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Massacre of South African Mine Workers Recalls Dark Days of Apartheid

The shooting dead of striking miners by armed police exposes hard truths about post-apartheid South Africa that the country's new elites have preferred to ignore.

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The standard critique of Cosatu from the right is that it is becoming the vehicle of a privileged stratum of formally employed workers amongst a growing sea of the informally employed and unemployed. This is undoubtedly unfair, if only because average wage levels for even formally employed workers remain dismally low, and wages need to be spread around households steeped in gruelling poverty. Nonetheless, it can be argued that there is an increasing class dimension to Cosatu’s internal politics, from which the NUM is not immune - notably the use of union office for purposes of personal upward mobility rather than as a project for fighting the battles of the working class.

Indeed, an irony of the more labour-friendly industrial-relations dispensation which has been put in place in post-apartheid South Africa, may well be that it has removed workers' struggles from the factory floor and the mines into the boardrooms, even as the unions themselves have established and grown investment companies which, whilst formally separate, offer prospects of opportunity, enrichment and profit. Unsurprisingly, the AMCU expresses the discontents, anger and frustration of some of those who feel they are being left behind and ignored by the powers-that-be - not only employers, the government and the ANC but the established trade-union movement as well. No wonder that the AMCU’s demands are for a wage rise from around R4,000 (L310) a month to R12,000-plus a month, and the right to a decent standard of living!

The police

Beneath the onion skin lies a second layer: worryingly apartheid-style policing. Television images of the Marikana massacre showed armed cops, some of them in camouflage uniforms, confronting the protesting AMCU workers. Yes, the workers were themselves bedecked with pangas, knives and anything else at hand. It is also not improbable, as police claim, that some of them were armed with guns and may even have started the gun-battle which had such disastrous consequences.

But it’s all so predictable. Post-apartheid policing was meant to get away from the bad old days when police patrolled the rioting townships and the black majority was the enemy. Even now there is much lip-service to such heartwarming notions as "community policing" and serving the public. And certainly, it’s tough out there, with the police themselves suffering many violent deaths, as well as demoralisingly low pay levels. Yet alongside some progress towards more acceptable modes of policing, there are worrying signs of regression.

The arrest of a police hit-squad in KwaZulu-Natal which had taken the law into its own hands is one example; the disturbingly high incidence of deaths in police detention (albeit fewer than under apartheid) is another. But Marikana is a forceful reminder of a shift towards the militarisation of policing, prefigured by events in 2010 (a call by the deputy police minister Fikile Mabalula for the transformation of the police into a paramilitary force, followed by the return to a system of military-style ranks). Even before then, controversy had erupted around statements by then top cop Bheki Cele which were widely interpreted as endorsing a "shoot-to-kill" policy by police. Cele strenuously refuted this reading of his remarks, but nonetheless they appear to have set the tone for a tougher, "no-nonsense" style of policing in which preparedness to resort to violence to confront crime has become increasingly acceptable.

At Marikana, police claim that the striking miners opened fire first. They may well be right, but numerous questions would still follow, notably their use of live ammunition in such apparent disproportion. Perhaps, as at Sharpeville in 1960, police panicked (there are stories of a wrong order being given). But whatever the case, the level of slaughter was unforgiveable. Some days before Marikana, it was reported that the number of protests in South Africa between 1 January and 31 July 2012 has already exceeded the highest number recorded for any single year since 2004. Increasingly, it would seem, South African police are being brought into confrontation with a growing revolt of the poor, with Marikana just another episode.

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