Defend Truth


The Marikana miners have rights too

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

From the way that some people speak of the 16 August Marikana shootings, you’d think that it was a fairly-matched battle between two armies. It wasn’t. And the police certainly cannot have waived the basic human rights of the miners to ‘deal’ with the situation. 

I took my first holiday job at about the age of 13. It wasn’t a job in the sense that I was hired or anything, but my brother and I just rocked up at a dairy farm one day (we knew the farm hands) and asked to help. Since this was long before the words “basic conditions of employmenbt” or even “health and safety” meant anything in the KwaZulu Natal countryside, we were allowed to help. 

These gruff Zulu men who worked at that farm took massive delight in ‘schooling’ two pampered boys in the traditional ways that they still lived by. They certainly were not as kind to their own children, and we got to partake of activities that were usually only the preserve of grown men. Over the next three years, we’d visit the farm every July and December for a few weeks, and learned a great deal about a culture which would have otherwise been lost to us, thanks to the fact that our parents were born and grew up in the (then) Transvaal. 

One of the first things we were taught was never to touch the arsenal of traditional weapons that each man kept under his mattress, wrapped in a cowhide. Each mattress hid several knobkieries, iklwa (the specialised Zulu stabbing spear – invented by iNkosi uShaka himself, according to legend), fighting sticks and a whip or two. Some men had the traditional cowhide shield as well.

Every single weapon was named. When these men had gone through a rite of passage, and had received the approval of the other men (some of them were amabutho, or soldiers, in the tribal wars and blood feuds in the Tugela valley) they were given these weapons, which they would be enjoined to guard with their lives. The level of affection that they displayed to what looked to my eyes like curio-shop props was embarrassing at times. Then again, the level of affection that Jay Leno has for his cars is weird. 

Even years later, when most of them would prefer a pistol for personal protection, they still carried these weapons around – they were phallic symbols and badges of honour more than anything. The weapons declare: “I am a man. I’ve earned my place alongside the other men of the tribe. Treat me as such.”

I don’t mean to defend the Marikana miners with this story, but rather to question why people who ought to know better speak as if the men were armed with tanks, rocket launchers and cannons. 

Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini reportedly said, “I am not even trained as a police [officer], but I can tell you that if you come to me, carrying a spear and I have a gun, I will defend myself. You would die a very foolish death if you do not defend yourself. It is a crime to go around carrying a sharp object. If you want a peaceful strike, leave the dangerous weapons at home. We are not ashamed to say this.”

Leaving aside that in Dlamini’s bizarre world the police should arrest anyone walking out of Makro with a large screwdriver, I’d be interested to know if he bothered to ask any of the miners why they carried these weapons around during their strike? Were they not saying, more than anything, “We are men, take us seriously”?

Also, one hopes that Dlamini’s words mean that no stick, whips or knobkieries will be carried at a Cosatu-sanctioned strike ever again. 

The police at the scene on that fateful day may have been outnumbered, but the idea that they were horribly outgunned is simply ludicrous. They weren’t, and the evidence shrieks out for itself: 122 miners were shot; 34 died. How many police officers sustained so much as a scratch on that day?

I fully agree that the police had a right to defend themselves if they thought that the situation warranted it. Any miner found to have been involved in the murder of the 10 people who died before 16 August must face the criminal justice system. But the events preceding that Thursday cannot have given the police carte blanche to tear up the Constitution and simply mow these men down with automatic weapons. 

According to accounts by the police themselves, the two pistols that were stolen from the two dead police were recovered after the shootings. Did two pistols warrant the response? Did they have to shoot men who were fleeing? I hope the commission of inquiry will force the police answer that question.

Just because you think that the demands of the miners are ridiculous, or that they are acting in an irrational manner, or that they are guilty of some crime, does not mean that they automatically cede their rights and can be killed or otherwise ill-treated by the police and the criminal justice system. Human rights don’t work that way. 

It doesn’t please me in the least bit to see the police act in such a way against people I don’t know and struggle to relate to. I’m outraged, and I’m not going to wait until those armoured trucks are doing the same thing in the suburbs before I decide that they’ve gone too far. DM


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