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Marikana: a lesson in the vulnerability of the black body


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

The events at Marikana may have unfolded very differently had the protesters been white rather than black. It is simply unfathomable that state officials would preside over the mass killing of whites. The victims of state-sanctioned massacres have seldom had unambiguously white bodies.

Imagine that the 34 bodies that lay bleeding and then dying on that koppie in Marikana three years ago had belonged to white people rather than black people.

Imagine that the scene had played out like this: A group of poor whites – residents from Danville and its surrounds in the badlands of Pretoria – had arrived at the Union Buildings to protest their poor living conditions. Imagine that in their rage and sadness about having to live in substandard housing and beg on the streets for coins, they had arrived carrying cardboard signs and tin cups, but that they had also come bearing arms: sjamboks and hammers and axes to symbolise how they had built this country and were now being squeezed out of it.

Imagine the response of the state, which would have had to negotiate with them, informing them that they were in open defiance of public order rules. Imagine that the protesters dug in their heels in and refused to let the police confiscate their weapons. Imagine them saying: “We carry these in self-defence.”

Imagine then that over the course of weeks, which stretched into months, the whites had insisted that they would not leave the grounds until they had had an audience with the president. Picture the scenes as the stand-off deepened into a crisis and as dozens of people (mainly whites) started to drop off food and clothing for protesters, as e-mails went around asking for donations so that their children could be sustained while they fought the good fight.

Imagine that one morning the police minister had had enough. The cabinet issued a stark warning through the media: Their weapons would not be tolerated, nor would their continued disturbance of the peace of local residents. If they refused to leave, they would be forcibly removed. A police vehicle patrolled the area, making the announcement on a loudhailer. The words were met by a roar – captured by the cameras of journalists from around the world. They would not be intimidated. “Whites have a place in this country too!” they cried.

The following morning, police vehicles arrived and dozens of armed officers fanned out across Union Buildings. They drove their hippos in close, forcing the disoriented protesters to move towards the steps of the Presidency. Once there, the protesters were surrounded, unable to escape. With the building behind them and cops everywhere the protesters realised they were trapped. And then, without warning, the bullets began.

At the end of the day, 34 of the protesters lay dead – 34 white bodies riddled with bullets, killed in a democratic and free South Africa.

Even as I type these words, I cannot imagine the scene playing itself out in this way. It is impossible for me to picture this government authorising police to shoot at a crowd of white protesters. It is harder still to imagine any element of the police – even with that authorisation, whether trained or untrained – picking up their guns, pointing them at whites and then squeezing their triggers.

It is simply unfathomable that state officials would preside over the mass killing of whites.  

In part of course I am projecting my own fears and anxieties regarding the wounding of white bodies when I fail to picture what I have written. I flinch because having never seen images of whites lying dead – except for in the movies and in old and haunting still photos of Auschwitz – I am not even sure how to picture it. The bodies of Europeans killed en masse in recent history have been tainted by something else, by some other strange blood that has permitted their slaughter: They have been Muslim or Jewish, or suspected of being ‘genetically impure’ whatever that means.  

In other words, the victims of state-sanctioned massacres have seldom had unambiguously white bodies.

This is certainly true in South Africa. As Professor Njabulo Ndebele has written, “The inviolability of the white body is in direct proportion to the global vulnerability of the black body.”

Once you understand this, it is easy to see that it is not simply a coincidence that all of the victims of the Marikana massacre were black. While it may be hard for many of us to imagine violent horror being visited upon the bodies of even the poorest whites in South Africa, we need not use our imaginations to envisage violence against blacks of any social standing: We have already seen it happen.

But the state violence that we saw in Marikana did not simply stop once the guns fell silent. The violence continued as rhetoric. The language that was used to describe the events was brutal, as was the posture the government took when it refused to issue an apology until a year later. The violence gained momentum when the African National Congress boycotted the first commemoration of the massacre in 2013 and it snowballed when the findings of the Farlam commission absolved everyone who mattered of blame.  

Marikana taught us that our state could not only kill its people but it could do so and show absolutely no remorse for its wrongdoing. At the same time we have witnessed the same police force and the same political elite who presided over Marikana demonstrate restraint and tolerance towards white critics and protesters. 

Look at the magnanimity shown to Eugene Terre’Blanche who rode his white horse, flanked by his racist scrum and was left untouched. Look at the maturity of our police when Steve Hofmeyr and his band of angry victims protested.  And look at the tolerance extended to the increasingly well-organised members of Afriforum who regularly protest against affirmative action on various university campuses. Indeed, our government has even indulged the fringe (but armed and therefore potentially dangerous) white supremacist hate groups that continue to operate boot camps in far-flung corners of the country.  

All of this indicates that when whites take to the streets to protest they needn’t worry about being manhandled by the cops. Sadly, the same cannot be said for black protesters. In the last decade 50 protesters have been killed, and there are no prizes for guessing what race they were.

Some people argue that the reason the state cared so little about the lives of the Marikana miners – and indeed the reason the ANC’s leadership has been outright cruel in its treatment of the families – is that they are poor. Class, they suggest, is the operative feature in this brutal equation.

While it is certainly true that class and race are deeply intertwined, in the case of Marikana the complicating factor has been the extent to which the miners and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union in general, represented a real threat to the ANC’s crumbling union base.

This sad reality is that the ruling party is aware that it can use the state to crush political movements, and it has chosen to use its might against black opponents, even though it has plenty of opposition amongst whites. It is able to get away with this because whiteness – with or without wealth – signifies ties to Europe. White skin holds within it, a historical specialness that black skin does not.

I do not want to be misconstrued. I sincerely hope that no white people are hurt when they protest. I am not arguing for a lowering of the standards of dignity and respect that whites enjoy when they protest. What I want is to live in a country in which the state believes that the bodies of black people are also inviolable. DM

Sisonke Msimang will be delivering the Ruth First Memorial Lecture on Monday, August 17 at the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand. To RSVP send an email to: [email protected]


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