“We were only tolerated simply because our cheap labour is needed.” (Steve Biko)
The killings of 34 demonstrating mine workers in South Africa last month has several background factors, but two of them stand out: police brutality and the exploitation of workers. And they are interlinked.
The aggressiveness of the security forces’ represent the conditioning produced by the governmentality of national and international elites. Thus, the assault in Marikana, South Africa is not an isolated event, it’s a global phenomenon. One major difference is the explicitness of this event - workers usually perish in silence due to, for instance, poor health or social violence, away from the cameras.
The economics behind this governmentality propose that the labour market has to be “flexible” to the demands of “the market”. In other words, workers have to endure low incomes and poor working conditions, especially if they are easily replaced with others from the abundant labour supply. The current standstill at the Marikana mines is due to this confrontation. The striking workers threaten those that are willing to work at prevailing rates. Thus, this economics rationale also push workers to clash with each other.
Any uprising against the prevailing conditions is seen as an act of disobedience, which “disturbs the functioning of the “markets”, allegedly through, for instance, inflation jumps. Since disturbing the markets is seen almost like an original sin, the troublemakers face harsh reprisals. And so, over 300 hundred rounds of live ammunition were fired upon the desperate, angry, and alienated mine workers of the transnational corporation Lonmin, one of the largest mining companies of the world. It should be said that the level of police brutality seems to be partly attributable to vengeance - two police officers were killed in the clashes preceding the shootings of the 34 workers.
What was the demand of the workers? They demanded wage increments, from about 4,000 Rand (about USD 500) to around 12,000 Rand (about USD 1,500) per month. This 300 percent pay rise may seem out of place, but living costs of the country are constantly rising, while the platinum industry is among the world’s most profitable, and its executives are among the world’s best paid ones. UK’s High Pay Commission reports that Lonmin’s lead executive earn 113 times the average worker in the UK. This amounts to about 500 times the salary of Lonmin’s South African mine workers.
Now, allow a naive question: how can any human being’s work be valued 500 times more than someone else’s? Only an autistic economics justifies such disparities.
In the early 1970s, the legend Steve Biko did not only foresaw an imminent collapse of the Apartheid regime, but he also warned that “[i]f we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday.” (Reproduced in the book I write what I like.)
This is exactly what has happened. The simplistic and mechanistic neoclassical economics, co-opted by elitist leaders, has prevailed. The consequences are clear. The economic inequality of South Africa is one of the highest in the world (Gini index: 0.72, 2008). Today, “whites” earn more than eight times than “blacks” - an unchanged disparity since the end of Apartheid. At the concrete level, these indicators translate into appalling living conditions on the ground, in the midst of plenty.
Steve Biko pointed out that: “...for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganizing the whole economic pattern and economic policies within this particular country.” So, political liberation should coincide with economic liberation.
Steve Biko died exactly 35 years ago (12 September 1977) after days of torture at the hands of the Apartheid police. His philosophy and inspirational spirit lives on.