|The grisly scene after yesterday's state massacre in Marikana|
The struggle began in earnest last Friday, when miners employed by British-owned Lonmin walked out and demanded a more than trebling of their monthly pay from 4,000 rand (£306) to 12,500 rand (£957). Underlying the conflict has been something of a turf war between the government-linked National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and a breakaway, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction union (AMCU).
The NUM is part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which alongside the African National Congress and the Communist Party, has formed the 'tripartite alliance' which has overseen the establishment of a black bourgeoisie under the presidencies of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, and incumbent Jacob Zuma. Emblematic of this venal back-scratching elite is former NUM leader Cyril Ramaphosa, whose wealth was estimated at $275 million, including a large portion in mining interests. Meanwhile, the imposition of neoliberal international finance directives has meant worsening conditions for the vast majority, particularly since the onset of the global economic crisis four years ago.
The class interests at stake were made explicit during yesterday's showdown. In the morning, the provincial police commissioner told the media that "our intention is to make sure that people leave that illegal gathering area where they are and that is what we will do today...today we are ending this matter." What followed was something like a battle. Three thousand strikers gathered on high ground above the mine, armed with clubs, spears, iron bars and - at least according to police accounts - firearms. NUM president Senzeni Zokwana was driven in a police van to the top of the hill, to plead with the strikers, but this was to no avail as he was shouted down. The cops then tried to force the miners off their defensive position with tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon. At this point, a section of the strikers approached the police lines, and were cut down by gunfire.
The massacre took place against the background of rising class tensions throughout South Africa. Demonstrators angry at the government's failure to ensure housing, electricity, water and sanitation services have taken to the streets in recent weeks. At least four people have died in Cape Town violence in the past week, with stones being thrown at police stations burning barricades erected in the streets.
Officially, unemployment is at 25% in South Africa, but other estimates put it at nearer 40%. In workplaces, the downturn in Europe is prompting businesses to increase exploitation rates, and spark exactly the kind of dispute seen at Marikana. At the opposite pole, the country's richest hundred individuals saw their wealth increase by 62% last year. It is precisely this extreme levels of income disparity which will fuel further battles between the forces of the working class and the forces of the capitalist state in the near future.