Exposing the race/class fault lines in SA society

Posted on October 5, 2012


Produced for the September edition of the Zambia Bulletin & Record and updated

The racial and class fault lines in South African society, papered over by rainbow nation platitudes and disguised for global consumption by the myth of a negotiated miracle, have been brutally exposed. When, as it has now emerged, special para-military units of the police opened fire on miners at Lonmin’s Marikana mine on August 16, the resultant bloodshed washed away the last traces of hypocritical camouflage; it also acted as a catalyst creating conditions in which dangerous and opportunistic political viruses thrive.

One of the first to seize the opportunity presented by the massacre of 34 striking miners and the wounding of 78 of their fellows was Julius Malema, the expelled former president of the governing party’s youth league who now faces charges of corruption and money laundering. While the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) dithered, Malema emerged at Marikana, urging the miners to desert trade unions, continue with their strike and demand a basic wage of R12,500 a month.

He also provided — and apparently paid for — legal aid for 269 miners who were arrested while also laying charges of murder and assault against the police on behalf of the miners. And when, in an action that still remains to be explained, the regional prosecuting authority announced that it would charge the arrested miners for the murder of their colleagues, it was again Malema, who was first among the politicians to cry: madness.

The charge, justified by regional National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) head, Johan Smit, was on the basis of the legal doctrine of common purpose, a doctrine widely abused in South Africa during the apartheid era. According to Smit, the arrested miners were all part of a group that was intent on murder and, therefore, they were guilty for the deaths of anyone involved. The police, as the legitimate forces of law and order could not be responsible.

As various legal experts, including one of the country’s leading constitutional lawyers, Professor Pierre de Vos, pointed out, the charge made no sense. It was a case, said De Vos, of alleging that the miners had embarked on the common purpose of mass suicide. In the uproar that followed, the charges were provisionally withdrawn, but extensive damage was done to South Africa’s image.

However, perhaps greater damage was done to the reputation of the major trade union in the sector, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). As Malema gleefully pointed out, NUM’s founding general secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a director of Lonmin. The multi-millionaire businessman was also, Malema, added, a man who had bid R18 million for a large horned buffalo at a recent wild life auction. It was left to some in the media to note that Ramaphosa also chaired the ANC committee that confirmed Malema’s expulsion from the organisation, so there was an obvious personal axe here being ground.

But, for all the publicity generated, Malema’s intervention was essentially a sideshow, a desperate gamble by the former Youth League leader to try to regain lost political clout in the run-up to the ANC elective congress in December. Once seen as a potential king maker, his hope remains that President Jacob Zuma and his supporters will be dumped in December and that a new guard will take over and reverse his expulsion. This could happen if he is seen to have sufficient support — and if he is able to dodge the criminal charges he now faces. He maintains — as did Zuma when facing corruption charges — that the case against him is politically motivated.

But what Malema’s intervention at Marikana did bring more clearly to the fore — and, to some degree, exacerbated — was existing racial and class tensions. In what is still a widespread blame game, he highlighted the poverty and desperation of many miners and portrayed this on racial lines, laying the responsibility at the door of “white capital”.

The Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) to which NUM is affiliated, laid the blame on the Lonmin management; others pointed fingers at other unions, at the police or the provincial and national governments. All that seems clear is that all probably bear some responsibility for the conditions that gave rise to anger, confrontation and mass bloodshed. The focus now— and in coming months — should be on the formal commission of inquiry, headed by retired judge Ian Farlam. Its mandate is wide-ranging and it may eventually produce a clearer picture of all the facts. Whether this will be enough to start to heal the fissures in the body politic remains to be seen

But until the inquiry completes it investigations and reports, speculation will rage; union leaders and politicians of every stripe, will continue to use the deaths and the events surrounding them to promote personal and group agendas. However, some facts about certain aspects of what happened at Marikana on August 16 have already emerged — but they tend to raise more questions than provide answers.

According to the autopsy reports, a considerable number of the miners killed were shot in the back. However, this could be because they turned to run away from the gun-toting police when the first shots were fired. A much more important question is why specialised paramilitary units were drafted in to Marikana — and who ordered their deployment. These are units trained to use “maximum force” to combat the usually heavily armed “heist gangs” that stage cash-in-transit robberies.

Yet this was a strike situation where thousands of miners were gathered on a hill outside mine property. They carried sticks, spears and various other weapons which they refused to give up. They also refused to return to work or to disperse. It was, said local police commissioner Zukiswa Mbombo, “an illegal gathering”. If the strikers refused to heed police demands that they lay down their weapons and disperse, a “tactical response” would be initiated.

Who decided that this tactical response would involve the deployment of armoured cars, “special forces” police armed with rifles, pistols and live ammunition who would attempt to corral the miners by laying rolls of razor wire is not known. But the action does seem to have caused groups of miners to try to escape the encirclement. As they did, rubber bullets were fired at them and, according to video footage, one miner with a handgun, loosed off two shots in return. This was followed by a 10-second barrage of automatic weapons fire from the police.

These were the initial facts that emerged about those few tragic minutes at Marikana and they became the focal point of what is a complex situation extending well beyond the bloodbath. The fact that some bodies were later found behind rocks some way from the the scene of the carnage raises questions about possible killings by police other than those who carried out the main burst of shooting.

As a result, speculation is rife with different groups publicly labelling what happened as either “premeditated murder” or “self defence”. Such simplistic statements, based on prejudice rather than factual analysis, are symptomatic of the social schisms that are now more fully in the open. Whether even a comprehensive, transparent inquiry, on its own, will heal such rifts, is moot.

Posted in: Reports abroad