Dispatch

Murder in Marikana

Jacob Zuma might survive the Marikana tragedy. But can South Africa survive Jacob Zuma?

-/AFP/GettyImages
-/AFP/GettyImages

CAPE TOWN — The Aug. 16 massacre at South Africa’s Lonmin’s Marikana mine, in which police shot dead 34 illegally striking miners and wounded 78 others, has annihilated whatever remained of the illusion of Africa’s largest economy as a harmonious, post-apartheid state.

Lonmin is the world’s third-largest platinum producer, and employs 28,000 workers at its Marikana mine, in the country’s North West Province. The miners live either in informal settlements on the outskirts of the mine or in overcrowded hostels, reportedly earning a pitiful $541 a month. The violence began on Aug. 10, when 3,000 rock-drill operators, after demanding that their salaries be increased to around $1,500, downed their tools and picked up traditional weapons such as machetes and clubs known as knobkerries.

The inability of either side to compromise quickly turned an issue of welfare into one of warfare. Ten people were killed in the week before the massacre — including security guards and miners who resisted joining the splinter trade union that is alleged to have encouraged the strike. The miners hacked to death two policemen and mutilated their corpses. Miners also discovered the body of a miner believed to have informed on his union; his head was split open, and he had been crucified: The Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that the corpse was "left on display the whole day as a warning to non-strikers."

What happened next remains unclear. The standoff took place on a hill, with police and miners facing each other. Seconds before the shooting began, the policemen appeared to be stepping backward, while the miners advanced, several hurling what were either grenades or petrol bombs. Footage from Al Jazeera reveals a miner aiming what appears to be a handgun at police, and what sounds like a shot fired from the miners’ side of the hill. Two minutes later, 34 miners were dead.

A week later, the country is still reeling. The Marikana massacre, recalling apartheid-era violence and portending potentially devastating conflict, is South Africa’s "Back to the Future" moment. It reminds an already fragile nation that it lacks responsible leadership, basic public services like safety and security, and, too often, rule of law. The country remains one of the most violent in the world, with 43 murders reported every day. Many remember the apartheid-era police, who saw black people as inhuman and therefore eradicable, and see this inhumanity echoed in the actions of today’s police force.

For many South Africans, Marikana reminded them of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when the apartheid police killed 69 black people who were peacefully protesting against a government that was systematically denying them their rights. Sharpeville was the day that peace died, quite literally, as the massacre encouraged the country’s largest liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), to replace pacifist activism with violent resistance. Sharpeville mobilized international support against the South African government’s racist policies, and — though it took decades of increasingly aggressive sanctions — was the beginning of the end of apartheid, which finally fell in 1994.

Marikana and Sharpeville are similar in their scale and sense of awful spectacle, in their brutality, lack of accountability, and use of excessive, authoritarian force. But unlike in Sharpeville, the Marikana miners were striking violently, not peacefully. And the narrative of Sharpeville — a racist minority against a vibrant majority, oppressor against oppressed, black against white, right against wrong — was altogether more coherent. The Marikana crisis is more confused.

Marikana represented a struggle between labor and corporatism, but was also a turf war between rival unions. The National Union of Mineworkers is the largest union in the country. But an aggressively expanding upstart, the Associated Mining Construction Union (AMCU), has been attempting to neuter NUM. According to the majority union, AMCU promised the miners the unrealistic increase in salary that incited the strikes. But the upstart union denies responsibility, and blames NUM for a lack of leadership. NUM is part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which, along with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, forms the country’s all-important political union, the tripartite alliance. (The former New York Times Johannesburg correspondent Donald G. McNeil Jr. quipped in 1995 that South Africa is "the most acronym-mad milieu this side of the United States Army.") With Zuma’s ANC unwilling to antagonize COSATU before an important ANC election in December, the government initially ignored the spiraling violence at Marikana.

While the unions engage in a tug-of-war game of blame, Lonmin’s reaction to the crisis has been counterintuitive and self-destructive. Lonmin’s CFO, Simon Scott, said on state television on August 19 that "the way to get stability is to get back to work … we will allow time, in due course, to recognize the tragedy." It sounded as if Scott was telling not only his traumatized employees but all South Africans to pull yourself together and get over it. Scott also said that the crisis was "greater than a Lonmin problem, it’s a South African problem." While undoubtedly true, this sounded to some like a not-so-canny corporate attempt to evade accountability. On camera, Scott came across so glibly and coldly that Lonmin had to apologize for appearing to be "arrogant."

Lonmin has demanded that miners return to work this week or lose their jobs. As of Tuesday, 33 percent of the workforce has returned. The company is losing billions and may already also have lost the public relations war.

If there are any winners in this tragedy, the list surely includes Julius Malema, the former ANC Youth League president expelled in 2011, officially for "sow[ing] division and disunity in the ANC." Malema blames his expulsion on Zuma, an ally turned enemy, whom he is agitating to overthrow. And in Marikana, he sensed an opportunity, journeying to the massacre site on Saturday, telling miners, "President Zuma is murdering our people. President Zuma will continue to murder our people." (Never mind that in 2008, Malema informed a rally, "We are prepared to die for Zuma. We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.")

As for Zuma, he now finds himself in a difficult position, afraid of intimidating COSATU and incapable of criticizing either the miners or the police, who have their own politically powerful union, before his December election.

While he was initially slow to respond to the crisis, Zuma has been impressively empathic since Friday. Perhaps he remembered how his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, was criticized for failing to immediately address a wave of xenophobic violence in 2008 against African migrants that left 60 dead. The president cut short a diplomatic trip to Mozambique to visit Marikana, where he met with the families of the victims. He declared a week of mourning. He established a judicial commission of inquiry into the killings, but instructed South Africans to reflect on events and to try and refrain from blame. Unlike Scott, he at least sounded sincere.

But Zuma, much as he pleads against pointing fingers, is far from blameless. His government remains complacent, corrupt, and quick to coddle special interests. Marikana and its aftermath illuminate Zuma’s lack of leadership and indecisiveness by curtailing either a police force run amuck or unions who have become so politically powerful — and whose leaders have become obscenely wealthy — that they think themselves untouchable. With strong pockets of support in strategic areas, Zuma will probably survive Marikana and win re-election in December. The question is: Can South Africa survive Jacob Zuma?

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