Peter Alexander’s ‘Marikana, turning point in South African history’

Peter Alexander’s ‘Marikana, turning point in South African history’ (Review of African Political Economy 40, 138, 605-19)

Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh, UK

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2014) ‘Peter Alexander’s ‘Marikana, turning point in South African history’ Whites Writing Whiteness and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. How do we know when we think a piece of academic writing is really good? A rough rule of thumb is whether we wish we’d written it, or something like it – pretty much the same thing, but done in our own particular way. By this measure, Peter Alexander’s ‘Marikana, turning point in South African history’ (Review of African Political Economy 40, 138, 605-19) is a very good piece of work indeed. Its core concern is with the police massacre of striking South African platinum miners in August 2012, treating this as an ‘event’ in the terms defined by sociologist of social change William Sewell ([2005] Logics of History Chicago: University of Chicago Press), as an event which Alexander suggests shows all the signs of becoming a significant turning point in South African history, although its full scale and import is still to unfold.

2. Having been in the Rustenberg area in which the plutonium mines are located and stopped off in Marikana just a few days before the strike occurred, it’s tempting but would be mistaken to interpret the hostile staring and hassling behaviour of lounging men as straws in the wind heralding the strike, for these events certainly had longer and more structural underpinnings rooted in the ownership and regulation of the mines, their labour and management relationships, and the powers and role of the South African state both post-1994 and also before this. What is particularly insightful about Alexander’s analysis is that, while not losing sight of the terrible character of the events themselves and that his interviews with the strikers show the multiple-focal character of the whys and wherefores of the strike, it also gains a convincing sociological purchase on the event itself and its longer-term causality and consequentiality.

3. So what is this sociological analytical purchase? For Sewell, an ‘event’ isn’t just things that happen, but something of a scale and significance that ‘transforms structure’ by having cumulative impact; and at the same time, he also recognises agency, and that the impact can vary between different areas and differently situated groups of people and be very patchy in consequence. This latter point is something which Alexander somewhat downplays in his more straightforwardly structural analysis and is a point on which my thinking about events is closer to Sewell’s. However, as Alexander convincingly shows, the ‘events’ at Marikana, in just the way Sewell’s theorising suggests, were actually a sequence of linked occurrences which had the effect of ‘transformation’, a major societal shift in the making. In the case of Marikana, police gunfire licensed by  an officer produced the massacre produced a resolve to continue the strike produced other strikes produced strikes beyond mining are producing other sequences still unfolding. A further interesting development of event analysis by Alexander is to bolt on Michael Burawoy’s almost in passing discussion of an analytical vantage point. For Alexander, an ‘event’ in the Sewellian sense creates the possibility of a vantage point because suddenly and with clarity revealing ‘the deeper frictions and fractures that produce and shape social transformation’ (607), and it is this, an analytical vatnage point, which his article interestingly provides.

4. There are reverberations here for the Whites Writing Whiteness project, both in terms of helping to hone the conceptual tools of a broadly conceived event-structure analysis of some key transformational points in the South African past, and, more momentously, in signifying a more critical attention from the majority population towards the ANC government which thereby may help reconfigure ‘blackness’ and its dynamics. At the moment, the project is considering carrying out analyses of events which led to transformational changes in consciousness on the part of both the black majority population and among white South Africans too. So far, project attention is on the Buxton Committee Report recommendations of 1837 leading to ‘ceded territory’ in the Eastern Cape being returned to Khosa people; the ‘Natives’ Land Act’ of 1913; forcible closure in the 1950s by the apartheid government of the multiracial Tiger Kloof school in Vryburg; the Sharpeville massacre of 1960; and the Soweto massacres of 1976; also, others may be added later to the list.

5. However, regardless of the relevance for the WWW project, Alexander’s article has its particular significance because of the social and political importance of the occurrences at Marikana and their continuing reverberations in South Africa. His insightful analysis in this article will hopefully be built on and extended in future publications.

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Last updated: 14 April 2014

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