[Marxism] Mining for Stories

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 29 08:54:11 MDT 2012

(An interesting but cynical piece on the Marikana massacre.)

NY Times Op-Ed August 28, 2012
Mining for Stories

Cape Town

THE 34 miners killed by the police earlier this month in a wildcat 
strike at a Marikana platinum mine, in northern South Africa, were 
immediately engaged as bit players in various morality tales. Marikana 
reminded some of the 1960 police massacre at Sharpeville; suggested to 
others that poverty and division had survived apartheid; or foretold a 
sharp confrontation between capital and labor. To many, it either 
predicted or confirmed the political and moral disintegration of the 
ruling party, the African National Congress.

I hesitated in choosing among these fables because a writer’s single 
item of professional knowledge is that a story is a speculation about 
the world, composed under the sign of luck rather than of law or reason. 
Good stories, like bad stories, have a way of escaping the facts.

If the international press framed Marikana as a tale about deprivation 
and inequality, it missed the specific dynamics of a strike in a country 
ruled by former unionists, Socialists and Communists.

At Marikana the radicalized strikers broke with the National Union of 
Mineworkers, a credible but more temperate union aligned with the 
government, and went on to kill two policemen and two guards in the 
first days of the strike. Three thousand men, many of them tough 
rock-drill operators, they were all too ready for confrontation, armed 
with magic potions, spears, machetes and a revolver taken from a downed 
policeman. Indeed there were some voices in South Africa who, having 
managed to find nothing positive in two decades of democracy, for the 
first time defended the actions of the government faced with mob 
violence. I didn’t wish to agree; by convention writers don’t side with 
repression. Yet I wondered with what intent and foresight the miners had 
appeared as an army.

There are wise audiences who nevertheless see Marikana in moral black 
and white, stung by the devastating use of police power in defense of an 
imperial mining corporation based in London, Lonmin, and its almost 
unreconstructed layers of white management. One friend recalled a Lonmin 
executive whose obligatory Rolex watch and Mercedes typified the 
heedless gaudiness of money in such a divided country.

Yet this story is interrupted by the figure of Cyril Ramaphosa — 
probably the best president we will never have. As a leader of the 
National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, he courted death and 
detention and was a great organizer of the working classes. But 
outmaneuvered by Thabo Mbeki in the ’90s, the former unionist chose 
business over politics, became a rand billionaire and joined the Lonmin 
board as part of South Africa’s black economic empowerment program.

While economic empowerment is as important as the vote, it creates 
anomalies when applied to individuals. Mr. Ramaphosa has acquired a 
billionaire’s unusual habits. In his spare time he breeds exotic 
animals, black and white impala alongside the aptly named golden 
wildebeest. His investment group pledged two million rand ($240,000) to 
funeral expenses at Marikana. It was not enough to forestall the 
criticism from Julius Malema, the portly, improbable, ill-disciplined 
but shrewdly articulate radical recently expelled from the ruling party. 
Mr. Malema argued that the miners had died to protect Mr. Ramaphosa’s 
investments, and he made hay of the tycoon’s recent offer of more than 
$2 million for a single oversize buffalo cow.

Perhaps that wasn’t fair. But luxuries like the buffalo cow, 
Mercedes-Benz and Rolex watch suggest the possibility, perhaps not 
unfamiliar to Americans, that workers’ violence endangers the country 
less than the unreal ways in which the superrich take pleasure and show 
power. The 1994 settlement between Afrikaners and African nationalists 
treated the hopes of the poor and excluded as a problem to be managed. 
It went far, maybe too far, in turning Socialists and unionists into 
capitalists. In such an unequal society, social justice is not an ideal 
but the purest form of pragmatism.

For me, as for many Capetonians, Marikana is on the other side of the 
country. But it is an occasion for broader anxieties. Nearby townships 
have long been alight with stonings and protests, vigilante murder and 
the death by burning tire that we call — in a phrase that no longer 
registers as a figure of speech — the necklace. This violence has no 
political name, no obvious moral, and may yet pass. But it is a sign 
that the country has jettisoned its principles of fellowship and 
equality too rapidly and at far too low a price.

In any case, a mine is a difficult place to learn or teach a principle. 
As a schoolboy I went down a coal shaft as a guest of the Chamber of 
Mines, which wanted to encourage children to become mining engineers. 
For an hour we plummeted into dark heat and noise, passages of shivering 
wooden pillars, rock ceilings sloping almost to the floor that wept hot 
water. We passed men bent over their clanging and clattering drills who 
could not even stand up straight where they worked. To go in and come 
out of such a place, each day of a short life, was, I suspected, placing 
too much strain on the human heart. One could do it only if one didn’t 
know that, in 2011, three Lonmin executives earned the same as the 
combined salaries of 3,600 rock-drill operators.

In the years since 1994, South Africans chose money, and faith in the 
growth of gross domestic product, as our country’s story line. It is a 
strange twist to the narrative that many of the northern mines, despite 
good platinum prices, are almost unprofitable.

Imraan Coovadia teaches creative writing at the University of Cape Town 
and is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Institute for Taxi 

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