The Lonmin Massacre: Impoverishment, Resistance, and the Mining Industry

By Sam Hawke

It’s been now a week since the most shocking police killings of the post-apartheid era were inflicted on South Africa. But it’s not only time that provides greater perspective on the issues. The massacre must be seen in its proper context. By no means limited to a tale of inter-union war and police brutality, we must open our eyes to corporate human rights and environmental abuse, alongside growing worldwide opposition to the atrocities of the mining industry.

On Thursday 16th August, 34 people were killed by police, through extended volleys of automatic weaponry fired into a cluster of striking mineworkers. 9 miners and 2 police had been killed in the violence prior to the massacre, in the midst of a 3000-person strike for higher wages against the London-listed mining firm, Lonmin. Newspaper reports have stressed the fact that the strikers may have had firearms themselves, or even fired the first shot.

But the sheer intensity of the police onslaught, and the fact that the incident bore no police casualties, undermines any hasty recourse to self-defence. Whilst the previous days’ violence, and the police killings in particular, no doubt heightened police anxieties, it still remains unclear what the miners were doing in ‘charging’ part of the 500-strong contingent of heavily armed police. Graphic video footage of the massacre does little to assist. Their move towards police lines, moreover, came only after they had been forced from their positions by the deployment of tear gas, stun grenades, horses, and armoured vehicles equipped with water cannons, all whilst helicopters reportedly circled overhead.

But it’s difficult to apportion blame to those on the ground, whoever they are. Discussions appear to suggest that responsibility may fall on police and political leadership for failing to engage with the situation before hostilities deepened, only to then deploy heavily-armed security forces with little appropriate training and understandable anger at the police killings days before. As anger intensified, with little done to properly engage with those at its centre, the violence may well have been inevitable.

There also remains the much-discussed factor of union hostilities. Some of the conflict, certainly, can be explained by the dispute between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – allied to the African National Congress (ANC) and the most powerful affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, formed from disaffected NUM leaders. AMCU promised its members a trebling of their wages, a no-doubt quixotic demand but which nonetheless garnered the union a membership increase of 19%, whilst NUM membership has decreased from 66% to 49%. Each side has accused the other of escalating the violence, and each must surely be driven by a good deal of anger, political in-fighting, and careerism. But this is only part of the story.

Thus far, Lonmin itself has been able to stay above the fray. Its chair Roger Phillimore has described in a public statement that the company “deeply regret[s] the further loss of life in what is clearly a public order rather than labour relations associated matter.” It has apparently offered to fund the education of the children of those killed. This nonetheless failed to shield the firm from the public-relations failure it inflicted upon itself by a very poorly-judged and largely ineffective threat that it would fire anyone who failed to turn up to work on Friday – then Monday, then Tuesday. President Zuma himself reportedly ordered Lonmin to stop their hectoring, and its executive vice-President Mark Monroe ultimately stated that the firm’s belligerence simply “won’t help” and should be called off. Some, including many whose relatives were killed in the massacre, had succumbed to the intimidation and returned to work. But with two thirds of the workforce still on strike and worries that firings could reignite violence, Lonmin appears to have committed to engaging with the representatives of the strikers instead.

Lonmin certainly wants an end to the crisis. The killings take place in a time of not inconsiderable worry for the company, the world’s third-largest platinum producer, having seen significant share value drops as a result of the days of strikes prior to the events of the 16th August. Overall, it has lost $74 million since the crisis began, and many feel that the killings damage South Africa’s reputation as a premier destination for highly profitable mining enterprises – South Africa bearing around 75% of the world’s platinum reserves. This all comes at a time when global demand for platinum has lessened, leading to an overall drop in prices and a resultant squeeze on mining firms’ finances. (It must be noted that it is in this context that mineworkers’ unions have capitalised on a fantastic opportunity to achieve better working conditions, with the NUM making not-inconsiderable gains. It was only in January of this year that a 5000-person strike at a mine run by South African firm Impala Platinum led to a 10% wage increase for its workers.)

But, within the context of the police killings and the apparent inter-union war, Lonmin’s deeper role in the precipitation of violence has been largely ignored. It claims that the incidents are not a labour-relations matter. But it’s no stranger to disproportionate force in this area: in May 2011, it fired 9000 workers who embarked on an unprotected strike. Just as it did in the 2011 strike, it has no doubt helped maintain today’s atmosphere of all-or-nothing confrontation by ceaselessly declaring the current strike illegal and refusing to engage with union representatives.

But there is far worse than this. The Bench Mark Foundation, an organisation monitoring corporate social responsibility compliance in the region, has repeatedly condemned Lonmin and other mining operations since its first study in 2007. It released its latest report, Policy Gap 6: Living in the Platinum Mines, in the midst of the strike and its findings are damning. Workers live in “appalling” company-built townships without proper sanitation or running water, with one reported power cut lasting for over a month. Fatal accidents in the mines are stated to be unacceptably high – a widespread rock fall problem is reported across the area’s mining industry.

Local communities are stated to suffer from pollution of water supplies by mining activities, with drainage systems spilling directly into the local river, alongside air pollution and dust blown from the mines. The report states that children manifest symptoms of chronic illnesses related to the spillages, whilst bilharzia is worryingly plentiful. Massive local unemployment grates against Lonmin’s migrant labour force to spark increasing hostilities in the community. The firm continues to buy up local farmland for its operations, whilst any remaining farmland becomes worthless for its proximity to waste dumps or the subject of squatting or theft by others in the community.

Bench Mark also reports that the community development projects pursued by Lonmin are often themselves manifestly harmful, highlighting local classrooms built by Lonmin made from highly toxic asbestos blocks. The local community is said to be stricken with crime, rape, social disintegration, diseases such as HIV and TB, and impoverishment, which the mining industries involvement in the area appears to do everything to exacerbate. In light of repeated predictions that mining companies’ failure to stop the suffering of their workers and local communities would directly precipitate violence, Bench Mark’s John Capel goes so far as to say that “Lonmin had it coming.”

A front-page editorial in The Sowetan summarised the Lonmin killings as a continuation of the apartheid government’s policy of treating its black citizens as expendable, mere objects for the services of the state and its clients. But the analogy extends far further. Each miner makes around £300 a month, working with a 25kg drill for 8-hour shifts and in conditions where maiming and death are commonplace. Chief Executive Ian Farmer makes roughly £1.2 million a year in regular income and bonuses, 333 times that made by the rock drillers. The social conditions in which mining companies operate are typified by debasement and disintegration. Just as in the worst of the apartheid years, it seems that South Africa’s poorest serve only to support the profits and lifestyles of others.

For all the truth and reconciliation that has been presumed to have taken place, South Africa, for most of its inhabitants, bears a striking similarity to its days of outright oppression. Half of its population remains seriously impoverished, with hunger, malnutrition, and disease still appallingly high. To some degree, poverty has decreased, but economic inequality continues to deepen and expand – South Africa remains of the most unequal societies on the planet, with a GINI coefficient of around 0.7.

Personal safety and security remains a serious concern for majority of South Africa’s inhabitants, with five times the global average homicide rate – alongside a female homicide rate that is six times the global average. This takes place in an environment of widespread childhood abuse, drug dependency, gender oppression, and massive, structural unemployment; this all does much to entrench the violence and social disintegration. Most tellingly for the recent violence, trust in the police remains dismally low. This is no problem, of course, for the rich minority whose safety is guaranteed by the $10 billion private security industry, but for vast numbers of South Africans vigilantism and gang culture may seem the only methods of ensuring safety and security.

As Zwelenzime Vavi, the leader of COSATU, has been quoted as saying, South Africa’s political and economic structure is more or less designed to be as unresponsive to the needs of the poor as possible. The ANC, despite the (decidedly mixed) efforts of its more left-leaning members, has been almost manically concerned with capital-friendliness and the implementation of Washington Consensus, IMF-led neoliberalism. With concerns as to the veto power of international institutions and markets, alongside political and economic pressure from within South Africa itself, it tore off its (albeit vaguely formulated) redistributive roots and embraced the trickle-down, privatisation-oriented policies that have generated massive inequality wherever they’ve been imposed. The moves were buttressed, moreover, by the political might of party heroes such as Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa – who incidentally is on the board of Lonmin –, keen to make South Africa the (albeit somewhat insecure) sanctuary for capital investment that it is today.

Certainly, no one could have expected the multiple destructive legacies of apartheid were to find a solution so soon after liberation. But South Africa’s citizens rightly thought that their leaders might implement policies that don’t so grotesquely pursue profits over people. Legendary South African judge Albie Sachs warned against the country’s ‘transformative’ constitution from taking on “the guise of a false libertarianism, from becoming an instrument of human abandonment, heartlessness and neglect”. He condemned what he saw – perhaps in the United States – as the role of constitutional law in “the privatisation of misery”. With the assistance of much of South Africa’s political and economic elite, this remains the country’s post-liberation legacy. It is not difficult, therefore, to see why the striking mineworkers – or any other groups of poor, black individuals – have become so desperately disappointed, and so intensely angry.

With this in mind, the assumptions through which the Lonmin Massacre has been viewed may need revision. For we may all advocate non-violent protest, but it’s difficult to expect it of people who have come to the not unreasonable conclusion that armed resistance is all they have left to get elites to stand up and take notice. A powerful justification for the state’s fulfilment of its citizens’ basic interests is that it will stave off the bloodshed when people finally attempt to actively resist their degradation and make themselves heard.

More strongly, perhaps, I just can’t help thinking that we’ve become so inoculated by NGO campaigns of passivity and supplication that when individuals finally decide to actively resist injustice we can do nothing but recoil in horror. There’s no doubt that the mineworkers’ suffering has been exploited by some unscrupulous labour leaders and, as was to be expected, the Frankenstein’s monster of South Africa’s balance of political forces, Julius Malema. Moreover, the violence has been brutal and the killings – on all sides – entirely tragic. But this doesn’t delegitimise the strikers’ demands, nor make grossly immoral their means of pursuing them; rather, it shows precisely how the situation must be resolved.

But there are further issues here that extend far wider than South Africa. The behaviour of Lonmin and other mining companies in the region form a pattern of abuse encompassing much of the world. A recent protest in London highlighted the atrocities with which the mining industry stands so comprehensively accused. The Lonmin massacre, for one, has even more recent forebears: in Peru earlier this year, 2 miners were killed by police for protesting the environmental destruction wrought by Swiss company Xstrata. This had followed Wikileaks’ revelations in 2011 that the Peruvian mining firm Antamina, part owned by UK company BHP Billton, had lobbied US and Canadian diplomats for the ‘removal’ of teachers and Bishops campaigning against the destructive mining practices in the region.

We see the same elsewhere. In India, the mining firm Vedanta Resources has stood as a paragon of corporate human rights and environmental abuse for the last decade. Its attempted building of a massive, open-cast mine atop the Niyamgiri mountains, sacred to the Kondh people who have inhabited the area for centuries, fuelled worldwide anger and local protest. Despite the accursed allure of bauxite deposits within the mountain, Vedanta has been kept at bay. But others have not been so fortunate. Neighbouring tribes at Lanjigarh, in the valleys below the mountain, have suffered the building of Vedanta’s aluminium refinery – in violation of applicable tribal rights and conservation law, according to a committee set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests – and the demolition of villages by bulldozer. Pools of toxic waste are dumped on its once-fertile plains, putrefying the soil, destroying water supplies, and making life an impossibility.

But these are only the catastrophic results inherent to the mining process; there’s still plenty of scope for gross negligence and assorted rights violations. In 2009, for instance, Vedanta subsidiary – the Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO) – was responsible for one of India’s worst post-independence industrial catastrophes: in the state of Chhattisgarh, a power station chimney collapsed leaving 42 workers dead, in BALCO’s estimation, although many more are said to remain missing in the rubble of the disaster. Earlier that year, in Goa, a factory pit wall collapsed, drowning Advalpal village in toxic waste.

The persecution and killing of anti-mining activists has also been a theme of India’s last decade. In 2000, 3 unarmed Adivasi were killed by police in Maikanch, Orissa, with local people facing a pro-mining purge from the region. More recently, in 2010, two senior Kondh leaders were abducted by who they claim to be plainclothes police on their way to a conference of environmentalists and tribal rights campaigners. One was held for twelve hours, whilst the other alleges he was imprisoned for two nights at a police station and beaten.

The struggle for human rights will ultimately be won by those in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere who face the abuses of the mining industry every day. Vedanta’s reputation, thankfully, appears to be thwarting its progress: despite its helpful contacts in the Indian political elite (the current Finance Minister, P.Chidambaram, used to work for the company), it continues to wrestle with powerful opposition to its attempted takeover of Rajasthan’s oilfields – although successful resistance is far from a certainty. But there are things that we in the UK can do. More Parliamentary and Government discussion of the matter is crucial, not least of all because the UK government has been directly complicit in Vedanta’s abuses – DFID, for example, helped it register on the London Stock Exchange in 2003, whilst David Cameron has directly lobbied the Indian Premier Manmohan Singh in favour of Vedanta’s attempted oilfields purchase (see here and here).

Last month, John McDonnell MP and other MPs tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament highlighting the mining industry’s ongoing degradation of Goa, following previous EDMs confronting Vedanta’s record head on (here and here). MPs and others, in discussions of a less toothless form of corporate social responsibility, continue to highlight Vedanta as the exemplar of corporate human rights abuses and the apparent impunity with which they are committed. We have also seen public divestments from Vedanta by the Church of England, the Joseph Rowntree Trust, and the Norwegian government. Popular aversion to corporate human rights violations may be growing.

But there’s something we can do that is more immediate and more powerful: protest. Every year since the company was first registered on the London Stock Exchange, a grassroots peoples’ movement, Foil Vedanta, has vociferously protested outside its Annual General Meetings and elsewhere. On 28th August of this year, Vedanta Resources will stage its next AGM at the Lincoln Centre, 18 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, and the accusations and anger will be fierce. Details of the protest, alongside a more comprehensive list of the charges of which Vedanta stands accused, are available on FV’s website and on Facebook. We must attend.

No doubt the mining industry as a whole is bigger and worse than Vedanta, or Lonmin, on their own. The suffering to which it contributes is obviously a far wider problem, as is the global poverty and health catastrophe that continues to slaughter millions each year. We have yet to seriously reassess the death toll our lives inflict on the rest of the world, and questioning the relationship between our lifestyles and the mining industry is only a small step in that direction.

The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, in which the police killed 69 unarmed protestors, may have fiercely ignited the anti-apartheid struggle for the decades that followed. Comparisons with the Lonmin massacre on this score are obviously misplaced, but foundational moments for resistance to corporate crime and injustice are building. We can do much to support ordinary South Africans’ and Indians’ struggle against human rights and environmental abuses. A proper recognition of the meaning of last week’s events, in the context of the mining industry’s atrocities across the world, is a start. Protest is what must follow thereafter.

6 comments
  1. JWB said:

    I really like the way this article was put together. It is a shame, that there is no willing exigency for matters of such horrific preventable events. Good story.

  2. Beth said:

    Reblogged this on Rebuilding Foundations and commented:
    Informative read about the SA mining massacre a couple weeks ago. Also provides background information on the mining industry in general. Bit long, dissolves into advocating protesting at the end, but definitely still worth checking out.

  3. ajit vadakayil said:

    Hi,
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    Find out who is bleeding india.
    Find out the stake of Church of England in Vedanta.
    Be shocked!
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