As the anniversary of the Marikana massacre dawns, this week has also seen the anniversary of one of the watershed moments in the resistance movement during the 1980s – also led by the workers. One can only hope that this latest watershed can be managed by extraordinary leadership that can guide us to much-needed development in our country, without further bloodshed.
Two events, separated by two-and-a-half decades, define our journey to democracy.
One year ago I wrote: “The headlines scream, 'Marikana Massacre'; 'Killing Fields of Rustenburg'. Radio and television talk shows and social media all display the anger and expose the psyche of a nation badly wounded. The bloodiest security operation since the end of Apartheid has left us shocked and asking what went wrong. The reality is, many things went wrong. Way too many things went wrong, for way too long now.”
I journey back to 1987, the year of worker discontent. It had been less than a decade since black workers had a legal right to join trade unions. Starting from small beginnings the various strands had come together into a fighting force united by the repression of a brutal regime and the exploding anger against an arbitrary and exploitative cheap labour system, ruled by an authoritarian management system.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), barely two years old, the product of painstaking discussions, did not have the luxury of birth pangs. Its launch prophecy, to ‘rise like a giant to confront all that stood in its way’, had become a magnet for workers. It plunged into battle.
The country was on fire. Tens of thousands of retail and railway workers had launched rolling mass action that year, fuelled by the COSATU Living Wage campaign. Seeing COSATU as the most serious internal threat to its power, the Apartheid state, masterminded by its Minister of Police, imploded our headquarters in one of the most powerful explosive blasts, hoping to permanently disrupt our logistics and organisational capacity. But we were undeterred. We would not be cowed.
Years of organisation building, education training had built an army of tens of thousands of COSATU shop stewards connected by an umbilical cord to needs, aspirations and hopes of workers on the shop floor. We were ready. We stood fist to fist ready to slug it out in spite of many leaders being victimised, detained and offices bombed. Our survival was driven from the ground. We did not run our organisation through press conferences. There was no twitter or Facebook.
9 August 1987 was a cold morning. The frost hung in the air like a second skin. We were tense. It was our moment of storming the Bastille of Apartheid. A total of 360 000 mine workers marched over the shaft floor in disciplined regiments. What followed in the next 21 days shook the foundations of Apartheid. Close to 50 000 workers were dismissed and shipped back to the homelands and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, their leaders blacklisted forever. This was our life. Going on strike often meant that or death. It was a conscious choice.
While we lost the battle, it was a watershed that would define the war and the eventual negotiations process. The system was ready to implode. A political stalemate had been reached, on the shop floor and in the country. Our choice was a descent into a full-scale racial civil war of a scorched earth or a political negotiation.
Thankfully, guided by the extraordinary leadership of Nelson Mandela on our side, we chose the latter.
Turn the clock 25 years to 16 August 2012, and what we have is Marikana. It is the pinnacle of a growing ferment in our land. The people in our workplaces, townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered the fruits that they see a tiny elite enjoying. Our leaders across the spectrum are not talking to our people, they are not working with them systematically to solve their problems, in providing the hope that one day, even in their children’s lives, things will be better. It is a debilitating threat not from enemies outside, but those who lurk within our bosom.
Thousands of workers are deserting our COSATU unions. They have lost trust in their branch leaders. I have been in many places where I am personally told: ‘Comrade, we do not see union organisers. We do not know what is happening in our union. Our leaders are too involved in politics and we do not get the services and education we did in the past.’
It is true. Union leadership is more engaged in looking up to the political jockeying than down to the base of its members where its real strength on the shop floor gives it voice. We cannot hide the disunity and divisions that cripple COSATU today.
Alongside millions of South Africans I feel bitterly disappointed. There is a deep-seated anger growing in the country. And yet the leaders are not at the coal face. People feel robbed of their voices and powerless.
In the absence of strong, legitimate political organisation in the communities, they see violence as the only language their leaders will listen to. It is a vicious cycle that sees our people burning down any institution representing the state, whether a school, a library or a public building.
Marikana is but a festering sore on the body politic of our country. These are not issues that a judicial commission will resolve. It requires political action first and foremost from our political and union leaders. There are some tough choices to make.
Like we had in the 1990s, to set up a National Peace Accord to deal with a torrent of violence as covert forces sought to destabilise the transition. It was a roadmap based on a set of political principles that established freedom of speech and assembly. But it had the structures that brought together the contesting parties and the state especially the security forces. We had a roadmap that instilled confidence in our communities, compelled us to work together in structures that brought the key protagonists together and created a battalion of peace monitors drawn from all parties that ensured we isolated those who sought to deepen the divisions amongst our people.
My greatest fear is that the massacre at Marikana has become the watershed of our post-Apartheid journey. It has wrought untold physical, financial and psychological damage on all sides and on our social fabric. But if this is not acknowledged and we continue our drift towards the shrill language of divisive finger pointing and muddled leadership and we will end up where we were in 1990.
My greatest hope is that in these extraordinary times, we ask that extraordinary leaders rise from our ranks and take those extraordinary actions to put our country back to the path we set to deliver the better life that we promised our people in 1994. As the proverbial Phoenix, we will rise from burning ashes of broken promises and rebuild the trust with our citizens. And to do this with the absence of political arrogance and with a humility and an honesty that compels us to serve not the interests of leaders but the interests of our people.
- Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions, former Minister in the Mandela Government and Chair of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). You can follow him on Twitter, or visit his Facebook Page or www.jaynaidoo.org.