The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa

Four years after South Africa’s bloodiest post-apartheid massacre, in which dozens of striking miners were killed by police, a fresh memory of Marikana is needed.

Luke Sinwell
Siphiwe Mbatha

Marikana is remembered around the world as a moment of sorrow in which 34 black South African mineworkers were killed by police on August 16, 2012. But on its own, this memory can obscure a much more promising vision of direct democracy and rank-and-file organizing that eventually changed the course of modern South African politics. The massacre culminated in the longest strike in South African mining history and possibly the longest strike in the world in the year 2014.

This history is in fact something to celebrate as we commemorate the four-year anniversary of the massacre. While the police and politicians have yet to be prosecuted for the toxic role they played in relation to the killings, the surviving mineworkers did not fall back in fear or in outright shock. Instead, they continued to organize and became a more potent force. This happened not days or weeks afterwards, but literally occurred within hours following the police shootings. Below is an excerpt from Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha’s new book, The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa (Pluto Press), which details this experience.


At around 7pm on the eve of the Marikana massacre, about 10 to 20 workers held an ad hoc emergency meeting in the dark below the mountain where the bodies of their slain colleagues still lay. They “wanted to know what the police’s intentions were and whether they would kill us as well, since they had killed our fellow brothers.” The meeting was not chaired by anyone and it was not called by a central committee or individual. Workers had come back to the mountain to find out what had happened and to discuss the way forward. Mofokeng explained that:

I was there. Later on the 16th. Not on the mountain… at the shacks there. We met but it was so scary that people could not even go there. I don’t know how many people there were — twenty, ten… they were talking about how they would continue with this thing as people died. There were some people who were talking… They said we could meet tomorrow, but we couldn’t go to the mountain again. We would go elsewhere. We would look for somewhere to sit here at Nkaneng. Then, the next day, they found a place to sit. They didn’t go back again [to the mountain]… there were many there on the following day, the 17th. We went outside the shacks there.

Cebisile was also at the meeting and he corroborated:

We decided to meet at the bottom of the mountain and took a decision that we were not going back [to work] until we got what we were asking for. We decided to come back the next morning so that we could find out for sure who was arrested, killed and in hospital.

At the meeting, the workers came to a consensus about two key issues: the strike had to go on, and workers would stop carrying weapons. They were adamant that “we [the workers] were not going to be intimidated by the death of our fellow brothers. We were going back [to continue the strike] in memory of those who died.” Most went back to their homes, but Cebisile and others stayed there the whole night to observe the police.

At 7am the following day, on August 17, thousands of workers met below the mountain “to nominate a group of people who would go and check the names of all the people who were killed, arrested. Some went to hospital to check the names of those people who were in hospital.” One of the workers’ committee members, who became responsible for organizing the funerals of those who were killed on August 16, vividly captured workers’ feelings on 17 August:

That is when our pain showed, because we wanted to go and see if our brother or my friend or someone I was working with [had died], as we knew each other as people. And then we were asking ourselves if so-and-so survived and the people [who] you had phone numbers of, you called them to find out if they had survived and they would answer saying: ‘No, I survived.’ Phone calls were going back and forth on the 16th, on the 17th, and you were yearning to see each other’s faces just to make sure they survived, especially those [whose] numbers we did not know. But we did not know who survived because everyone was running to save their lives.

When the reports came in and we heard on the radio how many people died then and then, when they tell you who died and you find out you know that person — that started to give us so much pain. We were also in pain on the 16th, but the 17th was worse, as we were reporting to each other who was left there, some workers did not come back and we didn’t know if they had died or what, and we were worried the whole time.

On the 17th, we were still asking one another if they had seen so-and-so, and then one would say: “No I have not seen him.” And that is when we started to look at the hospitals and in the jails, and then what we did was to give people a list of names of people in jail or hospital, to find out who was where. And then, after we were given that, we knew who was where [and] there is something that makes us happy, because now we see the one we thought had died was alive; he is actually in jail. And yet while people were in jail, we did not know why they were arrested, so what happened was very hurtful.

Prior to August 17, the committee had served as the interface between the mass of workers and visitors such as police or management. Thereafter, their roles changed slightly. Cebisile explains that:

We heard rumors that the police were targeting those of us who were elected into the first committee, so we decided to elect new people into the committee — people who [the police] would not recognize, so that they would be able to go to hospital and say they are friends and family members looking for their brothers or relatives instead of saying they are workers.

Furthermore, he recalls that the employers wanted to speak to the leaders in the strike committee, and the committee decided to choose different people:

Because we were afraid that they would arrest us if we were to go ourselves. We chose new people who would go and talk with them, but then they would come back and report to us and then we would be the ones to report to the workers.

Those who became involved after August 16 identified a shift in the approach taken by the committee, particularly from August 17 onwards, the day after the massacre. A man I shall call Thobile became part of the committee after its leaders were killed on August 16. Thobile believed he was chosen because he was “very outspoken and honest,” and that all the members of the committee were chosen because of “our good manners and integrity.” He resolved that “the workers wanted rational people who could do a good job in representing the needs of the workers.”

He remembered thinking that “it was a difficult task indeed, but someone had to do it.” After three days of contemplating, he accepted a leadership position. “All I wanted,” he recalled, “was peace between the workers and the police.” He explained that after he had become part of the committee, “there has been nothing but peace … workers even put down the weapons. There has been no shooting or fighting with the police. When the police come looking for weapons, I give them weapons.” Indeed, after August 16, the workers stopped carrying machetes and spears, but turned to whips and knobkerries because “we wanted people to know that we are not fighting.”

Another worker, who I shall call Andile, became part of the workers’ committee on August 18. He was not present on the mountain during the massacre. He was identified as a leader since he had been captain of a soccer team, and this meant that “you are able to talk for other people, you know what to do.” He claimed his leadership abilities were also keen because he kept sober: “As I am not drinking, I can see a person when they come to me drunk… I will ask him about what he was saying and they will say, ‘No, I was drunk, sorry and I will never repeat that again’.” At Geya Secondary School in the Eastern Cape, he was on the school committee from standard 4 to 7. When the children nominated him, at first he refused. But when the elders from the school called him, Andile agreed because “I do not want to disappoint old people, and I always like to listen to them.” He recalled that the elders told him that he was a good listener and also that he treated his parents with respect.

After attending meetings on August 7 and 8 in the various shafts and again on August 9, he headed home to deal with a family issue. Andile arrived back in Marikana on August 15, and on August 16 he went to the mountain, but he received a call from his brother who asked him “to see me about things back home.” He took a taxi home and then “got a call that I should stay where I am because things were now bad there [at the mountain].” On the morning of August 17 he went back to Lonmin’s Eastern shaft and held a private meeting with two other shaft leaders. Reflecting on the events of the evening before, he told them: “No man, our people are dead.” He remembers asking them if they could make a plan together. Seeing an immediate need to lead the workers and respond to the crisis, they:

… went around Eastern collecting people in Eastern and stop[ping] them [from going to work], because we were afraid of what happened, because our brothers and our friends and our fathers are dead, our neighbors are dead here. And then the men agreed and we called a meeting on the ground on the 17th and 18th.

Andile and five other workers from the Eastern shaft were chosen at the meeting on August 18 to form a renewed workers’ committee. The six went to Vunzi (below the mountain) and were told that six was too many to represent one shaft, so they selected three, including Andile, to be on the committee. He noted: “we had to have one committee. Even if you come from Karee or Western, but the committee had to be one.”

Bongani, one of the elder members of the workers’ committee, was another of the three chosen. He was born in 1960 in the village of Ngquthu in Idutywa, Eastern Cape. He began working at a mine in Swaziland in 1979, and then from 1982 to 1997 he worked in Carletonville. He was hired by Lonmin in 1999, and between 2001 and 2010 he was a NUM shop steward. He became a steward because “I saw that people were suffering and someone from NUM had to represent them, and [someone] who will be able to fight for their rights.” He explained that he had volunteered to be on the newly formed workers’ committee because “we heard that there were people who were working when we were striking, and then we thought that if we want to win and get everything that we wanted, then it would be best that I come and tell the workers what was supposed to happen here in Eastern.”

In addition, Bongani explained, he “saw that people were in danger and wanted to prevent that danger.” He called a meeting on the grounds at Eastern on Sunday August 19. The following day, they held another meeting, and they continued to meet in Eastern every day at 7am. When they finished their separate meetings, they joined the rest of the workers from the shafts below the mountain. According to Bongani, the purpose of having small representative committees in each shaft (Karee, Eastern and Western) was to create “a link with the workers and the information in the mountain where we were based as a committee.” As before, the representatives of each shaft took the mandate they received from the workers to the wider workers’ committee for discussion, and also to keep each area informed. Bongani affirmed the democratic nature of the committee in terms which were reiterated by many others:

We [the elected leadership] went to the workers to hear about their views on the matter and then to hear what they had decided. We do not make decisions on their behalf. We first listen to what the workers have to say, they give us their mandate, and then we take that mandate to the employer.

On September 18, 2012, the strike finally ended with a 22 percent pay increase, leading about 100,000 workers from other industries across the country to also engage in strike action. Workers from Marikana decided they needed to join a union in order to have representation inside institutional structures and they chose the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which by mid-2013 had become the majority union not only at Lonmin, but also at Anglo Platinum and Impala (the two largest platinum mining companies in the world).

In 2014, mineworkers at these three companies adopted the demand for 12,500 rand that the workers had died for on the mountain and led a strike that lasted for five months — the longest strike in South African mining history. Almost exactly four years after the massacre, it is a dreadful fact that despite the Marikana Commission of Inquiry (which sat for 300 days), no police or politicians have been prosecuted for their role in the events. But, as we commemorate Marikana on August 16, 2016, we need not only mourn for those who were killed for standing up for their rights on the mountain, but also celebrate the power of ordinary people to alter the course of history in South Africa and abroad.


The Spirit of Marikana is out from Pluto Press now. Order it here.