Africa: Massacre at Marikana - Karen MacGregor

In the aftermath of the killing of 34 protesting workers by police at a platinum mine, South Africa struggles to find answers amid competing interests and political manoeuvring.

Human Rights Day in South Africa is on 21 March. It celebrates rights under democracy and commemorates the Sharpeville massacre – the day 52 years ago when police opened fire on protestors and killed 69. Sharpeville symbolised the struggle against apartheid and is a key date in the country’s liberation history.

But it will only be with anger, shame and disgust that South Africans will remember the Marikana massacre of 16 August 2012, by the police, of 34 protesting workers at a dusty platinum mine in the North West province. Not to forget ten people killed in the week leading up to the tragedy, taking the death toll to 44, with some 70 people injured and more than 250 arrested.

The blame game swung into action within hours of the killings.

The public pointed fingers at the police. The press was present and, chillingly, caught part of the massacre on film. A primetime news programme juxtaposed footage from three cameras that showed jumpy police firing as miners rushed at them, and men dropping dead.

The police blamed violent protestors. The protestors blamed the British mine owner Lonmin (staff: 28,000), as well as the police and each other, following rivalry and conflict between two trade unions. Analysts painted a backdrop of dire conditions in the mining sector, poverty and social inequality.

Political opponents of the African National Congress (ANC) held government responsible and, within the party, opponents of President Jacob Zuma used Marikana to mobilise against his pending re-election as party leader in just a few months’ time. The government wasn’t sure who to blame, as it is responsible for the police and is in a ruling alliance with the huge Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), whose mining affiliate is at the heart of the confusion.

Realising the threat Marikana posed to South Africa’s international reputation, to its economy, to the government and to himself – and in the face of police action reminiscent of the darkest days of apartheid – Zuma set up a commission of inquiry to probe the conduct of Lonmin plc, the police and the unions. It is headed by Ian Farlam, a respected retired judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal. He must report to Zuma in four months.

'‘The massacre at Marikana appears not avoidable and tragic… but rather entirely inevitable and predictable’ ''
Pierre de Vos
Constitutional legal scholar

The commission will try to make sense of the tragedy. But as Farlam began his work in late August, it was already clear that a complex matrix of underlying problems, contesting forces and events led to the tragedy, and that they will take far more than a commission to resolve.

Shooting to kill
There are fundamental flaws in the police force. Two officers had been killed by protestors a couple of days earlier, so the police had cause to be angry and nervous. The police said the protestors were armed, that they had tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the strike, and had begun to take crowd control measures when they were attacked. But none of that explains the ineffective and ultimately violent response to the protest.

In the footage, police mill about, seemingly devoid of a plan. They panic as the miners run, and continue to shoot after ceasefire orders are issued. A poorly trained police force is hardly news to South Africans, but Marikana showed that the force is unable effectively to handle protests. Commentators pointed out that the public-order police force was disbanded in 1990s, and despite years of mounting protests countrywide, has not been reconstituted.

As the weeks passed, an even more shocking picture emerged: eye-witnesses told stories of police cold-bloodedly murdering miners who were hiding among boulders, driving over protestors and mowing down victims who had their arms aloft in surrender. Media reported that arrested miners had been systematically tortured by police. City Press said the Independent Police Investigative Directorate was looking into alleged brutality at five police stations, and had taken 194 affidavits from miners. Prosecutors charged the arrested miners with public violence, illegal gathering and attempted murder. Murder was added to the list of charges, then suspended following a public outcry.

Bobby Godsell, chairman of Business Unity South Africa, said during a discussion at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg, that in apartheid South Africa ‘you can say that violence was regrettable and understandable. In a constitutional democracy, [violence] is not understandable. It is completely outrageous.’

Under Zuma there has been militarisation of the police force, which now uses military ranks and has shifted from keeping the peace to a ‘shoot to kill’ approach in the ‘war’ on crime. Zuma has been criticised for appointing inexperienced leaders, and corruption and poor performance have eroded public faith. Against this backdrop, legal expert Pierre de Vos wrote: ‘The massacre at Marikana appears not ‘avoidable and tragic… but rather entirely inevitable and predictable’.

Widespread anger
Marikana has highlighted failings in the police and in Zuma’s leadership, but it must also be seen in the broader context of labour and other problems in the mining sector, such as fluctuating metals prices and rising costs, and the even wider context of social discontent over lack of basic service delivery, poverty and inequality. Miners are paid poorly, live in abysmal conditions and their work is dangerous. There is great pressure on Lonmin and other companies to improve their circumstances. Indeed across the continent, natural resources companies face mounting criticism over human rights abuses and shocking treatment both of workers and local communities. The situation has been complicated by the influx of Chinese investment to the region, often with too few strings attached.

'‘What is clear is that the unstable labour situation is untenable, but it is spreading rapidly from mine to mine on the world’s largest known platinum resource’ '
Alan Seccombe
Business Day

At the core of events leading up to the killings lies the conflict between two unions – the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and newcomer the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union – and the issue of recognition of new unions. Cosatu unions such as NUM are strong and generally effective, but as part of the ruling alliance they are associated with failures of government, and miners have claimed that NUM has not been fighting hard enough for better conditions or pay, opening up space for upstart unions.

Cosatu is used to dominating the labour scene, and is prepared to flex its muscles to exclude rivals.

‘There are social, labour, political and historical issues,’ wrote Allan Seccombe of Business Day, ‘that make unraveling the mess in which Lonmin and the South African platinum sector find themselves a nearly impossible task’. There was anger against Lonmin, but little interest in the company being foreign-owned; blame has largely been laid at the foot of the mining sector as a whole for poor conditions and pay, and frequent failures in resolving labour disputes.

‘What is clear is that the unstable labour situation is untenable, but it is spreading rapidly from mine to mine on the world’s largest known platinum resource,’ Seccombe wrote.

Strikes have flared at other mines and a month after the massacre, the strike at Lonmin had not ended and there had been more protests.

Failed democracy
For the ANC, Marikana is a political blow, and for Zuma it could yet prove fatal. Within days of the tragedy, Julius Malema, expelled former leader of the ANC Youth League, surfaced at Marikana and slammed Zuma’s leadership, hoping to use Marikana to unseat the president.

But for the ANC it is not just about Zuma. Problems of corruption, divisions and service delivery have beset the ruling party, which seemed unassailable for the decade following democracy in 1994, when the new government took giant strides in consolidating freedom and improving people’s lives. Marikana is not just a blot on the post-apartheid landscape – it speaks of serious problems for South Africa and its government that are far easier to explain than to resolve.

Right Reverend Dr Jo Seoka, an Anglican bishop and president of the South African Council of Churches, wrote in Business Report: ‘The Marikana murder is a story of a failed democracy which, instead of protecting the rights of its citizens, takes away their lives.’ Democracy, he said, means freedom to live one’s life and express one’s mind, freedom of movement and the right to decent work and a living wage. ‘This is what the striking miners died for. This I know because I had the conviction to climb the mountain to be with the strikers and listen to their story. All I heard was the story of basic human rights.’



Karen MacGregor is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at