South Africa Regresses after Deadly Marikana Mine Incident

Dozens of South Africans protesting near Marikana mine just one day after police opened fire on miners on strike (photo by Themba Hadebe, Associated Press).

by Christine Smith

A country known for its brutal apartheid policies from 1948-1994, South Africa is still reeling from Thursday, August 16th’s violent episode between police officers and striking miners. Specifically, police officers resorted to the use of barbed wire to contain the miners, followed by tear gas, stun grenades, and firearms to disperse them. The Marikana mine where the strikes have been occurring for over a week is operated by the world’s third largest platinum producer, Lonmin, and currently employs roughly 28,000 people. Of the 28,000 employees, 3,000 have been a part of the ongoing strikes. While many following the story sympathize with the police’s use of force and claim it was a necessary response to the striking miners who were waving machetes, few are digging deeper to better understand why the Marikana miners felt it was necessary to carry machetes while striking.

With wages at just $9,000 per year (or a monthly wage of $400-$600), it hardly comes as a surprise that South African miners, including those at the Marikana mine, would seek wage increases that place them closer to Australian miners’ $110,000 a year salaries. Consequently, South African miners have sought help from both unions present – the dominant and older National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) which has ties to the current administration’s African National Congress, and the increasingly more appealing Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) who often uses aggressive tactics to win wage increases. Both unions, however, are fierce rivals who often let politics trump the miners’ best interests.

Although carrying machetes seems unnecessary, to the Marikana miners on strike, if waving machetes meant a better chance of securing higher wages at their job, then it was most likely viewed as a vital step to take, especially if the move was supported by the AMCU as reports suggest. Additionally, the deadly police violence against miners at Impala Platinum mine in February, which resulted in a 125% increase in wages, potentially served as another reason and possible catalyst for the Marikana miners’ behavior.

It would seem natural, then, that when negotiations between Lonmin, the miners, and the two unions fell through in the days leading up to the August 16th killings, the miners used their machetes to hack two police officers to death out of frustration and because of AMCU involvement. The violence that erupted on August 16th, which left 34 miners dead and 78 wounded, also started after another round of negotiations failed.

The violence, however, has not merely affected those living in South Africa, but has also had an impact on international diplomacy and trade. Because Lonmin is a London-based mining company, it must now undergo damage control to not only repair its image as a company, but to ensure that management practices, like determining employee salaries, do not echo Britain’s colonial policies. If such a connection between the Marikana mine violence and apartheid policies becomes widely accepted by the public, both the British and South African governments will be forced to reevaluate their diplomatic relations. Additionally, because of the Marikana incident, Lonmin shares fell by 8% between August 16th and 17th and by over 12% since the violence began. International platinum prices additionally reacted to the violence by rising 4% the following day, showing just how easy it is for a national dispute to become a concern for global markets.

Even though the use of violence for personal gain is never justifiable, by ignoring the circumstances leading up to August 16th’s deadly strikes, people wrongly place sole blame on the South African miners and police officers who were directly a part of the violence. By doing this, people ignore companies like Lonmin and miners unions who purposely underpay their employees in order to increase their profits. Critics, therefore, should not be so quick to place blame, especially when so many of those bearing the brunt of it all are still grieving from the loss of loved ones. Instead, critics should demand South African policymakers create better practices for mining companies and unions so that mining employees will no longer desperately resort to violent protests to gain better benefits and working conditions. Doing so will not only protect the miners, but will also prevent another unnecessary disturbance to the global order.

Facts and figures obtained from CNN, BBC News, and The New York Times.

Christine Smith recently received her B.A. in Political Science and two minors in African Studies and Anthropology from Boston University. She will be starting her M.A. in African Studies this fall at UCLA.


  • The issue is so complicated, I wouldn’t blame the workers for the boundaries they felt they had to cross to get their point heard. I’m glad there are people who can see through to the background and context of the situation.

  • It’s interesting that you mention that the miners are increasingly choosing the aggressive AMCU over the regime-tied NUM. Does the choice of a violent, non-regime group indicate a rejection of Mandela-style non-violence, and if so, what does that mean for the country as a whole? If South Africans still consider violence (or the threat of it) to be a valid tool for effecting political change, what does that say for the country’s political and economic prospects?

    This incident brings up some very interesting questions about South Africa’s future.

    • Hi Bryan,

      You raise some very interesting questions. Based on the high approval ratings Mandela still holds in South Africa, I personally believe that his non-violent means to affecting change are not necessarily being rejected, but are being replaced by violence as a last resort. To clarify, I would argue that because violent actions, as of late, appear to the miners to produce favorable results quicker than Mandela-style actions, miners are turning to such behavior out of desperation.

      That said, I think it is a huge problem for the country, so much so that I intentionally compared the current violence to the country’s use of violence during the apartheid era. So long as this violent style of protest continues to be used and the government and other parties involved refuse to improve miners’ livelihoods, such behavior most certainly will negatively impact the country’s political image abroad as well as trade relations with other countries.

      Should the country choose to sit silently as opposed to working to please all involved parties in order to prevent future violence, my expectation would be that violence will not only continue to be used, but will likely get worse as more South Africans become physically and emotionally involved.

  • I don’t really condone any type of violence in any situation, so it’s very difficult to support the miners’ actions in that manner. The police used probably what was expected of them in terms of force. However, I’m only an outsider and can’t truly understand and feel their emotions, hearts, and the level of desperation they were probably feeling during that time. Either way, violence shouldn’t be the answer…

  • Do you have any comments on the genocide of European descended South Africans which seems to be building? I hope that your concern for humanity encompasses all people, without prejudice.

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for asking this great and very relevant question! My apologies for providing such a delayed response!

      While I do not know as much about the current violence against South Africans of European descent because little is being reported about it, what information I have gathered from the article you provided and the remarks made by Genocide Watch are definitely of great concern. Even though a dislike for the British and other Westerners stemming from the apartheid era may be at times understandable, no one under any circumstances should be persecuted because of their background, ethnicity, religion, etc. This most certainly includes South Africans of European descent.

      Unfortunately, South Africa is very vulnerable right now. Because the country is in such a critical situation, I fear that one significant incident, like an election or death of a prominent public figure, might be all that is required to trigger an even more violent South African response.

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  • I dony blame them also they also have basic needsto be met

  • i blame them for the violence.they had needs to be met but still violence is not the ansure.saps should continue with their good doing,without them we should have been nothing here in sauth africa becouse of the stupit behaviour of any ather strike.keep up the good work of *force*

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