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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 politicians

A third layer, ever closer to the core of the onion, is the failure of the politicians to take responsibility. The dispute at British-owned Lonmin (formerly Lonhro) has been rumbling for months. About a week before the massacre, management had increased security and called in the police. Subsequently, two policemen were hacked to death, apparently by supporters of the AMCU. More police were then brought in. After the death-toll had risen to ten, senior cops moved in, but still the politicians stayed away. As the week moved on, senior AMCU officials were imported to address the striking workers, who were gathering on a nearby hill, while the workers themselves demanded to speak to senior management. When management failed to turn up, the workers became increasingly angry, and the scene was set by 16 August for the police to decide to disarm the swelling number of armed and militant workers. They boasted standard tools of "crowd management" and rubber-bullets, but were armed with live ammunition as well.

Meanwhile, government ministers who might reasonably have got involved to calm a dispute which was visibly getting out of hand chose to stand back and to view the crisis as simply a union matter. Perhaps it was simply too politically dangerous to venture into Cosatu territory, to adopt a neutral stance between the AMCU and the NUM. When, in the lead up to the tragedy, the Chamber of Mines had sought to bring the two unions together for talks, the NUM had refused to meet with AMCU. When belatedly the minister of mines, Susan Shabangu, sought to bring different parties together, her department reportedly omitted to invite the AMCU on the grounds that it did not recognise it as a legitimate union.

Belatedly, after the massacre and amidst much wringing of hands, ministers are eager to be seen to taking action - with the police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, now thrown into the thick of things. The crisis is also accentuating a crucial political gulf. The contrast in styles of the visits to Marikana by President Zuma and one-time-disciple-turned-enemy Julius Malema was symbolic. Zuma was at a conference in Harare when the massacre occurred. Perhaps he could not get to Marikana earlier, but when he did arrive it was under cover of darkness, met with management, and visited the injured in hospital. His main response has been the appointment of the commission of inquiry - a sensible but bureaucratic course of action, and unlikely to appease the striking workers.

In contrast, Malema - who was driven out of the ANC in March 2012 following extended party-disciplinary procedures which many believe were driven by his campaign to see Zuma unseated - drove from his home in Polokwane without any formal authority, refused police offers of protection, and walked unarmed and unescorted into a large open field where the striking miners were waiting for him. There he railed against Zuma ("he doesn’t care about the mineworkers, he came here last night and met with whites" [i.e. management]...He went to speak to the white people, not you. It was not the white British people who were killed, it was you."

Malema railed against the police; he railed against Cyril Ramaphosa (one-time NUM general-secretary and now rich businessman, who doubled up as the chair of the disciplinary committee which expelled him from the ANC); and he railed against the NUM ("when the workers have problems, the NUM sells them out").

Malema’s intervention is telling, and may yet prove to have been momentous. When he was expelled from the ANC (and, apparently, the taxman was sent after him to query his highly dubious financial affairs), it looked to many that he was down and out, and that Zuma had vanquished him. Now that is not so clear. Let’s forget that Malema’s populist politics threaten to lead South Africa down the road of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: there is probably no other politician in South Africa who could have walked onto that field unarmed and exited alive - certainly not the luminaries of the SACP who are in bed with Zuma and are working so hard to get him re-elected (see " South Africa's political duel: Zuma vs Malema", 22 November 2011).

 
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