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  • Marikana and the limits of biopolitics:Themes in the recent scholarship of South African mining
  • Keith Breckenridge (bio)
Peter Alexander, Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope and Luke Sinwell, Marikana: a view from the mountain and a case to answer. Auckland Park: Jacana Media (pb R108 – 978 1 43140 733 0). 2012, 144 pp.
Don L. Donham, Violence in a Time of Liberation: murder and ethnicity at a South African gold mine, 1994. Durham NC: Duke University Press (pb $22.95 – 978 0 82234 485 3). 2011, 256 pp.
Philip Frankel, Between the Rainbows and the Rain: Marikana, migration, mining and the crisis of modern South Africa. Johannesburg: Agency for Social Reconstruction (pb £18.95 – 978 0 62057 814 1). 2013, 196 pp.
Bernard Mbenga and Andre W Manson. ‘People of the Dew’: a history of the Bafokeng of Phokeng-Rustenburg Region, South Africa, from early times to 2000. Auckland Park: Jacana (pb $39 – 978 1 77009 825 1). 2010, 224 pp.

Despite our jaded familiarity with very high levels of public violence the police massacre of mineworkers at Marikana in August 2012 came as a physical shock to South Africans. The events seemed in so many ways to be a surreal flashback to a repudiated past; from the grim video footage of police armoured vehicles, tear gas and barbed wire to the bent-over groups of men, proudly displaying what the Inkatha Freedom Party used to call traditional weapons. There were undeniable differences, of course: the presence of uncontrolled videographers on the site not the least amongst them. Yet, in the months that followed the massacre, it has become increasingly clear that Marikana was much less a return to the politics of apartheid than a symptom of the preservation of deeply formed structures of politics within the mining industry. We had, in short, little justification for our surprise. [End Page 151]

In this essay I will review four books, two published immediately in the wake of the massacre and two shortly before it. Interestingly the books emphasize quite distinct themes, which suggests that understanding the political and social crisis of mining in South Africa, and of the platinum belt in particular, requires a careful act of synthesis. I think that this can be done. What combines all of these different issues and problems is a radically constrained pattern of governance both in the mines and around them: below ground workers face brutal, exhausting and very dangerous work; above ground many of them live out their lives in polluted, informal, dangerous and unregulated shack settlements. The pool of beneficiaries from mining is narrowly restricted to a small group of share and royalty owners (even if this group is very significantly different from its counterpart a generation ago). Under the current arrangements in the platinum belt there is almost no movement of resources from mining to the wider problem of maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of the general population working in the mines. Mine managers have retreated from maintaining order and health in the hostels, and they have ceded control over the key human resource questions – employment and housing – to union officials and their allies. Like foreign shareholders and local royalty owners, these union leaders, using their monopoly over jobs and housing, have tapped into the demand for employment to enrich themselves (often at the expense of the working and living conditions of union members). Local government – caught between the mines and the prerogatives of tribal authorities – has all but abandoned the project of regulating the living spaces around the mines. The crisis in the contemporary mining industry, and especially in the platinum mines (unlike the older gold mines) is a failure of governance, and especially of the forms of knowledge-driven authority that Foucault called biopower, the administrative rules and practices derived from medicine and statistics that are aimed at maintaining the well-being of entire national populations. The horrible events at Marikana were both caused by and examples of the systematic failure of biopolitics in the region around the platinum mines. In the simplest possible terms – and contrary to the insurrectionist enthusiasm that the event has encouraged on the Left – the killings at Marikana marked the logical (and predicted...


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