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26 May 2017 18:58 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

When the new repeats the old: Marikana haunts new Zuma Cabinet

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

With the announcement of his new Cabinet this past week, President Zuma has reaffirmed this government’s commitment to turning its back on the thirty-four miners who were shot down in Marikana in 2012. He has also sent an unequivocal message: the government will play no role in ending the crippling political impasse in the platinum belt.

Retaining Nathi Mthethwa and Susan Shabangu in ministerial portfolios, and persisting with Riah Phiyegah as police chief indicate that there will be no justice for the families of those men. Furthermore, the comrades of those fallen men are unlikely to see the appointment of Cyril Ramaphosa as Deputy President, as a peace offering from a ruling party they feel has betrayed them. The old faces in the new Cabinet send a signal that the state is not interested in resolving the simmering conflagration in the Northwest province.

At the start of the fifth ANC administration, there are stark differences between the treatment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the public imagination and the manner in which the Marikana Commission is seen. The TRC remains firmly embedded in our collective consciousness. The images of sobbing victims and sullen perpetrators represent shared memories. They have come to define how many South Africans came to understand the effects of Apartheid. Yet there is no image of the Farlam Commission. There are no shared stories to accompany the footage of those frenetic few days. 

While we all watched the horror of Marikana on our television screens, the narrative about who did what to whom, has not been heard from beginning to end yet by South Africans as a nation. The Commission provides us with an opportunity to examine both the events of that week, as well as the context that gave rise to the labour dispute and the killings. In other words, we finally have an opportunity to deliberate on the structural violence and exploitation that shape life in South Africa’s poorest communities. Using the events of that week as an entry point, we can have a long overdue conversation about the migrant labour system, that the TRC wasn’t geared to address fully.

Despite the tremendous opportunity the Marikana Commission affords us, there has not been a clamour by the media to televise its work. The Commission has not woven its way into our every day conversations in the same way that the Oscar Pistorius trial has, nor is it a touchstone for contemporary South Africa in the way that the TRC was.

In part this is because the issues that the Marikana Commission must grapple with are complex and far less interesting than whether Oscar has Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Structural violence and exploitation are almost immutable realities in South Africa and yet they are almost invisible to most middle class people.


While our countryside and cities are fashioned by the architecture of inequality, we are accustomed to accepting that only ‘lunatic radicals’ like Malema and the striking AMCU workers would seek to alter the economy so fundamentally that these imbalances would disappear.

It is almost as though a pact was signed in 1994, in which the poor agreed not to contest the fundamental economic imbalances that would keep them poor; while the rich agreed that the normal precepts of respect for the dignity of human life could be suspended when cheap labour was at stake.

As so we have lurched forward from year to year, surviving twenty seasons of strikes and protests by union leaders intent on enforcing this strange pact without seeming to do so. 

Since the Marikana massacre, the state has no longer been able to pretend that it is a neutral arbiter of the rules. Acting in defence of the interests of Lonmin, the state fired on its own citizens because these poor people at the heart of our fractured economic model, dared to push the boundaries of the spaces delineated for them.

The state can no longer pretend that the game is fair or unbiased and yet it cannot admit that something has to give.

The Marikana Commission is an attempt by the state to pretend that it can fix the brokenness at the heart of our economy. This is precisely why its work is so deserving of public scrutiny. No single public event has cried out as achingly for careful, consistent and fearless reporting and analysis.

This has been a difficult story to report for many reasons, including the fact that Lonmin has played a tough game. Its media machine has been in over-drive, selling this as a strike by an unreasonable group of miners who do not understand the economic implications of their demands. They have sought to link AMCU and the EFF, and have tried to raise questions about AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa’s financial integrity.

The miners – exhausted and under-funded – have fought back with their words and their activism, but with relatively few financial resources. They do not have the benefit of COSATU affiliation and so despite the possibilities that their struggle portends for fundamentally altering the balance of power in future wage discussions, there has not been a mass mobilisation of workers across the country, standing in solidarity with the miners of Marikana.

It is clear that the interests of all South Africans would be served by more robust and consistent coverage of the work of the commission. The kind of analysis that we have seen produced about the Pistorius trial would open up important debates about South Africa’s economic development strategy, our policing policies, and the cosy relationships between mining bosses and the political class of our country. 

More importantly, better coverage would force Marikana to become part of the telling of a national story about ourselves as a nation. It would force generations of school children to learn the names of each miner that shot down. It might also help South Africans to imagine a way out of this strange and terrible place in which there is no difference between truth and lies. It might help us to answer Antjie Krog’s question, “What does one do with the old/which already robustly stinks with the new?”* DM

*Taken from COUNTRY OF GRIEF AND GRACE, Antjie Krog

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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