Reality
Lonmin Marikana

Umshini Wam

by Chris McMichael / Illustration by Nanda Soobben / 21.08.2012

RSA 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.

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RESPONSES (22)
  1. Dplanet says:

    Brilliant writing.

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  2. Copy editor says:

    “Labour”.
    “Apportion” blame.
    “But as violent as at the Iron Lady’s yearlong campaign against organised labor was”?

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  3. bear says:

    thank you

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  4. Andy says:

    Thanks Copy Editor… was waiting for you to come online

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  5. Copy editor says:

    … including two “policemen”. And so on, did anyone read this before posting? Letting yourselves down.

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  6. BM says:

    Powerful, well written piece, shredding the false sympathy of the prevailing government position too.

    However it must be said that completely overlooking the role played by the AMCU in this disaster is shoddy journalism at best, tactical editing at worst. Representatives of this union were at the very centre of this standoff, promising the miners a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in the form of a completely impossible 300% salary increase if they were to leave NUM and sign up with them. As much as Lonmin are to blame for the appalling labour conditions, it takes a special kind of mind to exploit the exploited for financial gain. By the time they realised what they had created it was too late. They begged and pleaded but people died, and they must shoulder at least some responsibility for this.

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  7. Roger Young says:

    It get’s even more complex than that I’m afraid. Lonmin gave rock drillers at another mine a 200% increase recently. This is what spurred on AMCU’s attempt at 300%, this what it made it seem completely possible.

    I would elaborate on this but rather read this thread: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=431281733581210&set=a.156669437709109.26342.100000981605536&type=1&theater

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  8. Jonx says:

    There are a few examples of shoddy, insinuatingly biased journalism in this piece, with lines such as, ‘ 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”’. It has nothing to do with what the company was implying, the strike was illegal. Thats just a fact, no matter how the journalist feels about the situation.

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  9. Andy says:

    Jonx you’ve been around long enough to know that we don’t fall for that unbiased journalism crud. It’s both outdated and impossible. The writer has a view. No one is attempting fair and balanced here. And regardless of labour law and legalities of the strike, the fact that drill operators, who earn about R5000 a month, have to work as hard and long as they do, extracting one of the world’s most expensive raw materials, is just plain wrong… but that’s the shape of the system. A system of injustice we’re all complicit in.

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  10. Darrell MacLennan says:

    Good article, but I think you are missing the point by a mile. 10 people dead already, including 2 cops, and 2 security guards – did you expect the state to act like nannies tending kindergarten kids? People are DEAD already. If the initial strike had been conducted peacefully, none of this would have happened. Even if Lonmin is paying unfair wages, R12K plus benefits is a bit much for any enterprise to accept.

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  11. Berliner says:

    I believe the police have badly misjudged the situation, perhaps on purpose? A police force should never be in a situation where they need to open fire on civilians with automatic rifles. They should be able to retreat in their armored vehicles, make use of water canons, tear gas and rubber bullets if required. Look at the riots caused by football hooligans in Europe, they attack police with molotov cocktails, metal bars and other weapons. The police is able to control the situation without killing any civilians. Now it looks like there is absolutely no respect for human life in South Africa, which is a shame cause its a beautiful country with a lot of potential.

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  12. kza says:

    I got goose bumps reading this article. The beloved country continues to cry while she eats her own. The rot has seeped into society and security forces protect the ruling bandits, not the people. We haven’t learnt from history, that’s why we keep repeating it. We can’t fight the oppressor of the people by climbing on the table with him, what needs to be done is identify the props or legs that support the table and sever them. The ANC and other liberation movements have failed Africa. A new revolution is needed.

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  13. ParkaBoy says:

    Hey kza, care to elaborate? You see, I’ve been hearing a lot of heated words from various people about a ‘new revolution’ and how ‘things must change’ and numerous variations on that theme, but people seem quite short on the details. It’s not that I disagree, things are seriously fucked, but what are your plans for replacing the system that we’re all keen to rage against?

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  14. Jonx says:

    Firslty, another interesting article about what they do earn a month…
    http://www.moneyweb.co.za/mw/content/en/moneyweb-political-economy?oid=605745&sn=2009+Detail

    Then Andy, I don’t really care how biased your writers are, my problem is when they turn solid facts into conspiracy innuendo, and make things that are true seem false, and things that are false seem true in order to justify their point of view, then surely there is a problem. Maybe it is purely bad research, rather than intentionally lying but it ends up being the same thing. Using a lie to convince others that your point of view is correct. Surely you can’t be behind that?

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  15. Andy says:

    where’s the lie Jonx? Or the conspiracy innuendo?

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  16. Jonx says:

    Andy, I assume you mean besides the deliberate smudging of whether the march was legal or not as I mentioned in the earlier comment?

    “the state attempted to ‘disperse’ a volatile gathering by killing 34 of its citizens” Perhaps not quite what happened, but then again perhaps an insinuation of state conspiracy, with ‘evil’ mining company to kill the poor citizens in order to disperse them. Is that what you actually think happened?

    ‘Ominously, on Wednesday it appeared that the police had declared the area as a “security zone”’. Rather than ‘ominously’ maybe it was because 10 people had already been killed, but rather than killed hacked to death with machetes, 2 of which had been policemen, a third whom, luckily did not die. Or perhaps a conspiracy by the police to stop people coming in so they could just murder those poor innocent miners?

    ‘Moreover, the sheer ruthlessness of the shootings’, Have you watched the tapes? Not sure if I would call it ruthless, but maybe on this point it is a manner of opinion. What I would call ruthless is the hacking of a people to death with machetes.

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  17. Jonx says:

    By the way, I am not saying the police acted in any regard in the right way, and most likely they should not have been using live fire. But then again, and maybe it is the option you would have preferred, if they weren’t, we would all be talking about the cops that were shot with the guns found on the miners, or those hacked to death by the miners. But then again we probably wouldn’t, cause who cares about a few dead cops.

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  18. tokoloshi says:

    what a bleddie brilliant piece of writing. VIVA RHODES

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  19. Grey Jesus says:

    Come on! Its hardly appropriate naming a piece of writing of such a sensitive nature after a Die Antwoord video. Wankers!

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  20. Darrell MacLennan says:

    If I was a cop, I’d be scared shitless. Footage clearly shows a protester pointing a firearm, and firing it, at the cops as they broke through police lines, passing the vehicles. It’s sheer stupidity to charge state forces when the death toll is already sitting at 10 – how thick can you be? I have no sympathy whatsoever, and my own self-preservation instinct would have told me to stay off the hill knowing that my group was already responsible for the deaths of 10 people. Don’t expect violence to be met with anything other than violence. I grant that the cops were not adequately trained to deal with a situation like this, and I can guarantee that this will be addressed in the future, but they did the best the could under the circumstances. You heard the commanding office shouting for his officers to cease fire, you saw him cringing as bullets flew past him. The police acted accordingly, and Zuma’s bloody enquiry is a total waste of money – use the millions he is going to spend on an enquiry to train our cops properly!

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  21. Daniel Sher says:

    brilliant, thank you!

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  22. polycom says:

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    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

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