Umshini Wamby Chris McMichael / Illustration by Nanda Soobben / 21.08.2012
“There’ll be civil war, said Johnny. Civil fucking war, that’s what there’ll be. I said, What you think we got now? Not a fucking picture is it?”- GB84, David Peace’s harrowing novel of the 1984-1985 UK Miners’ Strike depicts how the Thatcher government threw the weight of the security state (millions of pounds spent on riot police, intimidation and illegal surveillance) against the National Union of Coal Miners. But as violent as the Iron Lady’s year long campaign against organised labour was, this pales in comparison with the massacre of Marikana on Thursday. In one week the Lonmin strike went from an (admittedly violent) industrial dispute to one of the worst recorded mass killings in South African history with at least 34 miners dead and scores injured. 34…. In the next few days, weeks, months there will be much discussion about the ‘complexities’ of the situation and on whom or what to apportion blame, but it can’t change the brute fact of that number. In ostensibly peacetime, ostensibly democratic South Africa, the state attempted to ‘disperse’ a volatile gathering by killing 34 of its citizens. This is a figure which wouldn’t be out of place in Syria, a number that would make the old apartheid ministers smile nostalgically.
Any self-respecting modern war pays attention to PR and psychological operations, and the government has already embarked on a massive campaign of rationalisation, dissemination and perception management, which to a large degree has simply been echoed by the media. As Jon Soske points out there has been a great deal of earnest handwringing about ‘complexity’ (inter-union conflicts, rumors of outside agitators), attempts to pathologise the miners (evidence of magic rituals, discussions about the apparently violent culture of rock drillers) and efforts to explain the police actions as the result of either fear or bad training.
All these combine to de-politicise the events, to treat “the miners strike and police repression” as if they were “natural disasters” or “vengeful acts of some incomprehensible god” and to evade simple facts: “the police were there to break a strike; the miners refused to disperse and appear to have tried to defend themselves when attacked; the police killed them with government approval”.
The state’s efforts to turn the shooting into a legitimate case of self-defense has been aided by the circumstances surrounding the strike. Because 10 people had already been killed by Thursday afternoon, including two policeman and two security guards, it has been relatively easy to present the officers as being outnumbered by hordes of deranged miners. And because the police were allegedly fired upon first (the comprehensive evidence of which has yet to be presented), the current narrative holds that they had no choice but to defend themselves in extreme circumstances. Under this moral calculus, the state is apparently synonymous with public safety and even the threat of violence against its security apparatus renders lives forfeit. But despite mawkish sentiment about our ‘men and women in blue’, the police at the site were not simply ordinary officers faced by a malign army waving traditional weapons. Instead they were made up of elite units, including the paramilitary Tactical Response Teams from various precincts around the country and immediately recognisable by their distinctive berets. What the police may have lacked in numbers was certainly made up for in the arsenal at their disposal: armoured personal carriers, horses, helicopters (which according to one report may have sprayed offensive chemical agents), body armour, water cannons, barbed wire barricades, rubber bullets, teargas, R5 Rifles. And there is little indication that police management were interested in finding a resolution to the strike that did not involve a violent clampdown. Before the shootings, national police spokesperson Dennis Adriao claimed that Thursday was “unfortunately D-Day” and that the strike would be broken up by force, while Police Commissioner Phiyega has been candid in acknowledging that officers were allowed to use “maximum force” in “self-defense”. Ominously, on Wednesday it appeared that the police had declared the area as a “security zone”. It is unclear exactly what the official definition of this zone is, but it appears to bear a distinct resemblance to the declaration of “unrest areas” during apartheid era States of Emergency, which gave the police and military carte blanche to restore ‘order’.
As terrible, as unnecessary as the police response to the strike has been, the ferocity of the state’s actions is not completely unexpected. The armed units and equipment marshaled at Marikana were at the cutting edge of the SAPS experiments with re-militarisation: hyper masculine war-talk, new SWAT-type units, “shoot to kill”, “chest out stomach in”. This high-intensity policing has amounted to a war on the poor, from increasingly brutal evictions to the killing of protesters. Moreover, the sheer ruthlessness of the shootings seems to be the logical conclusion of the authoritarian drift of the Zuma years. From the increased power of state intelligence to the SANDF dusting off counter-insurgency tactics from the 1980’s as a guide to handling community protests in the present, it’s clear that there is little the current ANC will not do to ensure its grip on power. Rather than an aberration, this massacre was merely a borderline waiting to be crossed. High intensity policing for a low-intensity democracy.
However, focusing exclusively on the state-centered dimensions of what happened ignores which interests the bullets of the police were defending: Lonmin Plc itself. A company so venal, that in response to the massacre it issued a self-congratulatory press release noting all of its good works in the community. A company so callous that it issues ultimatums demanding that drill operators return to work regardless of what just happened and implies that as the strike was “illegal”, the dead had it coming. A company much like other mining operations throughout the country, and the continent, which extract vast profits from the dangerous jobs of their wage slaves, which wreck environments and communities, which sponsor cheap ‘upliftment’ projects to salve executive consciences, which cower behind the shield of the state when things explode. And this is further buffered by the expediency of corporatist unions like the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who in a bid to score points over their AMCU rivals, issued a vague statement of regret and hopes that “the perpetrators will be brought to book”. As a responsible member of the mining world, NUM has a tough task having to negotiate between token sentiments for the dead and protecting its shares and investments in various mining houses.
And after the mayhem of Thursday now comes the push for a return to normalcy: commissions will reconcile and exonerate, further disorder will be stopped, investor confidence will be restored. But what is more normal, more quintessentially South African than the tooled up security state racking up a body count for the mineral-energy complex? The 1922 Rand Revolt: aerial bombing and artillery shells in the East Rand. The 1946 miners’ strike: workers forced back into the pits at gunpoint. The general brutality of the compound system created by the colonial and apartheid authorities. 2012: embedded journalists watch the SAPS war party at work in Marikana.
The government is now calling for a national week of mourning and memorial services to “promote a violence free society”. Flags at half-mast will join the ritualistic legal spectacle of inquiries and the attempts by political and business leaders to find evidence of a ‘third force’ and other malignant powers. As if a system where men risk their lives in stygian darkness for resources they can never hope to afford is not violent by nature. Where blood and bones in Marikana are the price for jewelry and record turnovers in Johannesburg, London and Beijing. As if a country in which the ostentation of the middle class and the rich is overlaid on the more consistent reality of millions freezing, sweating and starving in townships, informal settlements and transit camps.
There is no mystery that building a paradise for some on the back of purgatory and hell for others is always on the verge of atrocity, and that it brutalizes and cheapens the lives of both its victims and its managers. And as the events of the last week have shown, it is no mystery that assassination and terror are sometimes needed to maintain this fine state of affairs.