South Africa: A throwback to the past, a shock for the future

Police killed 44 striking miners at a platinum mine in South Africa on August 16.

Thirty-four miners were killed and 78 wounded when police opened fire at Marikana, near Rustenburg [AFP]
Thirty-four miners were killed and 78 wounded when police opened fire at Marikana, near Rustenburg [AFP]

Johannesburg, South Africa – No event in recent years has so shocked “the new South Africa” as an event eerily reminiscent of the past: the massacre of striking mine workers last week by police who fired in fear when armed workers marched on them.

No event has so shaken the African National Congress government as this seeming replay of the use of bloody force in a country where the trade union federation is in an alliance with the government, and workers are considered “comrades” by the people in power.

Distraught wives and family members of the slain miners are still seeking information after the incident at the Lonmin Platninum mine at Marikana, near Rustenburg. Forty-four died and 78 were wounded when police opened fire.

Some of the women have been singing an old, haunting Xhosa protest hymn often heard in the fight against apartheid called “Senzenina”: “What have we done – why do we deserve this?”

 Police open fire on South African miners

President Jacob Zuma, a former guerilla leader in the African National Congress’ armed struggle, announced an investigation, saying it was a “cornerstone of hard-won democracy to allow for protests” and deeming the event “shocking” and unacceptable”.

The focus on the police and its clear over-reaction misses the deeper questions being raised about the failure of his own government to intervene in the conflict earlier with mediation as workers estranged from their own unions – and revolting against their own leaders, got angrier and angrier in a confrontation that led to violence.

“The problem here,” a former prominent leader of COSATU, the South African trade union federation, told me, “is that the government was using poorly trained police to handle political issues that police are unequipped to resolve”.

Other critics have been louder, including South Africa’s Nobel laureate for literature, Nadine Gordimer, who said she was “devastated. I can’t believe this terrible massacre between our own people, our own black people,” she said in an interview. “Ghastly, completely unacceptable.”?

World reaction has been equally intense. South African newspapers have been quoting a global peace and justice organisation in New Zealand as saying that President Jacob Zuma and the ANC-led government had “blood on their hands”.

Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, an American labour federation, said he was “appalled” and that “once again, mineworkers who produce so much wealth under often dangerous daily working conditions have paid the highest price – their lives in a completely avoidable industrial conflict”.

This “industrial conflict” has now become a political one. Julius Malema, the controversial former ANC youth league leader and Zuma critic, who was expelled for extreme and irresponsible statements, has encouraged more confrontation in fiery speeches to workers.

Many here see this tragedy as avoidable, but that may be too simplistic. As the gap between the poor in South Africa and their leaders grows, the ANC seems increasingly distant and elitist, if not corrupt, to a majority struggling at the bottom of the social ladder.

Years ago, under the administration of former President Thabo Mbeki, the ANC’s organising department was shut down, ensuring less participation by what has always been a dynamic mass movement and intensifying an estrangement and lack of discipline in the ranks. Trust in leaders and organisational structures has dipped as workers and the poor find it harder to make the money they need to survive.

The workers at the centre of this dispute are what are called rock drillers, who work at the rockface deep in the earth in the most dirty and dangerous of jobs. Journalist Greg Marinovich wrote on the Daily Maverick that these workers are terribly underpaid. “Imagine earning 4,000 rand a month ($480) deep underground for a metal that powers rich people’s cars and bejeweled fingers that have never laboured.”

Massacres like the ones at Sharpeville in the 1960s and Bhisho and Boipatong in the 1990s became turning points for the political struggle in South Africa.  The massacre at Marikana may became a new symbol in the fight against an economic apartheid that many condemn today in South Africa.

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at NewsDissector.net. His latest books are Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street and Blogothon (Cosimo Books). He also hosts a programme on Progressive Radio Network.

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