MOMENT OF TRUTH OP-ED
The legacy of the Marikana massacre, ten years later
For many, the massacre was the moment when the blinkers were removed and the underlying injustices that have stunted the development of South African democracy were revealed in all their brutality.
- This Op-Ed forms part of “Marikana, 10 Years On”, a one-day symposium which will be held at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on 20 August from 12pm to 6.30pm.
If one were to pick a moment when the narrative of post-apartheid South Africa as a nation, for all its faults, generally stumbling forward in the right direction ended; no moment stands out as clearly as the Marikana massacre, when on 16 August 2012, 34 striking mineworkers were gunned down by the police on live TV. In the week preceding the massacre, 10 others had been killed.
Over the 10 years since the massacre, the country has become poorer, more violent and divided. GDP per capita has declined from just over $8,000 to under $7,000, unemployment is now close to 50%, the basic functions of government have collapsed in much of the country, the labour movement has grown weaker and more divided, and the threat of political violence to activists is ever more apparent.
Each week that passes in South Africa seems to bring with it a report of some new atrocity, from mass tavern shootings to xenophobic attacks and political assassinations. Last year’s July insurrection reflected that the country faces a growing threat posed by mass unrest, political mafias and right-wing ethno-nationalist politics (most notably by a slate of black majority parties) which the state is evidently ill-equipped to manage; in large part because the influence of these mafias extends across all levels of government. But what does this all have to do with Marikana?
If one were to ask, how did we get to the South Africa of 2022 after State Capture, following the absurdly corrupt and brutal Covid lockdown regulations, the July insurrection, the Life Esidimeni tragedy, and suffering regular blackouts and with a burnt-out hollow shell where there used to be our Parliament? Marikana is a good place to begin.
Marikana was the moment when the core institutions of South African democracy — not just limited to the state — failed. It was the worst massacre of its kind under the democratic order, in which the police — who belonged to Cosatu, the same trade union federation as many of the striking mineworkers — shot and killed striking workers under the auspices of the ANC government that promised a better future for workers. An atrocity that was defended by Cosatu leaders and the SA Communist Party.
In the aftermath of the atrocity, with some notable exceptions, our civil society — from NGOs to media, social movements and trade unions — failed to hold the government to account or even provide meaningful solidarity with the victims of the massacre, either opting for silence or in some cases actively reproducing the state’s justifications. The failure of much of the South African media remains even more apparent, given that the killings were broadcast on live television.
The core institutions of our democracy, from the National Prosecuting Authority to Parliament, failed to hold the government and police to account, even after an inquiry found that former police commissioner Riah Phiyega should be held responsible for the deaths of the 34 mineworkers. Since 2012, no police officer has been charged for any of the shootings. If anything, the police are more violent and incompetent than ever.
Instead, it took the work of a few dedicated journalists and researchers for the actual story of what happened that day to be revealed to the public. It took even longer for the documentary Miners Shot Down and the findings of the Farlam Commission to change public consciousness about what transpired on 16 August 2012.
Marikana stands out as one of the political moments in South Africa that has fallen victim to the plague of political amnesia that stalks the country, as the warring factions of the ANC use it as a weapon for their internal struggles: members of the pro-Jacob Zuma Radical Economic Transformation faction use it to attack President Cyril Ramaphosa, despite the fact that the massacre occurred under Zuma’s watch. Others still refer to it as though it was some sort of natural disaster, a tragedy that ultimately nobody was responsible for.
Ten years later, justice remains elusive for most survivors of Marikana. While 35 families have been paid compensation of approximately R70-million, a larger group of more than 300 miners who were injured during the shooting rampage are still trying to claim compensation of R1-billion. In a recent development, the high court ruled that Ramaphosa could be found liable for the events that led up to the massacre for his role as a Lonmin director. However, proving civil liability will be up to the mineworkers to try to accomplish in court.
There is also the ongoing trial of former North West deputy police commissioner Major-General William Mpembe and other police officers for the murder of five people at Marikana on 13 August 2012. Mpembe and his colleagues face five counts of murder and attempted murder as well as contravening the Commissions Act for giving false information during the Farlam Commission. But 10 years later, public interest has all but dissipated and the old legal maxim could not be truer: justice delayed is justice denied.
While political battles are waged through protracted court proceedings, the workers of the Platinum Belt in North West face ongoing exploitation, dysfunctional government, political violence (at least 22 workers have been murdered since the massacre), material deprivation and the predatory lending schemes of mashonisas (loan sharks) and payday loan companies.
For many, including myself, the massacre was the moment when the blinkers were removed and the underlying injustices that have stunted the development of South African democracy were revealed in all their brutality. The lack of public outrage in the wake of the massacre and the absence of mass protests and solidarity remain a cause of shame for the country. The indifference of the public became even starker even as the workers of the Platinum Belt embarked on one of the largest wildcat strikes in our history, and in 2014-2015 would win the longest strike in South African history.
Marikana has come to serve as a potent symbol of resistance for the South African working class, employed by protesting students, striking workers and community protests. The Marikana strikes went on to influence and inspire other workers’ movements outside the Platinum Belt, like the farmworker strikes in De Doorns in the Western Cape in 2012-13 which galvanised more than 9,000 participants in their mission to improve their working conditions.
The lesson of Marikana is that even under the most difficult circumstances effective mobilisation and organisation are possible — workers across the Platinum Belt opted to join and expand the strike rather than mourn silently or surrender. It is this extraordinary moment that provides a rallying cry for those who still wish to see a more just and equal South Africa. DM
Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University and a Jacobin contributing editor. Fogel is one of the organisers of “Marikana, 10 Years On”, a one-day symposium at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on 20 August from 12pm to 6.30pm. The symposium will also be streamed online. The event is presented by Africa Is a Country, with support from Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Southern African Office). Logistical details will be posted at http://africasacountry.com