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Bloody Thursday

by Paul Hjul / Illustration by Rico / 23.08.2012

It is incredibly difficult to write about the massacre on humanity, which has been taking place in South Africa, without becoming suffocated by one’s own sanctimony. Yet it is a subject which we, as a nation, must write and read about. Above all else it is something which we must think about, reflect on and learn (or at least try to learn) from. If we do not do this, we as a nation will continue to experience a descent into the abyss. Future generations will ask us what we did so wrong that lead to Bloody Thursday: The day when the “post-apartheid” police force unleashed a hail of bullets, savagely executing at least thirty four people.

If future generations have any conscience they will ask us what we did after Bloody Thursday. Will we allow the tragedy to be merely one event in an escalation of state violence? Or will we force our society to change its course in some respect or another – and what respect will that be? Will we abandon the militarization of the police or will we abandon civilian rule altogether and enter into a state security governed society? Will we see improvements in the remuneration and working conditions of mine workers? Or will a return to mining houses establishing de facto prisons as housing compounds, policed by their own wardens? Will we simply declare “we didn’t start the fire”, believing that such incidents of violence are a natural and normal part of the human condition and simply be grateful not to be the target of the bullets?

I do not intend to write today about the oppression of thousands of people on a daily basis in the mine shafts where, under terrible conditions, they extract minerals for large mining companies whose historical and contemporary relationship with the Government of South Africa is at best described as ‘unjust’. The mining industry provides a backdrop for the massacre but even the most peripheral analysis of service delivery protest violence demonstrates that there is a great deal more at play than issues arising from the difficult employment relationships on mines. Indeed if anything the common denominator between incidents of public violence in South Africa is a clear war on those disadvantaged members of society who are striving to make a better life for themselves and are doing so outside the channels laid down by the oppressive and corrupt Polokwane consensus.

The Presidency has sought to ward off the pointing of fingers and allocation of blame. Sadly this is because it is the policies, rhetoric and continued violation of the Constitutional precepts of the Republic by the President, which above all else should be held responsible for these senseless deaths. Allow me to point out, that under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, the executive has characterized itself as increasingly militaristic. Fortunately the National Assembly on this occasion, unlike after the tragedy at the University of Johannesburg, have appeared to take issue with the absolute lack of accountability from the Minister responsible for policing. We are now as a nation awaiting details from the Presidency as to the appointment of a judicial commission of inquiry, which will have its own challenges (to be discussed at the end of this article). Apart from pointing out the clear responsibility which rest on the Presidency – and for which the President in any country which values human life and dignity would face impeachment – I do believe that until the completion of investigations and judicial inquiries, we should take care not to jump onto easy bandwagons. Somewhat paradoxically I am going to set out what these bandwagons are.

The first bandwagon which we need to avoid is to blame police officers who risk their lives on a daily basis to uphold the laws of the Republic – all for remuneration that lacks any semblance of appearing reasonable. Our police are plagued by mistreatment and political irresponsibility in an organization that requires discipline and leadership if it is to avoid being the most oppressive force in society. What sadistic human being sends armed men with live ammunition into a war zone and then blames them for using force to defend themselves?

The footage which has surfaced from the massacre makes the tragedy of policing clear. Certain acts and general high level planning (particularly the deployment of high powered assault rifles) overwhelmingly suggest a premeditated intent to use a show of force and kragdadigheid as a means of dominating the situation. Yet amidst the chaos we see police officers attempting to call a ceasefire. We see officers in a warzone. What we are left with is the reality that every single police officer who was at the scene has had a trauma inflicted upon them, and the consequences of this trauma are still to be felt by both the police themselves and society at large. Particularly with the lack of proper training and post traumatic services provided to our police. The remuneration and conditions of service of our police are an indictment of our claims to being a civilized nation. What skewers the situation even more is the bonuses and special pay which certain members and units (that tend to be notorious for violence – such as the robbery unit at Cato Ridge, and the various blue light brigades) receive in comparison to members of the service who are not violent.

Ultimately two questions are not being answered by the President: firstly why were the police sent with live rounds and instructions to use force to break up the strike? And secondly why did the President and Cabinet not heed to successive warnings from civil society, and from within the police, about the dangers of pseudo-militarization?

The second bandwagon of condemnation targets the unions. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and its allies (COSATU, SACP and the ANC in general) have embarked on a campaign of vilifying and accusing the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) of using intimidation and deception. These claims are generally found in it being inexplicable to COSATU that anybody could succeed in breaking NUM’s monopoly on the labour force. Fortunately the spotlight on AMCU and the de facto closed shop arrangement at Lonmin has ultimately damned NUM rather than AMCU. However, in recognizing that NUM is simply crying foul because its monopoly is being threatened has not produced anything other than 19th century discourse about the nature of the mineworkers themselves. Colonial anthropology of tribal explanations and discourse about illiteracy seem to have great resilience in South Africa. This is a worrying trend in a society purporting to be both progressive and democratic. Indeed our discourse appears to have reached a point where we fault the unions for being unable to control their members who we ultimately dehumanize as a raging, muti-driven horde against whom the police are unable to respond except with extreme violence. This discourse is simply not supported by the available evidence.

The only feature of the violence prior to the Bloody Thursday on which there seems to be little dispute, is the fact that there have in recent years been growing tensions, intimidation and violence between certain members of the conflicting unions. COSATU member NUM has been accusing AMCU of being a group of disorganized warmongers. This sort of characterization of a union by their political opponents mirrors the characterization of COSATU by the DA – it is no small irony that on a policy level the AMCU and DA have a great deal in common. Unfortunately what the evidence shows is that there are members of AMCU, members of NUM, and persons who are not members of either, who are using violence and threats to gain power within the existing bargaining structure. The continuous breakdowns of the connections between union leadership and union members are a feature of our labour regulatory system, as is the continued existence of strongmen and enforcers by whatever name. Politicians are not honest and any system that presumes (rather than forces) them to be honest brokers is bound to fail. Put simply there are union thugs in Marikana and they are killing people. A failure by our systems to detect and prosecute these thugs has eroded the Rule of Law and we have reached a point where it has become the rule of bullets.

We’ve also seen displays of grand opportunism with Julius Malema taking the lead to stir up allegations that the mining house Lonmin is a front for Cyril Ramaphosa. The ridiculousness of the proposition does not prevent it from rising to headline news where it joins the tabloid descriptions of the striking miners as uncouth superstitious natives from the rural Eastern Cape whose use of muti and a belief in magic is ultimately to blame. Fortunately it does appear that Parliament has received something of a wake up call. However the ANC’s attempt to re-write history – particularly with regard to the violent protests in Khutsong – is an ever worrying feature. However, what ultimately can the National Assembly do if political will to impeach the President is not found? The judicial commission of inquiry premise has a fundamental pitfall particularly as it is the President who will shape its terms of reference. Unlike the Goldstone Commission which was established using empowering legislation which specifically allowed for the rooting out of public violence causes, this commission is likely to suffer from the same challenges which undermined the Harms Commission in the early 1990’s.

In my analysis, the immediate cause of Bloody Thursday was a decision taken by the government of the to, in contravention of the Law and Constitution, direct members of the police to use deadly force in a show of power at Marikana. The underlying causes are inherently more complex but can be boiled down to our structural inequality as a nation and the fact that there is a culture of ‘gangsterism’ which has taken hold in South Africa. This cause requires not a simple investigation and inquiry but rather a permanent inquiry into public violence which is envisaged by the ignored Prevention of Public Violence and Intimidation Act from 1991 (which was the empowering legislation for the Goldstone Commission). However, this inquiry is likely to provide answers about who is causing violence where, which the government and its supporters do not want the public to hear.

Union thuggery and gang behaviour is a problem in South Africa, but it is no different to police thuggery or political party gang behaviour. And in all cases there is a clear systemic problem which is not being tackled.

Too many political organization and labour unions demonstrate a hypocrisy on public violence and militancy which betrays the central crisis of this nation – the placing of an agenda above people (their lives, dignity and freedom). Frankly the South African Communist Party and Blade Nzimande in particular are a putrid menace whose disregard for the sanctity of a human being should make any Marxist sick to the stomach. There is a rebellion of the marginalized and a culture of state oppression and as a nation we have to take issue with this.

The massacre of Bloody Thursday can be placed in a similar light to the massacres that occur in the Western Cape where gang violence is not being addressed. It is not some minor coincidence that on the morning of the 21st August a committee of the National Assembly was debating reports from the police about gang violence in the Western Cape.

The issues are different sides of the same coin: As a nation we have too many gangs and thugs, too many people who have the means and impunity to use violence, and the threat of violence, as tools in advancing their agenda. As a nation we need to rid our police and our Union Building of these thugs.

*Illustration © Rico.

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