The roots of the industrial conflict in the North West province platinum mining belt in 2012 that led to the Marikana massacre cannot be found in the normal narrative of low wages and circular migrant labour entrenched under apartheid. Although South African miners earned far less than their equals in industrialised economies, their median wage was around twice as high as in other sectors in South Africa. Moreover, the miners’ migration to the North West platinum mines in the past decade differed significantly from the historic oscillating migrancy enforced by apartheid legislation before 1994.
This paper assesses the factors behind the prolonged strikes in 2012 and 2014. It finds that the key issues were:
- The failure to provide human settlements to accommodate the influx of miners as the mines expanded rapidly during the commodity boom,
- The levelling out of pay increases when the commodity boom came to an end in 2011, combined with profound inequalities in work organisation and remuneration which meant the miners did not believe the mines faced a squeeze, and
- The failure systematically to re-organise supervisory practices and work organisation in mining to deal with the oppression, poor communications and unjustified inequalities entrenched under apartheid.
To a large extent, the experience of the platinum belt paralleled challenges faced worldwide, as the surge in metals prices that lasted from the early 2000s through 2011 led to rapid growth in many mines in relatively remote rural areas. In the North West however, responses to these challenges by employers, workers, communities and the state built on practices and perceptions developed as part of the colonial and apartheid migrant labour system that historically centred largely on mining. Taken together, these responses failed to create living and working environments able to support either sustainable growth in platinum mining or secure, decent work and vibrant communities.