Curbing the new Afro-enthusiasm: What Marikana exposes about Neoliberalism

As a Malawian, the August 16th Marikana Mine massacre in South Africa invoked the kinds of questions Malawians asked on 20th July in 2011. Why did police shoot to kill? Was there absolutely no non-violent methods the police could have used? Were the demonstrators so violent police had no option but to shoot to kill? What were the economic causes of the discontent that led to the massacre?

On both 20th July 2011 in Malawi and 16th August 2012 in South Africa, blame has been apportioned on both sides, revealing the ideological worldviews that we use to interpret ghastly events like these. A backdrop to Marikana is the current rhetoric that is rebranding much of Africa as the new hub for the next global economic miracle. While well-meaning, this rhetoric risks burying the inconvenient questions that problematise neoliberal economics, on retreat in Europe and North America yet on an upsurge in Africa and the developing world.

The most persuasive analyses of Marikana thus far have come from commentators talking about the political economy of South African violence and the neoliberal context of the mining industry in that country.  Sahra Ryklief, Secretary General of the International Federation of Workers’ Education

Associations, found no justification for why police had to use lethal violence. She wrote that the police have access to non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets, teargas, and tasers. She cited examples of cases elsewhere in the world where police have defused volatile situations without any fatalities.

Women protest around the Marikana platinum mines area where over 40 people were killed in a week of labor unrest. The South African government has ordered a commission of inquiry to find out the truth of what happened., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.

Ryklief said the blame for Marikana went to many parties involved in the broader outlook of labour relations in South Africa. She included herself on the list, as a labour organizer and educator. She said previously she had glossed over and excused coercive actions and violence tactics that workers have used against each other, while urging unity and solidarity. “I will do so no longer,” she declared. Worker unity now had “to be based on something superior to violent coercion”. She wrote that unity based on coercion could not lead to any lasting, positive solutions. Coercion had for far too long shaped the way South Africans approach strike organisation. “As labour, we need to take responsibility for change in this respect.”

Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu added his voice to the calls for inward reflection for everyone. He decried the gross inequality and yawning gap between rich and poor, but he also asked marginalized South Africans to reflect on their actions. “When we march, we demand, we destroy and we loot. We care not whether our demands are reasonable, or what actions we take.”

Gavin Capps of the University of Cape Town told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, an American TV programme, that the massacre needed to be looked at from the perspective of the recent global rise of demand for platinum. This new demand started in the mid-1990s, and its rapidity has caused a lot of social problems for the people living in the areas surrounding the mines. There has been environmental damage, expropriation of land, displacement of people, and economic exploitation of massive proportions. These have been the root causes of what has culminated into this massacre.

According to a statement issued by the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party, “all the major platinum mining corporations have made billions of rands out of the world’s richest platinum deposits in the Bojanala District of the North West province, while leaving a trail of misery, death, poverty, illness, and environmental pollution in the surrounding communities.” The Communist Party’s statement quoted a 167-page report, titled Communities in the Platinum Minefields”, released just days before the massacre.

According to Gavin Capps, South Africa accounts for 70 percent of global platinum production, yet the mineworkers live in desperate conditions with neither water nor electricity. While the rest of the world was expressing shock and disbelief at the massive loss of life, and mineworkers were grieving the loss of their colleagues, the company was issuing an ultimatum for the other mineworkers to immediately return to work, or face dismissal. It took the intervention of the South African Council of Churches and the office of President Jacob Zuma to restrain the company from dismissing the more than 70 percent mineworkers who defied the ultimatum.

In the words of the Socialist Party of Azania, “profit is always put before the interests of people and never vice versa.” Activists working for social and economic justice have for a long time bemoaned neoliberal economics and how it puts profits over people’s wellbeing. Most economic development happening across Africa today is concentrated in urban centres, benefitting very few people at the expense of the rest. In South Africa, the development of ultra-modern cities within cities such as Sandton best exemplifies this. Sandton can stand toe to toe with Manhattan or any highly developed city in the world. Yet just on the outskirts of Johannesburg increasing numbers of people live in shanty towns with no water and no electricity. In the words of former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “We are a deeply wounded people who are custodians of a very special country with people and resources that are second to none. There is enough for all South Africans to share.”

The same trend is happening in Malawi, where the capital city, Lilongwe, has currently no less than four shopping malls under construction. Yet just a few miles within the same city tens of thousands of people live in slum-like conditions. This is happening cross much of the developing world.

For South Africa and the wider region, the massacre at Marikana ought to usher in a new era of critical reflection on the trajectory of Africa’s economies amidst the renewed rhetoric of latter day optimism. The optimism is well-intended and holds transformative potential for how Southern Africans look at themselves and shape their destiny. While it exposes the naked greed of capital in a neoliberal era, the optimism also risks masking deep grievances particularly by those being left behind.

Tutu’s words are true for much of the continent and beyond: “Our ‘haves’ have largely failed to share, our ‘have-nots’ are feeling increasingly frustrated, and our leaders are locked in seemingly endless contestation for political and economic power.”

Marikana should force African countries to rethink their role and place in the global economic structure, and to persist in questioning the kind of inequality the world is experiencing.

*Steve Sharra blogs at Afrika Aphukira and for Global Voices Online. A longer version of this article first appeared on Africa Global Village and on the Africa@LSE blog.

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