Originally published in Socialism Today, No. 205 (February 2017), journal of the Socialist Party (CWI, England & Wales).

Reviewed by Weizmann Hamilton

Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha’s book is the first to highlight the role of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) in the 2012 miners’ uprising that led to the Marikana massacre. The most well-known account of the events – the Emmy award-winning documentary, Miners Shot Down, by leading DLF member Rehad Desai – made no mention of the DSM’s role whatsoever. This book therefore fills an important gap.

Over four years on since the massacre, its reverberations continue to be felt. The DSM’s perspectives for what was to unfold following the massacre have been confirmed. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), then the biggest and most influential affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), has been wiped out in the platinum belt. As the DSM had warned, Cosatu’s membership of the Tripartite Alliance – led by the governing African National Congress (ANC), and alongside the South African Communist Party (SACP) – would split rather than unite the union federation. Since then, the country’s biggest trade union, the militant National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa), has been expelled from Cosatu, reducing a former political giant to a den of political squabblers.

The utter bankruptcy of the claim that Thabo Mbeki’s removal and Jacob Zuma’s accession to the ANC presidency at its 2007 Polokwane conference would ensure the ANC became a “disciplined force of the left, with a bias toward the working class” was exposed by the Marikana massacre. The depths to which Cosatu has sunk is shown by its decision, championed by the NUM, to back the butcher of Marikana, Cyril Ramaphosa, to succeed Zuma as ANC president.

Sinwell’s glossary records in a matter-of-fact manner the DSM’s role in the formation of WASP. However, by not making any mention of the National Strike Committee with which the DSM had collaborated in WASP’s launch, he undermines the collective role of these workers’ leaders in the process that unfolded. The Spirit of Marikana tends to elevate the role of the individual above that of the movement of class forces that produced the ‘insurgency’. Sinwell is unable to reflect on the broader political impact of WASP, the first consciously socialist party to contest elections in the post-apartheid era, in which the mineworker leaders played an indispensable role.

Marikana was the spiritual birthplace of WASP. It is no exaggeration to say that the 2013 launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and its socialist coloration was influenced by WASP’s audacious hoisting of the flag of socialism. WASP’s launch influenced not only the EFF’s ideological orientation, but also assisted in shaping the ideological contours of the debates in Numsa. Its 2013 special national congress resolved to establish a movement for socialism and a workers’ party.

A combination of factors meant that WASP was unable to turn its support among mineworkers into votes, or tap the enormous reservoir of sympathy within the Numsa rank-and-file. These included the emergence of the vastly better-resourced EFF, the witch-hunt against the DSM by AMCU president, Joseph Mathunjwa, and the Numsa leadership’s refusal to endorse WASP in the 2014 general elections. Squeezed by these developments, WASP received just over 8,000 votes.

Such was the impact of WASP’s launch, however, that the EFF felt obliged to approach it for discussions on electoral collaboration. The EFF leadership rejected WASP’s proposals for an electoral alliance, counter-proposing what effectively amounted to a demand for WASP to dissolve and be taken over by the EFF. This led to an impasse. That the EFF could attract 1.3 million votes on a platform that was seen as socialist, despite significant ideological limitations, was a complete vindication of the analysis and perspective that formed the basis for the launch of WASP.

Despite its spectacular parliamentary performance, the EFF was unable to use its 2014 electoral base to fulfil its ambitions to treble its vote or to control any council in the August 2016 local government elections. Instead, it has enabled the neoliberal Democratic Alliance (DA) it routinely denounces as representatives of racist white monopoly capital to take control of Tshwane and Johannesburg by voting for the DA mayoral candidates, storing within the foundations of the EFF the basis for future conflict. Handicapped by its sectarian attitude towards the workers’ movement, its left populism has seen it unable to win over organised workers in particular.

At the same time, the Numsa leadership failed to meet its special congress deadline for the launch of a workers’ party in time for the 2016 elections. Although its December 2016 national congress recommitted the union to a workers’ party, it appears more and more that what the leadership has in mind is a ‘vanguard’, as opposed to a mass party. No new deadlines were set. Thus, although a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme remains a vital necessity, the path towards it has become more complicated. WASP, now affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), remains committed to the establishment of a workers’ party as a broad mass formation on which the unity of the struggle of the youth, communities and workplaces can be anchored.

Unfortunately, The Spirit of Marikana does not deal with the wider political ramifications of the Marikana massacre. The serious setbacks the ANC suffered in the 2016 elections and the ongoing faction fighting have placed the possibility of the ANC losing the 2019 general elections on the agenda. All of these developments were detonated by Marikana.

As the book’s sub-title suggests, for the author, the significance of these events lies in the emergence of new ‘insurgent’ trade unionism exemplified by the strike wave and the emergence of the AMCU. However, he offers very little by way of a definition of insurgent trade unionism beyond a regurgitation of the prejudice popular among academics that trade unions are inherently conservative. Sinwell says that he suspected that AMCU president Mathunjwa “was aware that an independent organisation could potentially challenge the authority of his established union. Instead of viewing it as a complementary force, Mathunjwa is likely to have considered the worker committees as a threat and therefore set out to destroy them… This made a great deal of sense since AMCU needed to build its own politics…”

Apart from effectively condoning Mathunjwa’s authoritarianism, Sinwell sheds no light on what AMCU’s ‘politics’ are, or why they were incompatible with those of the strike committees. Thus, despite the bureaucratic, anti-democratic character of its internal regime, the author is ambivalent towards the AMCU, describing it as “neither the saviour nor the enemy of the workers”.

The DSM, as the book acknowledges, played a very prominent role in the 2012 strike wave. Comrades Mametlwe Sebei and Liv Shange were recognised as leading figures by the miners, the broader workers’ movement and the media, becoming household names. In fact, the DSM’s role generated panic in the ruling elite, drawing hysterical responses from the ANC government. ANC general secretary, Gwede Mantashe, went so far as blaming Liv for the “chaos” on the mines.

Unfortunately, Luke Sinwell, a University of Johannesburg senior researcher, approaches the DSM’s role by comparing it, at times unfavourably, with that of the DLF, a formation that has yet to clarify its position on whether it is a political party or will participate in elections. This is unwarranted. The Marikana massacre was the most important political event since the end of apartheid. It was an earthquake that opened up a fault-line between two epochs in the post-apartheid era: the first, of illusions in and the surrender of working-class political independence to the ANC; the second, to the reclaiming of political and class independence clearing the path towards a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

To reduce the analysis of the events to a competition between two small left formations is to trivialise it – and it is necessary to set the record straight. It would have been much better to set out the facts and let these speak for themselves, or at least ensure that the conclusions are rooted in them. By Sinwell’s own admission, it was the DSM that lobbied the DLF to get involved in the mineworkers’ struggles. Sinwell personally responded enthusiastically to our appeals. However, under pressure of his loyalty to the DLF, of which he is a member, Sinwell succumbed to the temptation to exaggerate the role of his organisation, compromising his objectivity.

Whereas the DLF’s Rehad Desai chose to omit the DSM altogether in his narrative, Luke Sinwell elected to damn the DSM with faint praise. He acknowledges that the DSM had been present on the Rustenburg mines since 2009, invited there by mineworkers who had been betrayed by the NUM, leading to the dismissal of 4,000 workers by the Murray and Roberts corporation. Their appeals to Cosatu and the SACP had fallen on deaf ears so they turned to the DSM. The NUM’s betrayals and the anger and hatred of the workers towards the leadership resulted in NUM officials addressing workers’ meetings wearing side-arms.

Recognising that inherent in this situation was a potential mass rebellion against the NUM, which would have enormous repercussions for Cosatu and the Tripartite Alliance, the DSM made work on the mines a strategic focus. By 2012, the DSM had built a branch and enjoyed the respect of mineworkers beyond Murray and Roberts. Without those years of painstaking work, it would have been impossible for the DSM to play the leading role it did. The DSM was central to the unification of the workers’ struggles and the launch of the Rustenburg Coordinating Committee, on 9 September 2012. Then to the National Strike Committees as the action spread nationally, with up to 100,000 workers participating at its peak.

By Sinwell’s own admission, the DLF “swung into action” the day after the massacre. And what did that action entail? Setting up the Marikana Support Committee and fundraising. These are not unimportant activities – the CWI also raised thousands – but they are of an entirely different character to that of the DSM which became part of the leadership of the strike committees giving direction to the strike itself. Tellingly, Sinwell writes that workers were initially so suspicious of the DLF that it considered finding a safe house and a panic button for DLF organiser, Bheki Buthelezi, to protect him from the workers.

The book’s value lies in debunking one of the many myths that still surrounds the events of 2012: that AMCU led the strikes and had been introduced to Rustenburg by the DSM. Sinwell is correct in describing the AMCU as a beneficiary of the insurgency that swept through platinum belt. Until 2012, the AMCU had been based mainly in the coal mines of Mpumalanga, having failed to break out from there since it was founded by Mathunjwa in rebellion against the NUM in 2009. Despite Sinwell’s ambivalence towards the AMCU, it is far from a radical union. As the ample evidence in the book shows, Mathunjwa saw the independent strike committees as potential rival centres of authority and moved to neutralise and to launch a witch-hunt against them.

Sinwell makes the rather bold claim that the “divergent paths taken by the DSM and the DLF at this juncture told volumes about [their respective] approaches” to the conflict between the former strike committee leaders and the AMCU leadership. He acknowledges that the DSM was “an organisation that promoted the independent power of the working class, and the building of unions and worker committees from the ground up, [which had also] been blacklisted by the AMCU leadership”. However, he accuses the DSM of providing a platform at a press conference to “disgruntled mineworkers” reducing their grievances to mere “allegations of authoritarian leadership in the AMCU” – thereby contradicting his own observations about the conduct of the AMCU leaders.

He states proudly that “members of the DLF were also approached but chose not to associate themselves with these ostracised leaders”. He then quotes Rehad Desai as suggesting that these workers were planning to set up an alternative union. This is entirely false. He is conflating a sinister state-sponsored plot to undermine the AMCU with the legitimate grievances of worker leaders over the union’s internal undemocratic regime. The worker leaders concerned, including Gaddafi Mdoda, had absolutely nothing to do with the state-sponsored plot to form the Workers’ Association Union (WAU), founded in March 2014.

Nonetheless, there was widespread discontent with the AMCU leadership which the state attempted to exploit. For this allegation to be repeated even by insinuation is reckless and could endanger the lives of comrades. It is ironic that the DLF leadership distanced itself from the very workers responsible for the creation of the independent worker committees that inspired the title of the book.

The DLF position betrayed a complete failure to appreciate the character of the AMCU leadership which has never called a congress, has never been elected and remains unaccountable since its formation. The purge Mathunjwa carried out against the shop stewards leading the strike committees aided the objectives of management who repudiated the agreement that ended the Lonmin strike, on the basis that the strike committees were not part of the statutory collective bargaining system. Mathunjwa launched a vicious slander campaign against them and the DSM for raising concerns about the lack of democracy, and for demanding accountability over the union’s finances. The DLF position amounted to opportunism.

The press conference had been called as AMCU was preparing to embark on strike action in 2013. WASP was in full support of that strike. But that did not blind us to the real character of the AMCU leadership. As the DSM pointed out at the time, it took the mineworkers 30 years to rebel against the NUM. The AMCU leadership will not have the luxury of that length of time before workers rise up against its leadership, should the current dictatorial regime continue.

The witch-hunt against the DSM/WASP has not prevented the workers’ leaders who played a leading role in setting up the independent strike committees from reconnecting with WASP. Whereas the DLF appears happy to have followed a policy of peaceful coexistence with the undemocratic AMCU leadership, WASP is proud to support the shop stewards who played the decisive role in the historic events of 2012.

As in 2012, WASP is setting an example of what ‘insurgent trade unionism’ could mean through the Outsourcing Must Fall campaign it is leading. #OMF has won victories against outsourcing that not even the million-strong Cosatu has been able to achieve. WASP is holding up #OMF to the new trade union federation, set to be launched in March, as an example of how to organise the 70% of workers who are unorganised.

The passage of time offered Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha an opportunity to reflect on the broader political impact of what was the most important event in the post-apartheid era – one that changed the political landscape decisively. Regrettably, their book’s analysis of the political significance of Marikana falls short. Despite these considerable shortcomings however, The Spirit of Marikana contains sufficient detail on the events spanning 2012 to 2014 to make it a worthwhile read as a record of the events.