Race violence goes underground in SA

William Saunderson-Meyer on the use of mass hostage-taking as a negotiating tactic on the mines


It’s a textbook example of how, 30 years into democracy, racial violence can still drive events in South Africa.

This incident revolves around the expanding use of violence as a negotiating tactic — which has long been tacitly tolerated by the African National Congress government — as well as the growing phenomenon of specifically black-on-white violence, whether it be motivated by retribution, intimidation or to gain political concessions.

In response, the police, as usual, do nothing. The government, as usual, is missing in action. Perhaps too busy enjoying the world spotlight at the International Court of Justice, leading the charge over Israel’s supposed genocide in Gaza? And the media, which is usually vociferous about verbal slurs by whites against blacks, has been curiously muted.

As is the case with the extraordinary barbarity that often accompanies attacks on white farmers, there’s a reluctance to examine the nature of South African violence through a lens fitted with race filters. Unless, of course, one filters for whiteness.

Nevertheless, the script will be familiar to anyone familiar with the apartheid-era playbook of white-on-black violence. What differs in the new version is that races have swapped roles of aggressor and victim. There is also a new element, the use of mass hostage-taking as a negotiating tactic.

It started in October last year when the radical Amcu union, engaged in a recognition dispute with the National Union of Mineworkers, held 107 NUM miners underground for three days at Gold One’s Modder East operation near Springs. Denying NUM allegations of coercion and hostage-taking, Amcu described it as a “peaceful sit-in” that ended when the miners ran out of food. No one was arrested. 

Later, one of the mining company’s in-house investigators into the matter was shot dead in an apparent retaliatory hit. Again, no one has been arrested. 

By December, the union’s new tactic had escalated and metastasised. In response to Gold One firing 51 men involved in the October event, 540 miners were taken hostage at the end of their Modder East shift and forcibly held 350 metres underground.  

Over the next five days, things turned violent and then racial. Victor Ngwane, a NUM regional organiser, says that it became a “racial issue”. “The perpetrators said if they beat up these white guys, management and government would listen to them.” 

At one stage, Ngwane said, a severely beaten up white miner emerged from the shaft with a note threatening to kill people if food was not sent underground within two hours. The food was promptly despatched.

Solidarity, the white-dominated union, described the hostage situation as characterised by “a disturbing level of violence and intimidation”. “Workers were subjected to brutal and inhumane treatment. They faced not only verbal threats and physical assaults but also were subjected to extreme forms of humiliation. 

“Some were forced to strip naked in front of their peers and were then mercilessly beaten with pickaxe handles and wooden planks. This degrading treatment was not only a physical assault but also a psychological trauma.

“The violence took a more sinister turn when the strikers began singling out white workers for targeted assaults. This racial targeting added a deeply concerning dimension to the already volatile situation,” the union told Mining Review.

Eventually, following fraught negotiations, all the miners were released. At least 40 men received medical attention at the mine’s clinic and another 12 with serious injuries were admitted to the local Netcare hospital.

But none of the assailants, all fully identified to the police, was arrested.

Only Gold One has responded with any decisiveness. It has fired 401 mineworkers, while another 140 are still going through disciplinary hearings. There are angry rumblings, both from within Amcu and NUM, against the dismissals.

What has been remarkable is how little impression these startling events — mass hostage-taking, race violence — have made on the public consciousness. Aside from the Afrikaans-language weekly Rapport, which splashed the story as its main front page item, along with gory pictures of some of the battered men — the media response has been muted and perfunctory. 

Perhaps, as South Africans, we’re just suffering from Bad News Overload, but the hostage-taking has been met with the same kind of uncomprehending indifference that greeted the first reports of the intimidatory violence of the construction mafias against companies that refused to comply with their extortion demands. 

If this were an incident of targeted white-on-black violence, it would occupy the media edge-to-edge. There would have been vox pops; interviews with the victims; outraged editorials; concerned commentators shaking their heads over the pernicious persistence of racism; and activist NGOs issuing hand-wringing statements. By hook or by crook, the Human Rights Commission would have deftly inserted itself into the equation, possibly by prosecuting the mining companies for tolerating a culture of racism.

But the explosive potential of politically motivated black-on-white violence is not an issue that anyone is keen to examine. And our rulers, with their eyes fixed on the general election, are similarly keen to downplay the matter. 

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe told Rapport that while such hostage-taking was dangerous and illegal, it was not a developing trend. In any case, he said, this was not the responsibility of the government. This was for the mining companies to sort out. 

Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi briefly referred to the issue for the first time this week in a statement dealing with a massive stay-away at Implats, another mining house. Contradicting Mantashe, Nxesi said that, indeed, this was a “dangerous trend”. All parties, the minister said sagely, should show leadership, avoid opportunism, and follow prescribed processes.

Nxesi did not, however, respond to calls from Solidarity for his department to deregister unions that deployed violence against non-striking workers. Nor has Police Minister Bheki Cele, crusader-in-chief against bikini-clad blondes defying beach bans, said a word about if, when and how the SA Police Service will investigate these criminal acts, nor how SAPS will approach future hostage-taking.  

Of course, government ministers are at present completely distracted by the general election to be held later this year. 

Aside from South Africa opening its case against Israel at The Hague, the main story this week was about Deputy President Paul Mashatile — accompanied by a cavalcade of ANC functionaries, government officials, and the media — assisting with the planting of vegetable gardens for 20 needy families. The other was about the ANC's highest decision-making body, the National Executive Committee, cutting short its monthly meeting so that members could join church congregations to “ask for prayers” for the ANC to renew itself and defeat its “many enemies”.

So don't expect much governance to take place over the next few months. All the ANC government's efforts are going to be devoted to getting re-elected and nothing will change that.

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