The questions about Marikana that aren't being asked

RW Johnson says a deep confusion rests at the heart of the official lamentations

Perhaps the biggest questions about Marikana have not only not been answered: they have not even been asked. A deep confusion sits at the heart of most of the official lamentation over these events. This was true from the first when Zuma announced "this is not a time for finger-pointing", the real meaning of which was "there will never be a good time for finger-pointing since, after all, the police are the organ of the ANC-state and therefore, if you disapprove of the shootings, you would have to point your finger in my direction".

Thereafter the key was the avoidance of the word "massacre": instead it was the "Marikana tragedy", making it sound like, say, a bad accident between two black taxis which leaves scores dead - all very sad but no one clearly responsible.

On the other hand, the government and its publicity organs were quick to label the Marikana dead as "victims" and even to argue (as some madman on Counterpunch did) that they were somehow dead as a result of poverty and inequality. (This rather reminded one of the young journalist on The Daily Worker who is told that every story must have a class angle, leading one cynical older journalist to toss onto his desk the greyhound racing results with the cheerful injunction "OK, let's see you class angle that one, comrade".)

Partly and unfortunately, this is because the government believes that Africans have a sort of innate right to victimhood under any set of circumstances, so it's an easy slot to drop the dead into. But, you understand, this time they are victims without anyone being responsible for making them victims. One has heard of the concept of the "victimless crime" but this was a new idea: a crime which certainly had victims but was nonetheless villain-free.

The oddity is that we've all seen the film of the police shooting the strikers down, so there is really no doubt about responsibility. But since the ANC-state is emphatically not blaming the police for anything, that can only mean that the police were doing just what they had been told to do. But that is not a line of thought anyone is encouraged to follow.

There was a great deal more evasive verbiage of this kind but, as George Orwell pointed out long ago, all such manipulations of language have their underlying political purpose and when someone won't write or speak straight with you it is invariably because he isn't being politically straight with you. In that sense, trying to tell it like it is is not just a matter of good writing, it is a matter of moral and political honesty.1

The current dishonesty of the government is not just a matter of words but of procedure. It is going through the whole process of national mourning - flags at half-mast, memorial ceremonies etc - and insisting that it - the agency which, effectively, gave the order to shoot, will lead all these ceremonies. The apartheid government was, in that sense, a great deal more honest: when it shot people it attempted squarely to justify it and took full responsibility.

In addition, of course, it has expedited a high-level team to Marikana to take complete charge of the victims' families, give them money for burials, transport etc. This is, quite transparently, the old ANC tactic of swamping people with control-squads who tell them what to think, who they can and can't speak to, and of course make it clear that the destitute who are strong enough to disobey these injunctions will lose all support. From top to bottom the entire operation is completely dishonest.

The questions which are not being asked were hinted at best by Zapiro with his news announcer saying "Please could everyone set back their clocks by thirty years." All of us old enough to remember Sharpeville felt a very distinct weight in the pit of our stomachs at the news of Marikana exactly because it felt like, not 30 years ago but 52 years ago. And the entire political point of all the evasive verbiage and camouflage procedures we are now being subjected to is precisely to stop us making that comparison, to insist that no such comparison exists. This is a very strong clue to the fact that of course it does exist.

In a sense Zwelinzima Vavi let the cat out of the bag a few months ago when he warned the government that if it continued to do nothing about service delivery protests and youth unemployment it could face a repetition of the 1976 Soweto rising. That really took things out of the museum and dusted them off. The 600 children who died in that rising have always been commemorated as heroes and martyrs who rose against an evil system but if one could imagine them rising against an ANC government, what would that make them then ? Reactionary juveniles full of false consciousness ?

And if they could be typified thus then surely that has implications for the children of '76, for once one concedes that such a rising might be quite "wrong", how can one still be so sure that the '76 generation were quite right ? In other words, one quickly finds oneself questioning the entire "established" historiography of the anti-apartheid struggle.

And yet Vavi is already right. One can often see black youths in township protests doing many of the same things that the children of '76 did, marching, stoning vehicles, setting tyres alight, fighting the police and so on. One can currently even see the ANC Youth League trying to use all the most violent methods of the old struggle in order to attack the freely elected and multi-racial government of Cape Town and the Western Cape. The old ANC tried to make the country ungovernable because the government had not been elected on universal suffrage and was therefore illegitimate. Now the Youth League is trying to make the Cape ungovernable exactly because they are so annoyed that the DA was overwhelmingly elected by universal suffrage.

Thus it seems safer to forget about all the mythical historiography of the struggle, and the justifications for and against and just to accept, more neutrally and sociologically, that there are certain forms of social protest which one may find in townships and informal settlements and that these forms of action will occur whenever the pot is boiled to a certain temperature irrespective of which government is in power.

That is to say, those forms of struggle have been wrongly attributed with a historical specificity - that they were purely the product of anti-apartheid struggle. Actually they might have occurred even if apartheid had never existed. Whenever a sense of grievance is sufficiently strongly felt - and these days "service delivery" grievances usually mask mere intra-ANC faction fighting - this is simply the form of action which comes most easily to township/squatter camp dwellers because it is direct, violent, makes a point and requires minimal organization, particularly given the large number of bored, idle youths hanging around who are always keen for a bit of excitement.

The Marikana events are somewhat similar. The men squatting on Wonderkop hill were mainly tribesmen from Lesotho and Pondoland. There was a clear resemblance with events during the Pondo revolt of 1960-62, long celebrated in ANC myth. The Pondo peasants rejected Bantu Authorities, Bantu Education and the rural rehabilitation schemes to which they were subject and they gathered everywhere on hilltops or ridges to hold angry meetings very similar to the one held on Wonderkop. Indeed, the resistance movement was known as "Intaba" or "the Mountain" and the Mountain Committee, which represented the movement, had its HQ on Ndlovu Hill. I remember talking to some of those Pondo leaders and there was no doubt that talking about "the Hill, the Hill" and "we are the Mountain" made them feel strong.

In 1960 things boiled up on June 6 when supporters of the Mountain held a large meeting on the top of Ngquza Hill, which sits between Bizana and Lusikisiki (very close to where I am writing this). The apartheid forces were exactly like the police at Marikana. They could and should have just let the peasants alone - no harm was going to come to anything if others just stayed clear and they were bound to get fed up with sitting on a hilltop after a while. But the apartheid forces sent in two planes and a helicopter to bomb the crowd with tear gas and smoke bombs: they had to be dispersed - exactly the same imperative the police had at Marikana.

Then the police surrounded the hill and began firing, killing 11. Another 19 were jailed. At the inquest the magistrate found that the police use of sten-guns had been "unjustified, excessive, even reckless" and pointed out that several of the dead had been shot through the back of the head. Naturally, the government appointed a completely rigged Commission of Inquiry full of Bantu Administration officials which dismissed the peasants' case out of hand.

I actually remember those Pondo leaders because they trekked up to Durban to see my great friend and comrade, Rowley Arenstein, the Communist lawyer. Even deep down in Pondoland Rowley was famous as a lawyer who quite normally took black political cases for free, so a whole great deputation of these Pondo tribesmen descended on Rowley's house at 79A Essenwood Road, Durban. I remember that they pretty much ate Jackie Arenstein, Rowley's wife, out of house and home and they also had an enormous appetite for hot baths so there was a permanent queue outside the Arenstein bathroom. Both Rowley and Jackie, who were extraordinarily brave, laboured under multiple bans - so having Pondo chiefs to stay meant holding illegal meetings - and were in general greatly oppressed by the system, so the household seldom had any money to start with. Despite that their generosity was amazing. Jackie once turned to me and said, "These chaps are the salt of earth. Tremendous fighters. Unfortunately, come the revolution, they'll probably be the first ones we have to shoot." In the end the apartheid regime simply house-arrested Rowley to prevent him going down again to Bizana to defend any more rebel cases there, this after he had successfully got several men acquitted.

I should add that Jackie later lost all faith in Marxism and the class struggle, let alone shooting people. But her words drift back me down the years, a reminder of how ruthless the descendants of Robespierre can be. Of course, we have seen Communist regimes shoot down workers before - at Kronstadt, in East Germany in 1953, in China and elsewhere. But I didn't really expect to see an ANC-SACP regime mowing down Pondo workers like this, some of them possibly the grandsons or even great-grandsons of those who rebelled in 1960-62. Yet that was, I now realise, ridiculous for the forms of mass protest remain what they were and they will test any Establishment, the 1960s Verwoerd regime or today's ANC-SACP regime. And while you can't really hold either Zuma or Verwoerd personally responsible, the fact is that it happened on their watch and it did so, in both cases, because the regime had already made such action entirely thinkable.

The other comparison is, of course, with Sharpeville. As Philip Frankel's An Ordinary Atrocity: Sharpeville and its Massacre (Yale UP, 2001) makes entirely clear, there were numerous similarities with Marikana. Young, nervous, outnumbered policemen, bearing weaponry wholly inappropriate for crowd or riot control, are told that whatever happens, they must hold the line, must not back down. The Marikana police had been told that, come hell or high water, they were going to end the Wonderkop protest that day. They were going to be "dispersed" and the police had brought enough weaponry to disperse a crowd of charging elephants. The apartheid regime was alarmed at the PAC's pass-burning mass action and wanted to draw a line in the sand. The ANC-SACP regime was deeply alarmed at the threat to the NUM and were similarly determined to draw a line in the sand.

The vast black crowd which pressed up against the wire around the Sharpeville police station were at least as frightening as the men squatting on Wonderkop at Marikana. As with all such crowds, those at the back couldn't see what was happening up front and just kept pushing, so the crowd edged ineluctably forwards, threatening to tear down the wire. And there is, of course, no doubt at all that had they broken through, they would have overwhelmed the police whose fate would have been no prettier than the Marikana police had they succumbed to the Pondo charge.

At Marikana the Pondos and Basothos had been repeatedly warned that the police were coming to kill them regardless, so some of them naturally decided to make their charge rather than wait to be shot like sitting ducks. In both cases, the policemen opened fire although no order to fire had been given. In both cases many hundreds of rounds were fired in a few nervous seconds but even then, in both cases, there had been time for some of their attackers to run so not a few were shot in the back.

The real point is that no one quite knows what to do with African mass protest. Much of it reaches way back into tribal and pre-industrial culture; not just the resort to muti and sangomas but even toyi-toying, a peculiar form of war-dance. These sorts of protest can be tremendously destructive but they are never really capable of moving into a more general rising, so they can always be put down - as they were at Sharpeville, Ngquza Hill or Marikana. In 1960 students launched Sharpeville protests on every English-speaking campus. Today the campuses are weirdly silent.

The real significance of Sharpeville in South African history was that as the massacre sank in the conclusion was drawn - by African nationalists, liberals and Communists alike - that peacful protest was getting nowhere and that only armed struggle would work. (This was in fact quite wrong. Armed struggle was a complete failure and disaster and set back the path of reform by years, even decades.)

The real question now is whether the Malema generation will conclude that they too must have an M-Plan, must move towards violence against the regime. After all, if the regime will not allow peaceful and open competition between rival unions, then what is the alternative ? It goes without saying that armed struggle now would be an even greater disaster and failure than MK, ARM and Okhela were in the past, but that may not prevent history repeating itself. The government has, after all, given the lead in the path towards violence and impunity - and in South Africa such leads have frequently been followed.

Perhaps I may be allowed a personal endnote. I was one of the young who turned to Marxism in the wake of Sharpeville. In those days there was a great deal of more or less illegal political activity down on Grey Street in Durban, particularly at Lakhani Chambers where there was a sort of rudimentary meeting hall. Rowley was desperately keen that the young Turks of the ANC who flocked to the Left in the wake of Sharpeville should receive instruction in Marxism. But it was completely impossible for him to fulfill this task with the Special Branch watching his every move. So instead he impressed several young Marxist students into the task: Mike Kirkwood, Barry Higgs and myself.

Even we were constantly dodging the police. We gave lectures in vulgar Marxism to packed classes of Zulu men, many of them much older than ourselves. They were intent. One of our pupils was Jacob Zuma. He and I happily recalled those days when we met - he referred to Rowley as "our leader" - but I fear now that I may have much to answer for.

RW Johnson

Note: [1] I am sometimes criticised for almost overdoing this injunction, of being "too blunt", of saying difficult things out aloud and not respecting any sacred cows that happen to be in the room, but I have never felt that it could be wrong to be "too honest". So I was considerably amused to be sent an invitation to a debate convened by Patrick Bond, professor of agit-prop at Willie Makgoba U. In his inimitably neutral style Mr Bond summoned his co-debaters with the words "then you get men of low politico-moral fibre like the liberal ideologue Bill Johnson". My sin of "manipulation" had been precisely that I had told it like it was - indeed, later in the same e-mail Bond conceded that I was probably right in what I'd written.This reminded me of how I had once asked a friend why my writing made people of a certain ideological hue so angry. What was it I'd said that was so wrong? He laughed: "Ohno, they're very pleased if you get something wrong. What really makes them mad is when you're right."

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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