Massacre in South Africa

PROVOCATION NOTWITHSTANDING, the death toll at South Africa’s Marikana mine was the result of an outrageous, disproportionate…

PROVOCATION NOTWITHSTANDING, the death toll at South Africa’s Marikana mine was the result of an outrageous, disproportionate overreaction by the police for which both it and the government must be brought to account. Twenty years ago the African National Congress (ANC) would rightly have placed responsibility on the apartheid authorities for precisely this sort of then all-too-typical police action. And it can not now evade moral culpability for Thursday’s massacre, now put at 34 dead, a stain on the democratic character of the South African state.

Fed by longstanding, deep frustration among workers at the inability of the ANC to deliver improvements in living standards, the Marikana strike at Lonmin’s platinum mine had already resulted in 10 deaths before Thursday, including three police officers and two security guards beaten to death by rioters. The dispute has acquired a particular ferocity in part because of a bitter inter-union rivalry that has seen the new Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union (AMCU) recruiting from and outflanking with militancy what it says is the compliant ANC-linked National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) over a 300 per cent pay claim.

Hundreds of AMCU members armed with machetes – “pangas” – spears, cudgels, and pistols had spent the last three days camped out on an outcrop of rock near the mine chanting and dancing, pledging to die if their demands were not met. Police attempts on Thursday to disarm and disperse them with tear gas, water cannon and stun grenades were to no avail. When the crowd, some firing pistols, attacked retreating police, they “were forced to utilise maximum force to defend themselves”, police commissioner Riah Phiyega says. She gave permission “to execute the task they needed to do”.

The Institute of Race Relations insists, however, that there was “clear evidence that policemen randomly shot into the crowd ... and continuing to shoot after a number of bodies can be seen dropping.”


The police had plenty of means of non-lethal force, and officers’ tactical failure, in the face of the predictable mob attack, to deploy such to minimise casualties was compounded by a breakdown of command discipline manifest in their inability to curb indiscriminate automatic fire by those under their command. Their incompetence is an indictment of a police force that has a reputation for using strong-arm tactics, and of the political leadership in the ANC’s failure in the essential democratic task of creating a disciplined police force under proper civilian control fit for a new South Africa.

Marikana will make many ask whether it is a “new South Africa”, as the Sowetan newspaper puts it: “This is an abnormal country in which all the fancy laws are enacted and the constitution is hailed as the best on earth. All the right noises are made and yet the value of human life, especially that of the African, continues to be meaningless. That’s what Marikana means. It has raised this unmitigated crudeness as if to awaken us to the reality of the time bomb that has stopped ticking – it has exploded!” Profound questions for the ANC.