Between Violence and a New Social Contract: South Africa at a Crossroads
A protest by the Durban shack dwellers' organisation.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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South Africa has managed, once again, to shock the world with a brutal crackdown on workers. In a series of events eerily reminiscent of apartheid, police killed 34 striking miners and then charged the miners themselves with murdering their colleagues.
The killing happened at a Marikana platinum mine owned and operated by Lonmin, a London-based company that has been subject to wildcat strikes and labor disputes for years.
Commentators in the South African media immediately dubbed the killing the “Marikana massacre,” referencing apartheid-era massacres such as those in Sharpeville, Bulhoek, and Uitenhage.
The saga began when about 3,000 workers went on strike on August 10 demanding a base pay increase from $500 to $1,500 a month. The striking workers were rock drill operators who perform some of the most dangerous and arduous tasks miles below the surface.
The mine’s management claimed that the strike was an illegal wildcat strike although it was supported by members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) —a breakaway faction of the union of record, the National Union of Miners (NUM). Although the NUM is the more established union, it has been losing ground to the AMCU because it is seen as too close to management.
Tensions between the striking workers and NUM members led to three deaths on the first day of the strike. On August 13, 9 more people were killed, including two police officers.
Then, on August 16, police fired into a crowd of protesting workers, killing 34 and wounding 78 others. The police said they were responding to an imminent threat, accusing the workers of charging toward them armed with machetes.
Police then arrested 270 workers and initially charged them with creating a disturbance. On August 30, however, prosecutors announced that they were adding charges of murder. They claim that the workers incited police to fire into the crowd and are thus responsible for the carnage. The charges were brought under an apartheid-era law that allowed for the prosecution of groups of protesters using the “common purpose” doctrine.
“This is under common law, where people are charged with common purpose in a situation where there are suspects with guns or any weapons and they confront or attack the police,” National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesman Frank Lesenyego told the BBC.
After massive protests at home and abroad, however, the NPA announced that prosecutors were “provisionally” dropping the murder charges. However, the NPA’s acting director, Nomgcobo Jiba, said that “Final charges will only be made once all investigations have been completed.” The miners, therefore, could still be charged with murder at a later date.
This “common purpose” law was used by the white minority regime to prosecute activists during the apartheid years. Ironically, some of those activists are now in power and are using the same law to persecute workers. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) actually campaigned against the very law that is now being used to suppress organized labor.
The official response from the ANC was to pass the buck and dissemble. ANC President Jacob Zuma appointed a commission of inquiry and asked South Africans not to jump to conclusion about what took place. “Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing, or recrimination,” he said while appointing the commission.
Despite the president’s admonition, the NPA went ahead and charged the miners with murder. Zuma’s justice minister, Jeff Redebe, asked the NPA to explain the murder charges. This was the extent of the official response to the worst case of police violence since apartheid.