In the week we celebrated the return of Team SA from a relatively successful showing at the 2012 London Olympics, a tragedy of epic proportions was unfolding in the Northwest Province, near Rustenburg at the Lonmin platinum mine known as Marikana.
The global hypnosis caused by the Olympics had caused most media platforms to be transfixed on the events in London, rendering most oblivious to what was brewing in Marikana. Those who had been faithfully reporting on what was happening at Lonmin had to contend with the world’s love for the glamorous, the frivolous and sculptured, spandex-clad torsos of world-class athletes. A battle they were clearly ill-equipped to win.
As we reel amid the pain of the death of 44 people, 34 shot dead Thursday by police and 10 killed in the various contestations for power and dominance among the unions, the employer (Lonmin) and police earlier in the week, we must temper our righteous indignation with a sense of sober contrition. We are all complicit in varying degrees.
It is important to adopt a reflective, pensive approach to our attempt at making some sense of this mess. A natural reaction is to succumb to the blame game, informed by the myopic value systems and limited experiences of whichever group we identify with or hail from. Indeed, when we have somebody to blame in any situation it allows us to neatly categorise it into convenient labels of good and bad.
We punish the bad, praise the good and move on with our lives.
Content in the notion that all is well, our systems are in place to deal with bad people and so we, the good people, can sleep peacefully at night. Yet, unease and disquiet persist in the deep recesses of our minds, unconvinced by our rationalisation.
The Marikana situation demands more than the normal knee-jerk responses that characterise our national discourse about most issues.
Most commentators would point us to the “facts” as we try to understand the events of the last week at Marikana. Oh the famous “facts”! Which ever version of the “facts” they subscribe to usually seems to advance a particular agenda: theirs. So excuse my slight scepticism to those that would call for a purely factual analysis of the Marikana killings. True, we cannot ignore the facts as much as they may be at risk of manipulation by clever pundits. They are the basis upon which we can have some sort of discussion. But we must equally look at the nuances and contexts from which these “facts” seem to arise. Perhaps we may see a more complete picture than what the mere “facts” may suggest.
On or about Wednesday, 6 August, the day before Women’s Day celebrations (a day understood by many men to be partly responsible for the undermining of manhood and the God-given right and responsibility to rule, provide for and protect one’s family), more than 3,000 mineworkers set up camp outside the Nkanini informal settlement near the Marikana Lonmin Platinum mine “in protest for better wages”.
They occupied a “koppie”, an elevated vantage point, armed to the teeth with traditional weapons, symbolically affirming their right to bear arms in defence of their God-given right to be men and not just boys as the employer (Lonmin) and the system (government) seem to be suggesting with their policies and laws. There, they took their stand and made their demands as men, not slaves or boys.
In the factual reporting of the events of Marikana, little is mentioned about the many, many failed attempts at negotiating a better wage settlement with mine bosses that fell on deaf ears. Little is said about the frustration, humiliation at work by blatantly racist conditions reminiscent of a colonial era under which these men have had to labour for generations, ironically operating in a supposedly “democratic dispensation”. Nobody really speaks, even the workers themselves, about the sense of betrayal they feel about their so-called leaders who are mostly seen at golf courses sipping red wine with their unscrupulous employers.
Even less is spoken of the humiliation of bringing home a monthly pittance to a wife and children whose basic needs are unable to be met by R4,000. Little is spoken about the resultant sexual impotence (the most humiliating condition to traditional men) due to psychological pressure, the consequential alcoholism and misdirected anger at the very people he loves and the perpetuation of that cycle. The ever-present pain.
It has also been reported that the strike was also fuelled by tensions between the more established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the recent arrival of the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). It may be the case that the rivalry between these two unions was contributory to the violence, but such a contribution should not be understood as the reason for it. The workers themselves declared this fact when they said through various spokesmen, “This is NOT about NUM and Amcu, it is about us the workers. We want better wages!” The media machinery continues to interview the leaders of these organisations in an attempt to make sense of what happened, ignoring the reality of the situation thus further perpetuating a false notion of a rivalry between unions and not telling the true story of the men at the “koppie”.
This unholy relationship between unionists, politicians, business and, to a large extent, the media is understandable but deplorable. The media get to sell newspapers and get better ratings, the unions and politicians get to advertise their rhetoric for greater membership and influence and the business (Lonmin and the mining companies) get to deflect the issue of exploitative work conditions and slave wages as we all engage in our “righteous indignation”, business goes on as usual and true victims of this tragedy are once again not listened to.
When the life of a man is such that he is willing to run in to a hail of bullets resigned to the certainty of death, we who remain have a solemn duty to understand the real conditions that lead to such suicidal behaviour. Perhaps it is the way of lazy, lawless unlearned barbaric people. But ask yourself how civilised you would remain if you had to month after month bring home R4,000 to a wife who can barely buy sanitary pads from your wages, to children who hardly have anything to eat each day after having toiled in the belly of the earth. Tell me how civilised you would remain when your voice is constantly manipulated for more power and influence by those who are meant to represent your plight to the powers that be? How civil would you be when the general narrative tells you that your traditions, value systems and even your gender is an aberration (rightly or wrongly) and you know no other reality.
Yes, perhaps these men were unreasonable in their decision to resort to the kind of strike action that led to a massacre that will be remembered forever. Perhaps they were not just fighting for wages but were fighting for something deeper and more abiding, something robbed of them by the system. The right to live and die like a man.
There is nothing wrong with our enjoyment of lighter moments in life like the Olympics. In fact, it is important for our sanity. There is nothing wrong with our need for refuge in our systems of law and governance that is the bedrock of civilisation. However, there is everything wrong with these things if they are shields for the protection of our blissful ignorance. If we hold the latter as our attitude, we are as complicit in the deaths of these men as those who pulled the triggers.
We need to scratch way below the surface of our shallow understandings of the reasons for people’s behaviour in all areas of our lives, if we are to come to lasting solutions. Or that uneasy feeling, that constant disquiet, will visit us all with merciless reality. DM