When the shocking news broke of the deaths of 34 South African miners at the Lonmin Platinum mine at Marikana, police the government and mine owners were immediately condemned for the shocking loss of life. But is this all there is to the story?
Digital Journal and international media immediately jumped on two points: Why did police use live ammunition on striking miners and that the miners were receiving only around 4000 Rands, or about $500 a month.
Conclusions drawn were simple, as well as simplistic. Greedy, rich mine-owners were colluding with the greedy government in squeezing the miners and when they – quite correctly – demonstrated, the heartless government-corporate machine had them gunned down by police.
Actually, there is a great deal that lies behind this event, none of it covered either by the inaccurate reports, Tweets or Facebook messages and made even worse by the editing out of background facts.
Firstly, South Africa has been moving in a direction of increased violence, despite strengthened and better-trained police. This is a result of disgruntled voters, who feel unable to vote for anyone other than the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The governing party has mastered the art of “bread and games” and offers potential voters parties and plenty of beer, and creates a festive atmosphere during elections. Government decisions that have effectively destroyed the education and health systems have added to inequality, which is among the highest in the world.
Electoral issues are avoided.
As a result, when government promises do not come true, voters turn to violence, which is now becoming endemic in poor areas and some rural areas. So-called “service delivery protests”, which means protests (rightly) demanded housing, sanitation, water and other amenities promised by the ANC quickly turn violent, and bystanders are often injured or killed.
This does not make the international headlines.
At the Lonmin Mine at Marikana, near Rustenburg, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north west of Johannesburg, two trade unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) a large, established union, battled it out with AMCU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, an unrecognised, splinter group.
Crispen Chinguno, an industrial relations researcher at the University of Witwatersrand told the Mail and Guardian weekly:
It's very difficult to build a very strong worker solidarity… so you use violence to bring them together. Violence becomes a tool to achieve worker solidarity.
In the week before the well-known shootings on Thursday, August 16, the two unions had been fighting it out. The mine management was apparently unable to contain the violence and called in the police. Two police members were killed by violent union members, one almost decapitated by a panga , the South African sugar-cane cutting knife, known internationally as the machete.
It struck observers that the pangas were new. This is currently under investigation. A total of 10 people were killed in the inter-union violence, and this did not make headlines. Nor did groups like Occupy strike in sympathy, either with the dead police members or the miners and security guards killed. Workers who preferred not to strike were also attacked. No sympathy for them, either, it seems.
The strike, when it began, was done outside of the law and collective bargaining procedures. There was no strike balloting, no wage demands or improvement in working conditions were made, instead, the strikers simply went on a rampage, armed with pangas and fighting sticks and other “traditional weapons”.
These were no peaceful demonstrators wanting better wages. These were men who had been given “muti” (magic) and believed if the police shot at them, they would be unhurt. Iafrica reported what miner Bulelani Malawana told a reporter:
"After they got the muti, people were so aggressive. They just wanted to fight. They felt so invincible. I was offered it for R1000. I turned it down as I didn't believe in it."
The report also makes it clear the illegal strikers were getting ready to attack the police.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) reported the police had to go in to break up the wildcat strike as it was illegal and when the strikers took up position on a hill near the mine, they had to be dispersed and either sent back to work or sent home.
So a stand-off ensued. Police were called from neighbouring towns (which would later cause a major problem) and tried to cordon them off with wire. The BBC said tear gas and water cannon failed to break up the crowd and when the police tried to disperse them, the estimated 3,000 men got violent, broke through the wire and attacked the police.
The police fired in self-defence.
At a media breakfast at the South African Army College last week, the tragedy was discussed by those at my table as well as elsewhere. A senior officer from Special Forces wanted to know:
“How would you feel if you were one of those cops?”
He reckoned they must have been terrified. A senior editor opined that the problem was a lack of Command and Control among the police, caused by the fact that they were not a single unit and had been called in from different places, as well as a lack of proper training for this kind of extreme violence. Of course, I think if European police had been there, they would all have been killed, while police from the US (heavily armed) would likely not have caused 34 deaths, but closer to 340.
He added that international media were incorrectly reporting the pay as being around $500, whereas in fact it was more than double that, adding he had had sight of payslips.
I subsequently checked this and it is, sadly, true. Well-known South African political analyst Nic Boraine points this out in his blog and PoliticsWeb goes into great detail showing how the average wage of a platinum Rock Drill Operator was more than double that claimed by the media, a figure similar to that referred to by the editor I spoke to, around 10,000 Rands, which is about $1,250 US dollars.
That is not a king’s ransom, but it’s more than I earn and qualifies as a “living wage”.
There is also the problem of Mangaung. This is the place where the ANC is to elect its new leadership. Unlike in most parliamentary democracies, the public does not elect representatives or deputies or Members of Parliament (MPs). Instead, people vote for a given party, which then get so many seats in the National Assembly.
Also, the president is not directly elected, as in the US, for instance, or France. Rather, the ANC/South African Communist Party (SACP)/Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) “collective” decide who will be the president, and then the president appoints cabinet.
Not entirely democratic, in my view. It also bothers many observers (including this one) that neither the SACP nor COSATU ever stand for general elections, yet they get to choose and even become cabinet ministers.
It is this rather shaky democratic system that is further undermined by the power struggles within the ANC and why it is these internal struggles, not the will of the voters that will decide whether President Jacob Zuma will still have a job after Mangaung in December.
Not surprisingly, right after the tragedy, disgraced former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema was at Marikana, hoping to get support for his political rebirth.
So what went wrong? That is the question all over South Africa today. In my opinion, the causes are the following:
. A culture of violence during demonstrations and the carrying of deadly weapons, like machetes and fighting sticks.
. A lack of stiff action while the trade unions fought each other. If trouble-makers had been arrested and terms had been made clear to the miners by the police and if the mine management had shown a more humane approach to their grievances, the wildcat strike could have been avoided.
. Training in tactics to handle extreme violence. It is difficult to say exactly what the police should have done that they didn’t do, but extensive use of water cannons (there are only 10 in the whole of South Africa) and more complete fencing-in of the rioters would have helped.
Ultimately, though, when thousands of angry, sometimes drugged men who believe magic will make them invincible, decide to fight, there will be bloodshed.
The question is not whether there would have been bloodshed or not, but whether there would have been 34 miners or 34 police members dead on the dry earth of Marikana.
The answer is not to allow things to escalate to this level.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com