The Impact of the Marikana Massacre: ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose’
Samir Bhattacharya, Senior Research Associate, VIF

This August 2022 will be the 10th year of the Marikana Massacre. After a week of protracted protest, on August 16, 2012, South African Police shot at labourers of a platinum mine, resulting in 34 fatalities and 78 injuries. Marikana platinum mine, lying 90 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, is owned by London based Lonmin Group, and the group employs 29,000 workers in South Africa.[1] This horrific incident, caused by police violence, is reminiscent of the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960.

On March 21, 1960, at the height of the Apartheid era, South African police, following the orders of the white minority government, shot hundreds of protesters gathered against laws that limited black people's freedom of movement. The 1960 shootout killed 69 protesters. Later, the event inspired global demonstrations against the apartheid government, ultimately leading to its fall. This was followed by the rise of the African National Congress, led by Noble-winner Nelson Mandela.

However, the Marikana massacre demonstrates that the situation has not changed much. Even now, 20 years after the end of apartheid, violent police killings continue in the heart of South Africa. Does this imply that apartheid still exists? Or is the country still being haunted by apartheid's legacy? Or is it something unrelated to apartheid? As this August 16, South Africa is mourning the tenth anniversary of the massacre; it is crucial to assess the factors that led to the killings and comprehend how the system has changed in order to prevent a repeat of a similar incident.

What happened in Marikana?

Marikana is one of the richest mineral belts in the world. As a matter of fact, together with Russia, South Africa produces 90% of the world's platinum demand, and most of it comes from this region.[2] For a week, Marikana miners were on strike to protest against their working and housing conditions along with higher wages.

Unfortunately, the miners strike wasn’t supported by their union, the National Union for Workers (NUM). Nonetheless, miners decided to continue their wildcat strike. A wildcat strike, as the name suggests, is an unofficial industrial action where the action of a strike undertaken by unionised workers doesn't have the unionleadership's authorisation, support, or approval.[3] This unprecedented collapse in communication between the miners and their union further aggravated the volatile situation. On one side, the miners and their families were desperately trying to have their voices heard, and their needs met. However, their demands were simply ignored by both the NUM and Lonmin representatives.

On August 14, Lonmin officially halted production at the Marikana platinum mine. In response, the miners decided to start protesting and gathered on a hill called Wonderkop, close to the Lonmin mine. Despite the Police trying to talk to the miners, they remained persistent in their strike. Finally, on August 16 a full-frontal onslaught was launched against them. The resultant police brutality in this tragic event is reminiscent of March 1960 Sharpeville massacre.

Racial Discrimination, Brutal Capitalism and Ignored Human Rights

Similar to Marikana, the victims in Sharpeville, a black township south of Johannesburg, had gathered to protest the apartheid state. At that time, the apartheid government wanted to pass a rule that only the holders of a passbook proving their employment by local white adults would make Africans eligible to enter South African cities. And again, similar to Marikana, South African security forces opened fire in a military combat style killing 69 protesters and injuring many more.[4]

However, while the similarities between the two incidents are difficult to ignore, particularly the excessive violence by the police force defending the government interests, the similarities end there. A predominantly black police force led by a black police commissioner was ordered by the black government at the time to kill black people in Marikana who were seeking a better living.

In defence, the police claimed that the demonstration had already turned violent before their arrival. The miners were carrying arms, while marching on the police and voicing "war chants". Therefore, the police were forced to shot to protect their own lives and in self-defence. [5]However, killing of 34 people within three minutes reflects the police's unpreparedness in managing the protest.

Although the miners killed in the incidents were all black, it is incorrect to portray it as a racial outbreak. Yes, South Africa was a white supremacist, yet it also had a vicious brand of capitalism with little to no labour rights. And there has been practically no change in the labour laws or labour rights in the last two decades. The neoliberal economic policy, the predominance of multinational corporations, privatisation and the weakening of labour are, in fact, some of the legacies of the apartheid regime. This was palpable when the Lonmin administration ordered their miners back to work within a few days after the massacre without even acknowledging their demands.

The horror of the police shooting in Marikana, where 34 people died on the spot, will always remain one of the most violent atrocities in modern South Africa and global history. However, regarding labour and workers, South Africa has a long history of violence. The Marikana massacre and the politics that resulted from protests are merely another addition to the police brutality and repression against the protesting poor.

The list of incidents of brutal killings of labourers triggered by political tensions and dissent is endless. Most of these crimes have been painted as Apartheid crimes against the blacks. A few analysts who tried to see the events beyond the racial colours blamed the lack of comprehensive institutionalisation of industrial relations for black workers. Yet, even after the democratic transition of 1994, violent and fatal conflicts continued, which includes the 2007 public sector strike, 2009 municipality, police, military, 2014 post office strike, construction and other strikes.

Therefore, it is not just the skin colours of the labourers that got them killed. It was the result of a much deep-rooted social cause. And despite the two decades since the apartheid ended, no political leader bothered to correct it. Thus, even in post-apartheid South Africa, Marikana was not an aberration; it was just excessive.

Indeed, the Marikana was much beyond a fight between blacks and whites. It was a fight between the poor against the state and the haves. It was not the return of apartheid but simply a continuation of a dangerous Apartheid legacy. And from that perspective, the massacre truly signalled the end of South African exceptionalism. The event also exposed the chimera of the rainbow nation and the limits of the 1994 political deal. [6]

Significance of Marikana

Numerous interpretations of the Marikana events were produced. One is the significance of acknowledging the capacity of ordinary people to organise themselves collectively and take control of their lives independently of and in opposition to authorised forms of representation, in this case, the state, political parties, and trade unions.

Followed by the massacre, in July 2013, Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), who was ousted from the party due to his growing distance from the erstwhile President Zuma, officially launched Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF) and presented EFF as the champion of the poor.[7] Today EEF is a dominant force in African politics and, to a large extent challenging ANC, the ruling party.

The Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall campaigns were among the protest movements sparked by the massacre.[8] Additionally, it revealed the moral bankruptcy of the African National Congress on each of these occasions (ANC). An honest evaluation of the last ten years shows that South Africa hasn't dealt with the consequences of the killing. Strangely, Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the alleged masterminds of the massacre, was elected President despite his questionable actions during the incident. This is simply another depressing illustration of the shallow pool of available leadership.

In fact, on the previous day of the massacre, Cyril Ramaphosa, at that time member of the Lonmin board and the current President of South Africa, encouraged ministers to take "concomitant measures" against the strikers. The choice to preserve profits at the expense of Black life says a lot about South Africa's national party African National Congress (ANC), ruling the country since the end of apartheid.

In 1994, African National Congress rose to power on a tide of popular support and continued to win elections with impressive majorities. However, it hides the gradual erosion of many's belief in the government's ability to deliver its promises. President Zuma expressed that he was horrified and appalled by this senseless violence and appointed a commission of inquiry chaired by Ian Farlam, a retired judge. The commission conducted the enquiry, hearing evidence from miners, their bosses and the police, and reviewed the video, audio and paper records of the shooting and the seven-day strike that preceded it.

Furthermore, even though this investigation commission spent R153 million and met for 300 days over two years, nobody has been put on trial for the killings. So far, 34 families of those killed at Marikana received more than R70 million from the state as compensation for their loss.[9] However, their requests for general and constitutional damages fell on deaf ears. Moreover, the state has not paid anything to the injured miners even those who were severly injured.


The Marikana mine massacre results from a failure of a trade union that colluded with big businesses instead of defending the labour rights. The police incompetence is another big reason behind the massacre. Since the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the police have never used such excessive violence on civilians. Marikana serves as a painful reminder that police brutality still occurs in South Africa even after the end of apartheid.

The strike at Marikana is not different from the mass demonstrations and protests by the working class across South Africa, that are taking place today. People's level of discontent has risen around the government's poor service delivery of houses, water, electricity, land and public infrastructure; low wages and poor working conditions at workplaces. Marikana massacre represents the brutal black capitalism that designed the police operation on black workers. And the government also colluded openly with Lonmin and the police to end the strike.

It is a tragic tale that exposes South Africa's structural flaws. South Africa is among the two most unequal societies in the world, along with Brazil. Therefore, the real cause of the shootings is poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

The apartheid ended in Africa in 1994. Yet, 20 years later, South African citizens lost their lives to police brutality. Although the reasons are different, the parallels between thepolice killings from fifty years ago in Sharpeville and the one at Marikana serve as a reminder of how much South Africa has evolved or not evolved, how unique is South African model of democracy and how vulnerable it is to the same forces of class and inequality as any other democracy. Much has been made of the South African political diversity. But as the event suggests, the prevailing political system in South Africa amounts to what the French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’.

Endnotes :

[1]Heiberg Tanisha, Shabalala Zandi “Sibanye's $286 million Lonmin takeover gets all clear from shareholders”. Reuters. May 28, 2019.
[2]Mabuse Nkepile. “Marikana massacre:' An unresolved dispute”. CNN. August 15, 2015.
[3]Smith David. “South Africa mines hit by wildcat strikes after Marikana police shootings”. The Guardian. September 12, 2012.
[4]Noko Abigail. “Commemorate the Sharpeville massacre by breaking the cycle of racial injustice”. Daily Maverick. March 21, 2022.
[5] “South Africa police defend shooting that killed 34 miners.” CBC News. August 17, 2012.
[6]Magaziner Daniel and Jacobs Sean. “The End of South African Exceptionalism. The Atlantic. August 27, 2012.
[7]BernadoCarla.“Democracy, fascism and the future of the EFF”. University of Cape Town, January 29, 2021.
[8]Fairbanks Eve.“The birth of Rhodes Must Fall”. The Guardian. November 18, 2015.
[9]Nicolson Greg. “Marikana – a massacre still without any criminal consequences”. Daily Maverick. May 19, 2022.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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