The leader of the breakaway Associated Mine and Construction Workers Union, Joseph Mathunjwa, was in tears as he related how he had pleaded with the thousands of striking miners who had been squatting on the Wonderkop hill for a week at Lonmin's Marikana mine in South Africa's dry North West. "I pleaded with them - (I told them) the writing is on the wall, they are going to kill you." For there was no doubt that the police meant business.
Earlier in the week two policemen had been slashed to death, another hospitalized and seven other people killed. The police were in a grim mood, wore bulletproof vests and metal helmets, were armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and had brought a whole fleet of Nyala armoured cars with them. They had announced that Thursday was D-day, that whatever happened the protest would be forcibly ended that day. In the end about 200 of the men rushed down at the police who fired indiscriminately at them, killing 34, injuring 78. Another 259 were arrested.
The director of the South African Institute of Race Relations, John Kane-Burman immediately compared the event to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. There was, he said, "clear evidence that policemen shot randomly into the crowd. There is also clear evidence of their continuing to shoot after a number of bodies can be seen dropping and others turning to run." But this time the Left was in favour of the massacre.
Dominic Tweedie of the Communist University, Johannesburg, commented "This was no massacre, this was a battle. The police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to. That's what they have them for. The people they shot didn't look like workers to me. We should be happy. The police were admirable." The Communist Party's North West section demanded the arrest of AMCWU's Muthunjwa and his deputy, James Kholelile.
"The troubles at the mine have their root in the ongoing disintegration of the National Union of Mineworkers", says Charles Van Onselen, a leading labour historian."The NUM is the biggest union and its leaders provide the labour federation, Cosatu, the Communist Party and the African National Congress with many of their leaders. So this is the entire spinal column of the ANC alliance which is fragmenting. The police have been quite routinely tolerant of violence - as during the xenophobic riots when over 60 were killed - but this time they drewa line in the sand because that is what the NUM and the ANC wanted. You'll note the complete absence of modern police methods of riot control."
The last time an NUM leader attempted to address the Marikana workers he was stoned and lost an eye. Thus this time the NUM leader was only willing to speak through a megaphone from the safety of a police armoured car. He spoke somewhat disparagingly of the workers, saying they were mainly uneducated and backward tribesmen from Lesotho and the Transkei because "township boys" were unwilling to do the dreadfully hard and dangerous workof rock-diggers miles beneath the ground.
"The fact that the locals don't want the mine jobs mean the mines depend on migrant workers", says Van Onselen. "That means mining hostels, which greatly reinforce thesystem of age cohorts and impi-like tribal behaviour. It's also very striking that they were demanding an increase of over 300% - a clearly millenarian demand. And there were a lot of sangomas (witchdoctors) up there on that hill for the last few days and you can see on film that many of the workers were wearing muti (magic charms) of one kind or another. Typically, the idea behind such muti is that it makes you invincible against your enemies."
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma cut short his visit to Mozambique to fly back to face the crisis. The clear similarity of Thursday's events to the notorious Sharpeville massacre is hugely embarrassing to the ANC. The furious attempts by the Left to suggest that the striking workers were themselves the villains of the piece will, moreover, merely strengthen the impression that this was a massacre carried out at the Left's behest.
The North West SACP claimed that "the chaos and anarchy we see is being used as the entry point for recruitment for AMCWU" and argued that the AMCWU leaders were "the planners and leaders of this anarchic and worker to worker violence", thus echoing almost word for word the rationalisations once used by Afrikaner Nationalists for the similar actions of the apartheid police.
The Solidarity trade union organizer Gideon Du Plessis, speaking from Marikana, told the Sunday Times "The ironic thing is that the NUM and the ANC would clearly like to see Lonmin sack all 3,000 of the strikers and recruit a whole new labour force because that would smash AMCWU at the mine. That would mean closing down one of the world's biggest platinum mines for quite a while, but it's probably what will happen."
President Zuma's statement that he was "saddened and dismayed" by the Marikana deaths (the police and government are very touchy at any use of the word "massacre") is echoed by most opinion-leaders here. There is a palpable sense of shock that South Africa has not escaped its history: after the abandonment of apartheid, the introduction of democracy, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the crimes of the bad old days, after all Mandela's grace and forgiveness, the country finds itself back in a situation where armed police mow down protesting Africans - on camera.
The most striking thing about the reaction is the lack of it. The day after the shootings neither the ANC, the trade union federation Cosatu nor the Communist Party had any comment at all in their daily bulletins. The state broadcaster, the SABC, is equally reserved and even the private e-TV station is extremely guarded and careful. A number of NGOs have issued statements deploring the shootings and calling for an enquiry, as has the opposition Democratic Alliance. Press editorials are also extremely cautious.
The problem is simply that to denounce the police is to say in effect that the government are murderers, while to say that the police were justified is tantamount to saying that some of one's fellow countrymen deserved to get shot en masse. The Star (Johannesburg) publishes an opinion piece applauding the police - "A very powerful message has been sent out and it is about time a little discipline was restored into the mind-set of South Africans", which echoes some right-wing white opinion which feels that the apartheid police were perhaps unjustly criticised for their forceful implementation of law and order. For such thoughts become thinkable again now.
There is a strong popular sense that Zuma's South Africa is effectively leaderless. Zuma is widely viewed as a do-nothing President, anxious only to keep his balance among the ANC factions and more interested in his harem of wives and accumulating vast wealth for his family. When Trevor Manuel, the Planning Minister, introduced his Plan to Parliament last week he warned that if it was not forcefully implemented the country "could slide backwards", which many took to mean that he thought that was already happening. When an Opposition leader stood up and said "This is a fine Plan but who exactly is going to implement it?" there was simply a roar of laughter from the whole assembly.
Reuel Khoza, the black head of Nedbank, has criticised South Africa's "strange breed of leaders" who are, he says, completely incapable of managing a modern state. He has also warned that under Zuma the criminalization of the state is proceeding apace. The influential Afrikaans daily Die Burger suggests that the mine shootings are another example of how the Zuma government is merely blundering about and is "losing its grip".
The Afrikaner historian Hermann Giliomee says "The ANC has created its own culture of violence and impunity. It allows all manner of violent behaviour within its own ranks. The assassination of ANC leaders by their rivals within the party has become a commonplace. Almost never is anyone punished. So it's hardly surprising that other people feel free to take up arms. The whole country is not very far from anarchy."
The official commission of enquiry will face all these conundrums. It is in the highest degree unlikely that it will conclude that the Marikana miners were shot because the National Union of Mineworkers is desperate to prevent the further erosion of the labour movement on which the ANC depends.
It is also most unlikely to denounce the police. But even if the commission confines itself to technical issues about police tactics it will not be able to contain the immense shock wave caused by the shootings. Julius Malema, the expelled ANC youth leader, was quickly on the scene at Marikana yesterday and he will only be the first to begin translating this shock into a political dynamic which will, inevitably, be aimed at toppling Jacob Zuma.
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