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The meaning of Marikana

On the anniversary of a police massacre, many South Africans are asking tough questions about economic inequality.

Last Modified: 16 Aug 2013 18:08
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Riot police killed 34 people during a strike in the mining town of Marikana in August 2012 [EPA]

Marikana, South Africa - On 16 August 2012 the world watched in disbelief as police, fully kitted in riot gear and armed with semi-automatic rifles, released a spray of bullets on striking workers on the outskirts of the small mining town of Marikana in the North West province of South Africa.

Between the rocks, dry shrubs and parched earth, paramedics and forensic experts found 34 dead bodies. A further 78, injured with bullet wounds, were strewn across the field.

It was without doubt the single most brutal police operation since the end of apartheid.

South Africa was left reeling in shock. It also begged a reassessment of one of the world’s favourite stories: the miracle transition of the “Rainbow Nation”.

A year later, resentment over the events of that fateful afternoon remains fresh.

“No peace without R12,500 ($1,250),” screamed the placards at Friday’s commemoration of the massacre, referring to the original demand of the workers’ during last year’s strike.

Miners at Lonmin might have eventually scored a pay rise - historic, but predictably short of their demand - but otherwise little has changed for the workers in this mining town. This is still a community living in abysmal conditions. Discarded in illegal, makeshift tin shacks, workers live out parallel lives to the treasures they mine; existing without basics like electricity, running water and sewerage.

Residents say they continue to live on the edge and the commemoration is marked by a stoic ambiguity.

“I don’t [see] any victory [and] even though we got what we wanted, the fact that there was blood lost means we lost also,” says Luthe, who has worked at Lonmin for the past eight years.

And even as a government appointed commission of enquiry into the massacre, dubbed the Marikana Commission, restarts hearings on Monday August 19, the credibility of the Commission remains questionable. Frequent delays to the Commission have also delayed justice being served.

With elections scheduled in nine months, the ANC-led government, who snubbed the commemoration, are not only losing touch with the electorate, critics say they were inadvertently destroying the social contract with their members that made them a mostly insurmountable political player in post-apartheid South Africa.

Traumatic inequality

Despite the gains made by South Africa following the end of apartheid in 1994 - including macro-economic stability, positive economic growth, the expansion of social grants and the reduction of poverty by five percentage points - the inability to transform the economy remains the ANC-led government’s achilles heel.

Nearly two decades after the ANC was first elected, many South Africans, most of them black, are excluded from the economy.

Officially, unemployment hovers at around 25 percent. However, through the expanded definition of unemployment (those who have stopped looking for work) economists say that up to 36 percent of the population is without a job. All the while the vast economic divide is exemplified by South Africa's status as one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Severe socio-economic inequality is the inconvenient chapter in the tale of South Africa’s miracle transition from white-minority rule.

"I think we were forced to go on strike because of the working conditions and treatment that people receive from their supervisors," says Ntate Moqhathoi Lebenya, a production team leader at Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana. "Not being paid well for the hard work is the biggest thing that drove us to the street." 

Low wages, dangerous working conditions and extraordinarily low living standards are oft-repeated themes in conversations with miners and their families in Marikana. Environmental activists say the conditions in the communities surrounding the mines are generating “abnormal” and “lawless” societies.

To the people eking out a living in the sprawling shack settlements near Lonmin’s mine, the fight for dignity is fought daily. And to many it is already a lost battle.

Protest nation

Following the events at Marikana, the mining sector was gripped by an unrelenting wave of strike action between August and November 2012, as up to 100,000 workers downed tools and demanded better wages, better living conditions and more effective union representation.

As negotiations, tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades moved from Gold Fields to Anglo Gold Ashanti to Xstrata and to Anglo American Platinum, the violence left a trail of destruction: further injuries, job losses, and escalating rage. It also called on government to act as its prized sector faced escalating chaos.

The message our strike sent out there is for all the parties and citizens to open their eyes and ask themselves if we are all free. It is our grandfathers who used to be shot and beaten by the boer [whites] and even us now, we really need to think again; are we free?”

Zamekhaya Luthe, miner ,

In June 2012, President Jacob Zuma appointed his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe to lead discussions with role players in the mining industry to bring stability to the mines ahead of annual wage talks, placating investor concerns over labour unrest. This has yet to bear any results.

The headline-grabbing brutality of Marikana aside, the events in this mining town are only part of a rising culture of dissent and dissatisfaction over low living standards in South Africa.

“We have seen a 38 percent increase in the total number of protests to almost 12,000 in 2011 … and an increase by 75 percent in violent public protests to 1200 in that year alone,” says Gareth Newham, head of the crime and justice program at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS)

“This means that every day in South Africa, there are on average three violent, anti-government protests."

Professor Peter Alexander, the South African Research Chair in Social Change at the University of Johannesburg says these statistics make South Africa the “protest capital of the world”.

“Even before Marikana, we had as many protests in the first six months of 2012 in the country as there had been in previous years,” he said.

The police have been exposed to be ill equipped to deal with the outpouring of public dissent.

"We don't have the kind of leadership needed to deal with this type of complex problem. There is a heavy-handed approach, one that does not seem to be willing to be emphatic [or] negotiate, or deal with the root causes," Newham said.

Allegations of police brutality have been dismissed by the South African presidency.

"Police are confronted with very violent protests where people destroy property and threaten the life of people and sometimes causing injury or death to law abiding citizens,” says Collins Chabane, chairperson of the Inter-Ministerial Committee which has coordinated the government’s response to the events at Marikana.

“Being confronted with this situation, the police have to react in a manner that might suggest they might be using more force. But it is not the intention of the police to approach it that way," he added.

Minister Chabane called the unrest in the mining industry “a legacy of the past”.

Increasing numbers of protests are a signal of discontent on the local level, he said, rejecting suggestions that country was in the throes of a crisis.

Despite the Minister's sentiment, police brutality and volatile community relations in the country have become a recurring theme in post-apartheid South Africa.

The Marikana commission has already heard damning testimony of police brutality with at least one forensic expert questioning police intent over their decision to carry assault rifles to the scene of the strike.

Despite police evidence suggesting that some miners were armed with handguns, the South African Police Service’s disproportionate response to the assembly of striking workers in Marikana has not escaped scrutiny, eliciting comparisons with police crackdowns under apartheid.

Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst says the comparisons were unfair.

“Though there was evidence of 'a creeping intolerance', there still wasn't sufficient basis to compare police actions to those under apartheid," Fakir says. 

But this has not stopped workers from making those comparisons themselves. Lonmin miner Zamekhaya Luthe says that the strike forced people to think about the past.

“The message our strike sent out there is for all the parties and citizens to open their eyes and ask themselves if we are all free. It is our grandfathers who used to be shot and beaten by the boer [whites] and even us now, we really need to think again; are we free?” Luthe said.

Marikana exposed old wounds, leaving a nation to question how far it has actually progressed.

Despite the legitimate grievances of ordinary South Africans here in Marikana, their struggle has become yet another political battleground, as political parties and rival unions contest ownership of the grievances of the town.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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