At the informal settlement of Wonderkop hundreds of men are sitting around in the bright spring sunshine. Goats walk past as the men listen intently to a speech being made on a makeshift public address system
These are the striking miners of the Marikana Platinum Mine, and they have been sitting here for much of the past five weeks the industrial action has been ongoing.
The reason for the strike is simple – they are demanding a wage increase. Management says it will not negotiate until they return to work, the miners insist they will not return to work until their demand is met.
It’s a scenario repeatedly played out in South Africa’s mining industry – a cycle of strike, negotiation, settlement and return to work. But there are many reasons why the country’s attention has been focused sharply on what is happening here.
Firstly the extreme violence that broke out – in the space of a week more than 40 people were killed, most of them when police opened fire with live rounds claiming they were under attack.
The TV footage resonated strongly in a country that still remembers similar scenes involving the police of an apartheid state that was dismantled nearly two decades ago.
Then the country’s National Prosecuting Authority raised hackles even further by charging more than 200 of the striking miners for involvement in the murder of their fellow strikers. The legal basis for this action was what is known as “the common purpose doctrine”. Essentially this means the state does not have to prove direct action – it is enough that the people charged were in the vicinity of the killings.
It was precisely this doctrine that was used repeatedly by the previous regime against anti-apartheid activists. Following a national uproar the charges were provisionally withdrawn, but the image of a supposedly democratic government prepared to use similar measures to the one it replaced remained firmly in the public consciousness.
Then there is another issue that has been highlighted in the events at Marikana – the appalling conditions in which the miners like hundreds of thousands of other South Africans are forced to live.
Wonderkop is referred to as “an informal settlement” – a collection of shacks erected by the residents themselves near the mine at which they were employed. The mine does provide accommodation in what are called “hostels”- but then charges the miner rent equivalent to about a third of their monthly salary for a room in which they live with seven others. The alternative is to build their own housing.
But there is no running water, no sanitation facilities of any kind, no form of health care, no schools in the vicinity and no sign that the local government is concerned about providing any of these. The lack of service delivery is an issue that has led to deep public criticism of an African National Congress (ANC) government that had pledged to care for its people.
President Jacob Zuma insists, “the apartheid legacy is hampering delivery”. He also produces the following figures: that since the ANC came to power in 1994, more than 2.5 million houses have been built providing shelter for over two million people, that six million people have been provided with access to clean water, and that electricity has been connected to almost five million houses.
Yet this has bypassed the thousands of miners who live in Wonderkop, and the millions of other black South Africans who live in similar conditions in various parts of the country. They feel marginalised and even deserted by a government that they helped put into power.
They also felt abandoned by the National Union of Mineworkers affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which for decades has been a close ally of the ANC. Many joined a new union not associated with COSATU or by extension the ANC – and it is The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) that has spearheaded the current strike.
The mass killing ensured that events at Marikana would not be seen as just one of many labour actions, and in the public glare something else has emerged – that after nearly two decades of ANC rule the promise of democracy has not been fully realised.
And for those living in Wonderkop it is not just the bosses of the Lonmin Group they hold accountable for their fate. It is also the government that they believe has broken its covenant with the people.