One Year after the Marikana Massacre

What happened at Marikana? 

On 16 August 2012 a tactical response unit of the South African police shot and killed 34 striking workers and seriously wounded at least 78 others, who were part of a peaceful gathering on public land near the town of Marikana in North West Province.

The strike began a week before, when rock drill operators elected representatives to negotiate with management of Lonmin mine, the third-largest platinum mine in the world. Workers no longer trusted their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), to negotiate on their behalf. They demanded that management should talk to them. Management insisted it would only talk to NUM.

Many of us have seen television images, showing workers apparently charging at the police as the police approach the mountain on which the strikers were gathered. The police had placed razor wire around the entire area occupied by the strikers. According to eye-witnesses, the police used tear gas and stun grenades to force the workers towards the one gap left in the razor wire. Some workers may have panicked as they saw armed police approaching and tried to get away. As they emerged from the gap in the razor wire, twelve workers were shot dead, some by the police in front of them (as shown on TV) and others apparently from behind.

Most of the fatal shootings took place at Klein Koppie, some distance away from the TV cameras. Workers there were shot dead at close range, execution style. Survivors say that police killed strikers who were attempting to surrender. Police video footage, taken from a helicopter overhead, is inexplicably missing.

In the days and weeks after the massacre, the Marikana community remained under siege. The strike continued, despite threats and warnings. Protests were dispersed. Permission was refused for Marikana women to hold a march. 270 survivors of the massacre were arrested and charged, first with public violence, and then with “common purpose” murder of their comrades. These charges were later suspended, but not withdrawn. A local ANC councillor who sided with the Marikana workers, Paulina Masuthlo, was shot dead by police during a protest in September.

The strikes spread to other mines in the platinum belt and throughout the mining areas of South Africa. In the end, mining companies dropped their insistence on negotiating with unions only and negotiated with the workers themselves, leading to major wage increases. Marikana workers won a 22% increase. President Zuma appointed a judicial commission of enquiry, which has been sitting for ten months now, but has yet to reach any conclusion. The basic conditions that led to the massacre continue.

A democratic massacre . . . 

There have been many massacres in South African history, including some now commemorated by public holidays. But the Marikana massacre is different from all of them and from any other event in South African history. It is our first “democratic” massacre—that is, the first time a government has given the go-ahead for a massacre of the black workers who fought for the overthrow of apartheid and voted the ANC into power; the people for whom they are supposedly providing a better life. 

White-minority governments massacred black protestors—for example, at Sharpeville in 1960, and Soweto in 1976. But these massacres were the result of an open conflict of political aims and vision. White-minority governments regarded the views of black protestors as dangerous, but at least they recognized that they had political views.  When the ANC government oversees the massacre of black strikers at Marikana, in contrast, they are attacking the people whose political views and aspirations they are elected to represent. Their actions are dressed up as democratic, but the massacre itself is the negation of democracy. 

In effect, the massacre tries to improve that the ANC and its allies hold political views on behalf of the back working class, who must be prevented from speaking or acting for themselves. For the democratic massacre to take place, the strikers must be seen as outside society, politics and the law. Thus, Cyril Ramaphosa—once general secretary of NUM, then a billionaire and a director and major shareholder in Lonmin, who became deputy president of the ANC a few months after the massacre—emailed the day before the massacre that the actions of the Marikana strikers were “plainly dastardly criminal” and called on government to treat it in that way. 

In a similar vein, the national police commissioner Riah Phiyega congratulated the police unit responsible for the massacre on a job well done. ANC and SACP leaders were not as crude, but kept up a stream of insinuation that the workers were dangerous fanatics, backward and unreasoning. They drew attention to muti rituals that took place just before the massacre, as if this was the real scandal. The National Prosecuting Authority then played its part by ordering the arrest of surviving strikers on charges of common-purpose murder, who were beaten and tortured while awaiting trial. Even after charges were suspended, they were not released for some time while police were supposedly verifying their addresses.

Along with slandering the victims of the massacre, it was also necessary to pretend that they were being treated as citizens of a democracy. Thus, President Zuma eventually announced a week of national mourning. But he refused to say who was being mourned or to send a single government representative to a funeral. The week of mourning was an excuse for the refrain that “this is not the time to point fingers”. The ANC National Executive adopted a resolution on the “tragedy” of Marikana, making no mention of police shootings—as if miners had died in a flood or an earthquake.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, some days after the massacre, found her own way of recognizing the mineworkers as fellow-citizens, with all the responsibilities that entailed and above all the task of supporting the government in a moment of crisis. She told workers the massacre was “not something to our liking” and begged them to “find forgiveness in your hearts.” In this upside-down version of reality, mineworkers had to play their part in saving cabinet ministers from the embarrassment of their deaths. 

Then Cyril Ramaphosa chose to apologize—but not for the massacre, not for making millions as a Lonmin shareholder and director while mineworkers suffered, not for the refusal of Lonmin to meet with workers during the strike. Instead, he apologized for his R18 million bid for a buffalo for his game farm, calling it “an excessive price in a sea of poverty”. He may have thought he was demonstrating his solidarity with the impoverished in this way. In reality, he was making amends to the privileged elite for flaunting his wealth too brazenly. Ramaphosa was duly elected Deputy President of the ANC at Mangaung some months later.

Media and analysts played their part. Mineworkers and their families were shown on TV only when men were chanting together, with knobkieries in the air, or when women were weeping for the dead or missing. According to one report no more than 3 % of media reports gave the views of any of the workers or communities impacted by the massacre. Many analysts took as their main theme the problem of investor confidence. Evidence of the murder of workers attempting to surrender to the police—reported mainly in the Daily Maverick—was ignored, as if murder is justified when workers are in conflict with the needs of corporate profit and ANC allies, such as NUM.

. . . and a constitutionalist cover-up

A massacre that had taken place in full view of a global TV audience could not be covered up in the sense of pretending it had never happened. Instead, there has been a process of justification, cover-up, trivialization and distortion of what happened there. No-one actively denies that the massacre took place. But political parties, media and civil society have tacitly agreed not to talk about it, to act as if it didn’t happen, or pretend that whatever happened doesn’t really matter.

We ignore the massacre so that we can maintain the illusion of democracy. In the process, real democracy is sacrificed or kept at bay.

The suggestion that the massacre was justified by the criminality of its victims was the first line of distortion. It’s true that criminals do not always have the same rights as other citizens in a democracy. But criminality has to be proved by something more than the email allegation of a billionaire mine-owner against striking mineworkers. Traditional customs are not criminal offences. Although the strike was unprotected, there is no such thing as an illegal strike in South African law. The distortion of events around the Marikana massacre adopts the style of constitutionalism, but its substance is invented from moment to moment rather than being decided in a constitutional court.

The Farlam Commission, appointed to advise President Zuma, has added to the confusion. It has gone around in circles for ten months, without attempting to establish the basic facts from people directly involved on that day. In her testimony, the police commissioner claimed that it cannot be established how the striking workers died.

During the commission’s protracted hearings several witnesses have already been murdered. Millions of taxpayer’s rands have been spent on lawyers representing the police and the government, while funding for lawyers for mineworkers is treated as someone else’s responsibility. The illusion of constitutional rights is upheld by endless legal procedures, which become a façade behind which the substance of those rights is conjured away.

Compare the speed with which the government investigated breaches of procedure which led to the Gupta family landing their chartered jet, carrying guests to a family wedding at Sun City, at Waterkloof military base in April 2013. Civil servants were ordered to investigate a set of intrigues that had taken place behind closed doors over months and report back within seven days. If the government had seriously wanted to establish who had given the instructions that led to the massacre, they could have done so within that time or less, instead of obfuscating for a year since then. 

The brazen conduct of the Gupta family showed who called the shots in their relationship with the ANC government. This was felt as an embarrassment and humiliation by ANC leaders, and had to be addressed with an urgency entirely lacking in relation to Marikana. The plain truth revealed by the Marikana massacre—and brought into sharp relief by the contrast with Guptagate—is that the murder of mineworkers is a price which the new South African elite are willing to pay for the continuation of their privilege.


A turning point for South Africa? 

The Farlam Commission is largely an attempt to buy time, initially to delay public debate until after the ANC conference at Mangaung. It will also provide a way of selecting a scapegoat to take the blame for the massacre—most likely Riah Phiyega, who may well return to the world of business before long, and perhaps later to a mining company boardroom. 

If the Farlam Commission has a legitimate purpose it is to discover the causes of the massacre, in order to make sure something like that never happens again. By doing that, it would enable the new ruling elite—the ANC, its allies and the big corporations—to turn back from the path that led to this deadly confrontation. But this is not what is happening. For that new elite, there is no turning back. 

This became evident in mid-2013, after NUM lost its majority status in the mines,  and ANC leaders renewed their attacks and threats against mineworkers organized outside NUM. Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande called AMCU—the union many of the mineworkers had joined—vigilantes and liars. Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu described them as part of a plot to destroy the ANC. Cyril Ramaphosa said that no other union but NUM should exist in North West Province. These threats were followed by a new round of killings in the region. 

The threats ended only with the fall of the rand, driven partly by investor concerns about mining profits. But that is not to say that life has returned to normal in Marikana or throughout the mining regions—not that normal life is anything that a democratic government can take pride in. But they give a good indication of the road that is being reconnoitred by the ANC. They may take it more gradually this time, but when they do, they will very likely have the backing of it’s the SACP and COSATU, most opposition parties, the big corporations and much of the media. It will probably not produce the global images and headlines that followed Marikana—so disturbing for investors and harmful for the government’s image—but may be just as bloody in the long run, out of sight of the TV cameras. 

The cover-up of what happened in plain sight there prepares the way for further repression and—as threatened recently by ANC leaders—a society in which multi-party democracy and constitutional rights apply to a minority of privileged or well-connected citizens, while the majority are subjected to an effective one-party state and rule by the gun. It prepares the way for a state and society which preserves the pretence of democracy and non-racialism and using them as a pretext for perpetuating the oppression of the majority. 

Marikana marks a turning point in South African history. It will either lead to growing repression in civil society and the workplace, to recreate an apartheid order now under non-racial rule, or it will lead to the growing realization among the mass of the oppressed and exploited that they can no longer rely on the promises of their rulers and must organize both to defend the political gains they have made since the end of apartheid and to create a social order that embodies the freedom they fought for under the banner of the ANC. 

The second road begins with recognizing and clarifying the meaning and consequences of the massacre that took place at Marikana on 16 August 2012. It begins by hearing the voices of the Marikana mineworkers and their communities. 

Andrew Nash is associate professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town and author of The Dialectical Tradition in South Africa

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