What began as a typically grating labour dispute between unions and a mining magnate over poor wages and working conditions - the daily grist of fragile labour relations in South Africa - turned quickly into a week of violent clashes with police, talk of death threats and sporadic killings.
And then came the game changer.
Thirty-four striking miners were killed and scores more were wounded when police unleashed a spray of bullets at the assembled crowd outside the Lonmin-owned platinum mine at Marikana on Thursday, in what is being described as the most violent police operation since the end of apartheid.
Confusion over the finer details of the shooting still abounds, but just days later, scrutiny of the shooting itself pales against the more probing questions of the real character of South Africa that it has exposed.
In fact, scrutiny has now fallen on the incongruities of post-apartheid South Africa - perhaps more closely than ever before.
With the aid of the perhaps illusionary rhetoric of "the new South Africa" that is hard at work tackling an ever widening income inequality gap, a rampant rate of gender violence and a stubborn culture of corruption, the ANC-led government has been able to choreograph a compelling narrative of satisfactory growth, multicultural reconciliation, and political stability, at the tip of a continent that many perceive as locked into a spiral of poverty, exploitation and ruthless mismanagement.
In apparent reward for rescuing itself from Apartheid without too much fuss, South Africa punches far above its weight in world politics. The country's inclusion into the BRICS club of emerging economies, its membership to the G20, two stints as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and, most recently, its successful election to the chair of the AU Commission, all go to illustrate South Africa's growing clout on the world stage.
But for millions of disenfranchised South Africans, the country's gleaming global image is at sharp odds with a more harsh reality, says Andile Mngxitama, a prominent columnist and editor of the New Frank Talk
"The gloss of [hosting] the FIFA World Cup was always an attempt to communicate a different story of what was happening on the ground," he told Al Jazeera.
"Now the world has caught a glimpse of this other reality."'Abnormal country'
Despite being classified as an upper-middle income country by the World Bank, unemployment in South Africa sits between 25 and 36 per cent. An estimated 50 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line
said that seven out of ten children
live in homes that endure severe poverty. The group also discussed a set of circumstances that places the country in an unlikely position to be able to reunite its diverging societies of rich and poor.
Then in June, the World Bank applied its newly developed Human Opportunity Index to South Africa and the results were far from flattering
While the report lauded the impressive gains made in access to primary education, electricity and telecommunications, it noted as well that the spatial effects of Apartheid still determined how well these services were actually distributed.
President Jacob Zuma himself has alluded to failed economic transformation when he said
, also in June 2012: "The structure of Apartheid-era economy has remained largely intact."
The disparate world of rampant inequality, where the black majority continues to live in an apparent disconnect from the vision of the new dispensation, was echoed widely in angry editorials of the The Sowetan
magazine, the morning after the shooting.The Sowetan
described South Africa as "an abnormal country … where the value of human life, especially that of the African, continues to be meaningless", while Amandla
said the tragedy "sums up the shallowness of transformation".
It is the narrative of transformation, South Africa's ability to emerge from an ugly past through negotiations and reconciliation that has been abruptly torn asunder by events in Marikana this week.
"The lack of humanity on both sides is a slap in the face of what we thought was possible," explained Ari Sitas, sociology lecturer at the University of Cape Town.
Similarly, Lubna Nadvi, an activist and lecturer in politics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal told Al Jazeera: "The underbelly will rear its ugly head every once in a while, if the country's real problems are left unaddressed."
While the world hails South Africa as the definitive gateway to Africa, encouraging the country to assert its clout more prominently across the continent, a growing discontent lurking beneath the surface has been brushed aside. Low-income suburbs are crippled by an overwrought electrical grid; dusty townships remain lawless and insecure, and up to 12 million South Africans live in slums
, where they face poor sanitation, barriers to water access and attacks on human dignity.
"Many communities protesting against poor service delivery suffer police repression and excessive state violence on a daily basis," Mngxitama said.
South African police say they were acting in self-defence at Marikana on Thursday, but the scale of the damage, recorded in part by television cameras, has once more set off alarm bells concerning the capacity of the police and a perception among some regarding their inclination towards violence. In 2011, police behaviour was highlighted when community leader Andries Tatane died after a beating, reportedly at the hands of police, during a protest in Ficksburg in the Free State.
Sipho Hlongwane, political correspondent at Daily Maverick, said that the most shocking aspect of the Marikana incident was the reportedly slow response of the police and authorities.
"This incident did not come out of the blue, like perhaps the [Andries] Tatane incident … it was brewing for a week. Ten people had already died and still the police and authorities did nothing," he said.
"Many communities protesting against poor service delivery suffer police repression and excessive state violence on a daily basis ... The ANC will stop at nothing to defend the narrow interests of the political elite."
- Andile Mngxitama, New Frank Talk
"The ANC will stop at nothing to defend the narrow interests of the political elite."
Hlongwane's observation is particularly significant when viewed in the context of police operations at community protests in recent years.A study
[PDF] by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) titled The smoke that calls,
completed in 2011, focused on xenophobic violence and community protests in South Africa over the past decade, and found that police were either guilty of responding too late or found to have "escalated confrontation and tension", including "incidents of assault and allegations of torture against suspected protest leaders".
The frequent incidence of community protests against local government and the slow rate of service delivery has been one manifestation of a rising anger with the ruling ANC for inadequately representing the needs of the country's poor.
But even as President Zuma calls for an inquiry into the Marikana shootings, many believe that it is a dissatisfaction with the ANC and its trade union partner COSATU - the biggest labour confederation in the country - to adequately take up the plight of the country's marginalised that first fed the rise of renegade youth leader Julius Malema, and the creation of rivals to COSATU.
That so many workers "left" the National Union of Mineworkers, an affiliate of COSATU, to support the rival Association of Mineworkers and Constrution Union in an "illegal" strike in lieu of higher wages is indicative of the sheer desperation felt by many miners.
"The danger here is that COSATU appears to be failing to convince people that they can speak for their needs adequately," Hlongwane said.
He is, however, reluctant to stress dissatisfaction with the ANC as an undercurrent of events in Marikana this week.
"I try to resist pushing this incident into a larger narrative of the ANC government not caring and not responding to the needs of the people - [but] their poor response ties into this," said Hlongwane. "Though I do think we should look at this company and where bargaining processes went wrong."
President Zuma cut short a trip to Mozambique to visit Marikana on Friday, but lecturer Sitas said the inquiry he announced is unlikely to reveal the greater causes of the incident.
"The commission will have a hard time in arriving at anything sensible," he said. "They will be obsessing about who fired the first bullet."
"The commission will have a hard time in arriving at anything sensible ... They will be obsessing about who fired the first bullet."
- Ari Sitas, University of Cape Town
The bigger dilemma, it would appear, is understanding how the increasing drudgery of the working class towards traditional union leadership, for long seen as the vanguard of the social and economic interests of workers in South Africa, will affect the ANC's most reliable voter base.
And it is within this context of job vulnerability - in which people are made to feel insecure - that workers must choose sides.
"Either you are compliant or rebellious or, often, there is an oscillation between the two," Sitas said.
However bullish COSATU has become in South African politics, trading influence with government over real bargaining power on the shopfloor, as Sitas described it, or building a worker aristocracy, as Mngxitama calls it, workers aren't likely to reject the ANC just yet.
"There is a mismatch between reality that sees people vote for the ANC, and the ANC-led government's inability to deliver promises," Mngxitama said.
But it won't always remain this way.
The comparisons of Thursday's incident with the Sharpeville massacre
of 1960 - when apartheid police shot and killed 69 black protesters - are already doing the rounds; so too, have parallels been drawn with the North African and Arab uprisings.
Not so fast, Sitas interjects.
"This is still our government, not a [Hosni] Mubarak government. I do not see it as dramatic as Egypt. The comparison with Sharpeville - in terms of firepower - could be equated, but it is irresponsible to say it is the same thing."
Nevertheless, the incident at the Lonmin mine in Marikana this week may signal the end of the world's honeymoon with "the miracle" of post-Apartheid South Africa.
"The world is watching," Nadvi concluded. "They probably don't fully understand what they have just witnessed, but they know now that there are some serious issues here."