primrose Sonti and Thumeka Magwangqana. They explained that for five years, the women of Sikhala Sonke have had to ‘fight with two hands’. With one, they fight Lonmin on behalf of their community. With the other, they have had to fight for their place within that community, to be recognised as social justice leaders by a male-dominated union movement.

Sikhala Sonke means ‘we cry together’ and the name speaks to a pain older and deeper than the massacre itself. Far from transcending the yawning inequalities of the apartheid era, South Africa has now become the most unequal country in the world. Though less than 10 percent of the population, white South Africans still control the vast majority of the nation’s wealth.

As well as being highly racialised, this inequality is also highly gendered. A third of women in poor households are survivors of gendered violence and young women are eight times more likely to be affected by HIV/AIDS. They are far more likely to be in low-paid and unpaid work, while in Marikana, the only compensation offered to grieving women is to take up the jobs of their dead in the dark labyrinth of mines, where they live under the constant threat of rape and assault. Look deeper, to where racism and patriarchy intersect, and it is black women who bear the brunt of oppression in modern South Africa and around the world.

The erasure of black women from political struggle began long before Marikana. While much is said of men who had to leave their families to work in mines and cities or resist apartheid, what is less visible is the contribution of women, both to the family and to the cause. Every dead or absent father leaves a mother to carry the family alone: a lifetime of unpaid labour alongside paid work to make ends meet. And while media coverage of the commission into the massacre cast the women of Marikana as grieving widows, that is only where their story began.

Keeping hope alive

In an economic system that sees value only in a wage, this inequality is embedded in the logic of the system. The profoundly political nature of unpaid family and movement support, without which no anti-apartheid movement in South Africa or strike in Marikana would be possible, fades into the background – along with the indispensable role played by women of colour in the movement for global justice.

Black women live each day on the intersection of racial, patriarchal and class oppression. In this much complained about ‘age of identity politics’, which is more broadly recognised amongst progressive circles in the global north, it has become ‘polite’ to concede that women of colour have a powerful role to play in movements for social change – but all too often this is mere lip service, paid in the interests of meeting diversity quotas or meant as ‘compensation’ for their experience, as though a slot on a speaking panel could redress generations of oppression.

But beneath all that is a simple truth: that like all the most painful experiences in life, oppression can be a great teacher. Being born on the intersection is not an enviable position. However, as those of us lucky enough to have learned from brave and brilliant women of colour in social justice work will know, that pain can develop into a profound sensitivity towards unjust applications of power; the sort that sneak up on those without the eyes to see them and collapse our efforts towards equality from the inside. This kind of leadership, too concerned with power over others, stifles the oxygen needed to spark real change from below.

It is from intersections like this that our most powerful stories, inspiring ideas and promising leaders emerge. Recognising that means stepping back to seed spaces for that leadership but it does not mean stepping out. Allies too have a vital role to play and the difference between recognising leadership from those most oppressed and reinforcing oppressive hierarchies by leaving them to all that labour alone, is about whether we are prepared to stay connected and above all, to listen.

Sikhala Sonke describe Lonmin and the ANC government as ‘twins’, both responsible for the situation in Marikana. And now is a vital moment because both are on thinning ice. Lonmin’s share price is at an all-time low and last year, a five-month miners’ strike forced a basic pay rise of 20 percent. Meanwhile the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since apartheid, is losing its majority as the next generation of South Africans feel they have sold out to white economic interests. It is hard to think of a place where this is clearer than Marikana.

Exploited by Lonmin and abandoned by their government, the women of Sikhala Sonke have kept the faith by refusing to abandon each other. It is that solidarity, they say, that keeps hope alive.

Originally published by Red Pepper

Avaaz greenwashes Paris climate agreement

The betrayals and breakdown of the Copenhagen summit strengthened the climate justice movement because it demonstrated so clearly that salvation was not coming from above. We came to Paris with our eyes wide open, looking to each other instead of the summit, bracing ourselves for a weak deal and planning for the future.

This shameful agreement fell below even our expectations. But you wouldn’t know it listening to the corporations and their politicians – or to Avaaz, which is singing the same tune. World leaders, they write, have set a “landmark goal that can save everything we love.” They call the accord “a brilliant and massive turning point in human history… This is what we marched for.”

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Green-washing & White-washing

It’s not what we marched for. As New Internationalist explains, it fails on every front: on emissions reduction, on reparations for the global South, on the rights indigenous communities and working people the world over. Under this deal, we’re looking at 3-4 degrees of warming, and that is catastrophic.

Avaaz was a driving force behind this year’s massive climate marches, but this movement’s centre-ground is riven with contradictions. WWF partners with Coca-Cola to ‘save the polar bears’ in the Arctic while it steals drinking water from India’s poor and hires thugs to murder union activists in Latin America. And along with Avaaz, they invite mega-corporations like Unilever, a leading food monopoly with an atrocious labour and environmental record, to back its ‘People’s’ Climate March.

It’s worth noting the mobilisation was supported by the Climate Group – a green-washing front for big bad wolves like BP, Dow Chemicals, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan – and Avaaz’s founder used to work for the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations.

That helps explain why $220,000 went on glossy posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join the demo. It’s a sound investment if you believe the 1 per cent are the real agents of change. That’s not the attitude you’d expect from a ‘campaigning community’ for ‘people-powered politics,’ but it would also explain why they didn’t want the Global South bloc, Wretched of the Earth, leading the climate march on 29th November. Black people shouting about economic colonialism are not who bankers want to see leading a march of thousands.

But the agreement fails even by Avaaz’s own standards. They campaigned for a concrete and dated commitment to 100 per cent clean energy. What we got was a heavily padded commitment to ‘net-zero’ with exactly the kind of policies that have failed us so far. And it’s not even binding.

The Apartheid Analogy

But what really left us speechless was the apartheid analogy. “Like our brothers and sisters in South Africa who won legal equality… we are on the brink of that new, sweet wind,” writes Avaaz. It’s revealing that in referencing to this movement, they echo not Mandela, but British Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who famously spoke of the “wind of change sweeping through Africa… whether we like it or not.” (He did not.)

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‘Murder at Sharpeville’ painting to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, 21st March 1960 – courtesy, Wikicommons

In one sense, this is deeply ironic and insulting. Avaaz may take pride in its marches and petitions, but it hardly compares to decades of mass-resistance in the face of brutal state repression. Thousands of black men and women were brutalised and killed in their struggle against racist oppression and segregation. And it is indigenous and black communities that the Paris Accord failed more than anyone.

As Naomi Klein writes, “so much of what we are fighting for is based on the principle that black lives matter… The way our governments are behaving in the face of the climate crisis actively discounts black and brown lives over white lives. It is an actively racist response to climate change that we should expose.”

However there is an unintended sense in which the analogy is entirely appropriate. In 1955 the African National Congress’ (ANC) sent 50,000 volunteers into the townships and rural villages to collect ‘freedom demands’ from the people. The result was a powerful and radical call not just for the end of segregation – the most institutionalised manifestation of white exploitation and oppression – but for true, economic equality. Black South Africans didn’t rise up and risk everything because wanted to share busses with white people; they wanted social justice.

Despite Avaaz’s assertion that “the fall of Apartheid led South Africa to the single most bold and progressive constitution in the world,” it was in truth a huge step back from the Freedom Charter, which had been the political heart of South African resistance.

Compromising Freedom: a Cautionary Tale

In 1960, as the ‘winds of change’ reached gale-force and national independence seemed only a matter of time, Britain was under pressure from the USA to de-colonise. America wanted access to South African markets and feared a radical left-swing in South Africa unless it was granted independence. “It is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement,” said Macmillan, “but… [frankly] there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible.”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out which aspects he was talking about: the Freedom Charter’s calls for free education and decent housing; living wages and shorter work hours; land for the landless and the restoration of the national wealth to the people. All the things apartheid kept cordoned off from the black majority; the things the climate crisis gives us a ‘once in a century’ chance achieve.

Nelson Mandela once described a change in the ANC’s position on economic democracy was ‘inconceivable.’ But as John Pilger writes, following his release in 1990, reassuring the white establishment and foreign investors, “the very orthodoxy and cronyism that had built, maintained and reinforced fascist apartheid, became the political agenda of the ‘new’ South Africa.”

Even before Mandela was released, the ANC was cutting secret deals with the Anglo-American Corporation and the Afrikaner elite. Winnie Mandela, herself a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement and ANC government, said in 2010: “Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.”

Since the ANC took power, the number of black South Africans living on $1 per day has doubled and average life expectancy has dropped by thirteen years. Homelessness has risen and by 2004 over a million people had been evicted from their farms. Protesting workers are murdered by police and small-scale farmers are on the frontlines fighting pollution and industrial agriculture. The gap between rich and poor greater now than under the apartheid regime; in fact along with the Seychelles, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.

So, modern South Africa is about as progressive as COP21, which LDC Watch eloquently describes as ‘a nail in the coffin for justice for the least developed countries’. And the struggle against climate apartheid is only beginning.

What The Freedom Charter once called for are all the things the climate justice movement wants for the world today. And they are the very principles COP21 has turned its back on.

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Photo taken at the Palace of Justice (S Wierda) 1902 Church Square Pretoria – Courtesy, Wikicommons

Shorter version published by New Internationalist with Samir Dathi