BOOK REVIEW: German giant in the dock over its links to Marikana massacre
BASF was Lonmin’s biggest customer, yet for some time completely escaped media attention
Business as usual after Marikana
Edited by Jakob Krameritsch and Maren Grimm
The relationship between German chemical company BASF and Lonmin, and other transnational companies with business relationships that exploit workers, are explored in essays by 29 authors from Europe and SA.
Business as Usual After Marikana is an extension of the work of Plough Back the Fruits, a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) created by Jakob Krameritsch and Maren Grimm that collaborates with the widows of Marikana and has sought to hold BASF accountable for its complicity in the massacre of 2012.
“We both initiated this campaign, because we saw how European media were covering the Marikana massacre. They followed, like the SA media, the view of the police saying that the police were acting in self-defence,” Krameritsch says.
“This book is, in a way, destroying that perspective and saying that it was actually a massacre. For us it seemed important to have it in Europe in two languages [German and English], so we translated the book and during this process of translating the book and the research we did, we discovered more of less by accident that BASF is the main customer of Lonmin at the mine where the massacre happened.
“BASF was never mentioned by the media. An enterprise based in Germany, the biggest chemical enterprise worldwide in 2012, was the main customer of Lonmin and it was not in the media.
“That’s quite surprising because we are dealing with a traditional German enterprise. It was founded 150 years ago. It’s huge, it has 570 business units in 80 countries and the annual turnover is about €70bn today.”
Particularly duplicitous for Krameritsch and Grimm was that BASF presents itself as a leader in environmentalism and social awareness. BASF’s slogan reads: “We combine economic success with environmental protection and also social responsibility,” but for Krameritsch and Grimm its purpose was merely to attract business from customers who want a clear conscience.
The infamous trees of Marikana, some wind-bent, others decorated with litter and still more shade for the slain, were contrasted with the picturesque trees of Ludwigshafen, where BASF has its headquarters — a powerful parable for how far removed Lonmin’s biggest customer is.
For the two editors, their book was meant to give the story of transnational corporations and their raw-material producers a background. The book’s original title in German is, For Example, BASF.
“BASF is buying €650m each year in platinum from Marikana. Our question was, how is it possible that the people procuring one of the most valuable metals, thought of as a socially responsible company and a German role-model company, how is it possible that workers have been living and are still living in slums for decades?” says Krameritsch, a historian at Vienna’s Institute for Cultural and Media Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts.
Thanks to another NGO, Ethical Shareholders, Plough Back the Fruits has attended BASF’s annual general meeting (AGM) in Mannheim, in Germany’s picturesque south close to the Rhine, since 2015. Thousands of retired workers and shareholders attend the AGM and the board is obliged to answer questions on the annual report or those otherwise not off-topic.
“The first time in 2015 was the two of us and Bishop [Joe] Seoke and Markus Duffner, who is the chair of Ethical Shareholders, bringing the information that there is a connection with BASF and the massacre of Marikana to the public of the shareholders meeting,” says Grimm, a documentary filmmaker, author and activist based in Hamburg.
“It was meant to be a big celebration because it was the 150th anniversary of BASF and the audience was partly shocked and also upset about this, and we had their attention.”
In 2016 they collaborated for the first time with the women of Sikhala Sonke squatter camp in Marikana. Two widows of massacred workers attended the AGM later that year, telling it about their living conditions and the aftermath of August 16 2012.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), who replaced the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as the primary union representative of the workers, was present at the 2017 AGM when its head, Joseph Matunjwa, spoke. In 2018 Andries Nkome, the lawyer representing the injured and arrested workers from 2012, was part of the delegation.
Consistent attendance and an annual increase in the size of the delegation have delivered victories for the NGO. Handelsblatt, a leading German newspaper, published a piece in 2017 that used Plough Back the Fruit’s work as point of departure, and uncovered the German car industry’s dark secrets.
“Transnational corporations, as the customer, has all its own narrations. There is this concept of supply chain responsibility, which is still not binding” and is a programme by corporations aimed at merely improving their image, says Grimm.
Corporations can make commitments regarding supply chain responsibility, but there is no oversight from the state or civil society, he says. “They can say that they’re doing a lot, but what we are trying to get into [exposing] is this concept of corporate social responsibility as a tool to avoid critique.”
Plough Back the Fruits wants BASF to acknowledge its role in the conditions of mineworkers and accept being complicit in the massacre. “We want them to declare their coresponsibility for the circumstances and the living and working conditions in Marikana — they have been customers of Lonmin since apartheid times,” Grimm says.