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South Africa’s Marikana injustice stains democracy

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA)

By Dr Trevor Ngwane

Many families lost a breadwinner when the police emptied their automatic weapons on 34 striking miners who were demanding R12 500 a month.

The question “Why?” lingers on in the minds and voices of those left. The trauma of loss is multiplied by the economic hardships that come with the permanent absence of men who left home for long periods in the struggle to feed their families.

The historical injustices of the migrant labour system amplify the misplaced, dashed hopes of workers who continue suffering in the “new” democratic South Africa. What are the lessons of the Marikana massacre? What has changed since then?

The denialism that characterised the response of the South African elite, such as whether it was a “tragedy” or a “massacre”, was exposed as the details about what happened were recounted in the Farlam Commission.

The commission was set up by the ANC government to investigate what everyone saw with their own eyes on television as terrified, defenceless strikers were mowed down with a hail of bullets. The commission recommended that state prosecutors should investigate criminal liability of members of the SAPS, mine security and the strikers for assaults and murders.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, 278 strikers were arrested and 19 charged with murder and damage to property. Six years later, nine police officers were charged with the murders and crimes committed in the lead-up to the massacre. Four have been acquitted.

Not a single police officer has been charged for the murders perpetrated on the day of the massacre. The legal struggle for reparations for the families of the dead and injured miners continues.

The State agreed to pay R70 million for the loss of support to 35 families of the miners killed by the police and R97m to 253 miners who were illegally arrested and detained. No settlement has been reached for injuries incurred by the miners. The State has notably refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Those who pulled the trigger have hardly been charged, and those who pulled the strings, the intellectual authors of the massacre, such as ANC politicians and Lonmin executives, walked away scot-free.

The man who arguably put pressure on the government to deal harshly with the strikers, Cyril Ramaphosa, then Lonmin non-executive director, is today president of the country. Lives, loves and hopes were lost on that day, including illusions about racial capitalism.

From Marikana, millions of workers share the lesson that the black government in South Africa is a bosses’ government, ready to spill the blood of workers in defence of profits. The head of state was a black man, the head of the police was a black woman. But workers saw with their own eyes that when the order came to shoot, the bullets did not turn away because it came from a black person.

Ten years since the massacre, it would not be surprising for a worker who was on that hill to ask: “What did we achieve? We lost our fellow workers. Things are terrible. Life is still filled with problems. After everything, nothing has been solved. We have got nothing to give to our children.”

The answer is: “Yes, it is true. Things are still terrible. Yes, we lost our fellow workers. Life is still filled with problems. Nothing has been solved. But it is not true that we have got nothing to give our children.”

A lot was lost on that hill. But again, a lot was gained. Something important was born on that hill: the Spirit of Marikana. This is the legacy you leave your children, the spirit that you shared with millions of workers who were watching your struggle locally and internationally.

After Marikana there were many strikes, including the great farmworkers’ strike in the Western Cape vineyards. There were land occupations, with many new shack settlements named Marikana.

University students and workers arose inspired by the Spirit of Marikana calling for Rhodes, fees and outsourcing to fall. Numsa split from the ANC-SACP-Cosatu Alliance. George Floyd’s death in the US changed history, giving birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The workers of Marikana also changed history. Instead of saying they are lucky to have poorly paid jobs, they said: “It is better to die than continue being exploited and oppressed in these mines. If the only way of ending this hardship and suffering is to shut down the mines, then shut down the mines!”

The Spirit of Marikana is the determination, organisation and collective action of ordinary working-class people fighting for their needs. It is the spirit of the working class in the struggle for a secure, comfortable life.

It is a vision of a different type of government – a workers’ government where human needs come before capitalist profits. It is the gift that you who survived and died on that hill are giving to your children, and your children’s children.

Long live the spirit of Marikana!

Ngwane is the Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg