Marikana exposes South Africa’s disconnect

The scale of brutality might be novel to post-apartheid South Africa, but the deadly story is not altogether new.

One need not engage experts, textbooks or fortune-tellers to gather the disconnect of the struggles of Marikana from Johannesburg, the bleeding economic heart of South Africa.
A mere drive from the wide roads of the flamboyant OR Tambo airport, selling another life on its billboards, to the vibrant streets of the inner city – with its African migrants pawning Chinese goods – and on to the dizzy dilapidation of the Hillbrow precinct, the scale of South Africa’s wealth gap is made abundantly clear.
Journey to Marikana and the divide seems complete.

The road is beset with fancy tourist resorts, African cultural villages (hire a Zulu to dress up and dance for you), the dry but plush Pecan Wood golf estate, well-tended roads that hold you to its bosom en route to the biggest apartheid relic of them all: Sol Kerzer’s Sun City.
But inside Marikana – between the huge electricity pylons, the smelting chimney of the mines, and the courteous safety signs of the mining company – the workers who risk their lives underground live in tin shacks, without running water or electricity, along dirt roads overrun in parts by cattle, and dung.
While Johannesburg’s streets remain frenetic machines spawning kingmakers and debt-ridden losers alike, it is the country’s mines – gold, diamonds and platinum – that have traditionally made South Africa one of the engines of the continent.
Despite this fact, miners, working in often appalling conditions – covered in lime and drenched in carbon monoxide – have endured harsh and unsung lives for their part in the journey of the mineral – from discovery to export.
Until now, it would seem. But don’t be fooled.
The killing of 34 miners by police in Marikana last month might have cast a light over this hidden segment of the population, but the story has already moved beyond these nameless cogs in the grand machine.

Mining is historically synonymous with tragedy in the country and it would appear South Africans have a short memory.
In 1956, 816 miners died in accidents in South African mines, 732 miners lost their lives in 1959, while in 1960, 435 miners were killed in one day alone in what became known as the “Coalbrook” mine disaster.
While safety has improved drastically in South African mines, with the onset of deeper excavation and tighter budgets, real, predictable safety in such an industry is really a cuss word.
Last year, 123 miners perished in the country’s mines without eliciting even a whimper from anyone.
But predictably, local and national public outrage over the deaths of the 34 men has dwarfed the outrage of the everyday random deaths of men – who don’t make it up the shaft at the end of their shift.
And now, as questions swirl over police brutality, of disingenuous methods of crowd control, of allegations of point blank shootings in the small koppie boulders area (which the community use as a toilet), and of the draconian apartheid-style tactics of arrest and torture of striking miners – an intriguing narrative of a failed leadership, and a selfish elite profiting from the political transformation has been cultivated.
Granted that the scale of this particular tale of violence and unrest is indeed a novel event in the history of post-Apartheid South Africa, none of it is altogether new.
The fact is, the miners of Marikana, like miners across the country, have always lived lives vastly disconnected to the wealth around them, have always suffered the violence of anonymous, silent deaths underground.
Only this time, some of the ghastly violence meted out on August 16 involved guns, bullets and real-time death within shot of television crews – the type of violence that would prompt outrage from even the most sensitised of publics.
And so the daily travails of miners living in Marikana – of unhealthy living, poor hygiene and ugly deaths become the focus of yet more TV cameras, prowling reporters and documentary filmmakers – crawling around the maze of shacks in the informal settlements to tell ‘the story’.
And yet, it’s a story we’ve known all along.

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa

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