As the community at Marikana grapples with funeral arrangements for the dead, help for those still in hospital and jail and the ongoing strike action, politicians have turned their misery into a political football. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The special sitting in the National Assembly was called to “reflect on the national tragedy” at Marikana, where 44 people died following a wildcat strike at the Lonmin platinum mine. It was probably a noble intention to suspend the normal activities of Parliament so that our elected representatives could channel the nation’s sentiments on the disturbing events at Marikana.
But as with most parliamentary debates, the atmosphere became charged with animosity as the ruling party and opposition faced off over who and what was responsible for the massacre. What was meant to be a solemn occasion degenerated into the usual scrap with name-calling, invective and insults flying about.
If the debate was an attempt to aid the process of national healing and mourning, it backfired spectacularly as the MPs suspended civility in favour of political point scoring. When Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu shouted “Shut up!” at an opposition MP from the speaker’s podium, it became clear that respect for the House, let alone respect for the dead, were the furthest things from the their minds.
Questions abound about what led to the massacre at Marikana, the most pointed being why police used live ammunition on the striking workers.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, who bore the brunt from the opposition benches, including calls for him to resign, said officers “did their best to avert violence”.
“The events of Thursday, 16 August 2012, were not sudden eruptions but a culmination of events that were building over months and months,” he said.
Mthethwa said the Constitution provided for the right to “peaceful and unarmed assembly, demonstrate, picket and present petition”. It also empowered members of the SA Police Service (SAPS) to maintain public order, protect and secure citizens and their property, and uphold and enforce the law.
“The police, as part of our security services, are always and at all material times guided by the Constitution of the Republic,” Mthethwa said.
ANC Chief Whip Mathole Motshekga said the violence at Marikana “stirred in all of us memories of our traumatic past where Black life and in particular, African life, was so cheap and easily discarded”.
“Ours is not to apportion blame on the parties involved. But we should be worried that 18 years after achieving democracy and laying to rest the ghost of apartheid, we could so easily regress into possibly the worst tragedy since the end of apartheid.… In this period of national mourning, we need to be able to call for cool heads, for calm and rational dialogue to prevail and to commit to ensuring that we never witness another Marikana tragedy again,” Motshekga said.
But Democratic Alliance Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said the tragedy could and should have been prevented. “Its escalation speaks of a lack of top-level leadership and of ministerial accountability.”
Mazibuko said the Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up by President Jacob Zuma to look into the Marikana deaths must specifically establish who authorised the use of live ammunition on the workers. “It must also be revealed on what, if any, intelligence was the planning was conducted; and if the National Police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, exercised appropriate judgment and leadership. At what point did she intervene?”
The commission must also examine the conduct and role of Mthethwa, Mazibuko said. “In most democracies, a crisis of this magnitude would have immediately precipitated the resignation of the minister, and, in many cases, the fall of the government. The DA is concerned that no one in this government seems to be assuming political responsibility for the massacre. We need accountability now,” she said.
Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota lashed at the government for the militarisation of the police service, which he said had not been accompanied by the appropriate training of officers. The change to military ranks, announced by Zuma on 1 April 2010, could “only have resulted in this outcome”, he said.
“The Constitution does not allow death sentence. Who was this authority which said to the police ‘shoot with live ammunition’? Who is this person who is above the Constitution?... Who had the authority to waive the right people have to life?” Lekota demanded to know.
He also laid into Shabangu for not meeting with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which some of striking workers have opted to deal with rather than the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Lekota claimed this was because of the ANC’s alliance with Cosatu, to which NUM belongs.
“Was it by accident when Shabangu only met NUM not Amcu. Where is the Minister of Amcu? We only saw minister of NUM?”
The IFP’s Velaphi Ndlovu said mine management should shoulder most blame for the crisis, as they had failed the workers by not engaging with them. He said Lonmin should not have involved the police and the police should not have agreed to act on behalf of the employers as they did not have the skills to negotiate on behalf of the mine management.
“How dare the employer give an ultimatum to the workers to return to work when they are still in mourning, the injured in hospital and others awaiting trial?” Ndlovu asked.
United Democratic Leader Bantu Holomisa said he discovered during a visit Monday to Marikana that police tactics to disperse the striking mineworkers caused the massacre. He said police hemmed in workers with razor wire, leaving only one exit, which led to the heavily armed police contingent. When police fired teargas, it forced the workers to run in all directions, with some coming through the exit in front of the police. It was then that the police fired with live ammunition, Holomisa said.
“They were only seeking a place of safety… I wonder if the plan to ambush workers was not carefully crafted and they went straight into a trap,” he said.
“Perhaps it is time for this House to review the mechanism of civilian oversight in SAPS. Should we not confine civilian oversight to the office of the minister and let experienced police personnel run SAPS?” he said.
Shabangu, also under heavy fire from the opposition for her handling of the wage dispute at Lonmin, said the events at Marikana should focus the nation on “answers not recriminations, on rationality not rhetoric”.
“It surely cannot be correct that mining communities such as those of Marikana and other mining areas should see prosperity and conspicuous consumption by companies and mine bosses whilst they continue to experience poverty.
“If we can all really work together, in a spirit of collaboration and fairness with minimum recrimination, we can use this tragedy to undo many of the wrong practices that still mark the mining sector. That will be a monument to the fallen at Marikana," Shabangu said.
She appealed for restraint from making judgments pending the outcome of the inquiry. “This appeal is made in the light of the clear public interest need to be sensitive to perceptions about South Africa's mining industry and its prospects,” she said.
But Dianne Kohler Barnard, the DA’s police spokeswoman, said the next stage after the national grief would be anger.
“Unfortunately, on the same day the president declared a week of national mourning, new National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega said police officers should not be sorry for the deaths of the protesters. She showed a gross lack of empathy at a time when SAPS members needed a leader with an iron-clad moral compass to assist them to make sense of this tragedy.
“One can only wonder at what possessed her to make such a reckless comment. This, when tension was high, officers dead and the police being referred to as ‘serial killers’ by protesters. These comments should never have been allowed. The Minister (of police), of course, said nothing,” Kohler Barnard said.
She said Mthethwa’s interest was elsewhere and that he was “nothing but an empty suit”.
“The minister's tenure has been marked by the return of an apartheid-era militarised and ranked police force that not only shoots to kill at the slightest provocation, but is increasingly marked by a systemic and endemic culture of criminality and corruption…The minister must resign, failing which, the president must relieve him of his duties,” Kohler Barnard said.
Returning to the podium to close the debate, Mthethwa condemned the role of two isangoma (traditional healers) in the tragedy, saying they had lied to the workers about their powers. He said the bodies of some of the people who had been hacked and burnt in the run up to last Thursday’s massacre had been “interfered with” and body parts removed.
At the end of the debate, National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu asked the House to rise for a moment’s silence to remember the dead. After an hour and a half of bickering and recriminations, that brief period when the House fell silent was the only time the MPs showed real respect for those who fell at Marikana. DM
Photo: The Lonmin plant looms over the shantytown where Lonmin workers live at Wonderkop. 17 August, 2012. Photo Greg Marinovich.