Enough is enough: the pain of Marikana

by Chris Bishop 0

Chris Bishop wrote this article on August 17, 2012 – a day after the Marikana massacre. President Jacob Zuma will release the findings of the Farlam Commission on Thursday night.

I am angry. I am sad. I am depressed. This beautiful land is once again soaked with blood and despair. 

As you read this scores of families are weeping and mourning their dead and asking why. It is a pertinent question this continent. How can a powerful nation like South Africa, that emerged bloodied, but unbowed, from decades of cruel oppression, allow itself to slide back into the brutal practise of gunning down poor people who protest.

The TV pictures that flashed around the world from the Marikana Mine, just outside Rustenburg near Johannesburg, were reminiscent of the bad old days of political unrest when the country was tearing itself apart and life was cheap. Piles of dead bodies amid thousands of angry young men armed with sticks and machetes stood against police armed with guns, water cannon and tear gas. They wanted better pay from the world’s third largest platinum miner, which produces more than a tenth of world supply.  This was laced with union rivalry. They were prepared to suffer the painful upheaval of a wildcat strike to achieve this.  I always maintain people do this only when they have little to lose.

These are tough times for every working person in Africa, it is even tougher if you are a lowly paid miner risking your life churning out the wealth of the continent in the dank bowels of the earth. It was a strike that was on collision course from the day when more than 3,000 workers occupied a hill around two kilometres from the gates of the mine.  Tension increased on August 13 when at least 10 people died – including two policemen, who were hacked to death. By the end of the day there was fear and anger on both sides.

The cold facts of August 16 were that the police tried to disperse and disarm the crowds. The protestors refused to go. The police used water cannon. The crowd charged and the police shot at least 30 of them down. The police claim they were fired on first.

As I write this, the police are looking for more bodies. It makes me sick to my guts.

It makes me even sicker when I contrast this slaughter to the scene I witnessed just a couple of days before in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton.  FORBES AFRICA’s man in Lagos, Radithebe Rammutle,   a South African ex-patriate,  and I were walking through the square to the click-click of the high heels of well- heeled shoppers.  In one of the restaurants, there was a strike. Waiters had taken over the restaurant and were singing and chanting at the top of their lungs against pay of around $100-a-month, plus tips. The security guards stood a respectful distance away, the police stood even further in benign deference to workers simply airing their grievances. 

As shoppers strolled by, my colleague and I smiled that this was our South Africa – a country with one of the most liberal constitutions in the world – where people have a right to withdraw their labor and protest without fear.  A snapshot of tolerance and free will that warmed our hearts.

In the same week, there was bloodshed and brutality, on both sides just 122 kilometers away in Rustenburg. True, the illegal strikers of Lonmin were more aggressive and hard to handle than the handful of waiters at Nelson Mandela Square, but surely their right to strike is the same?

Was it merely that there were no tourists or wealthy shoppers around that made it easier to weigh in with brutal tactics? Is it because the open land of Rustenburg is to an extent out of sight, out of mind?

Thank heavens, a free press has been able to record the violence of Rustenburg so people around the world can express their disapproval and bring weight to bear on the authorities to do something about it to make sure it never happens again. 

This documentation of brutal conflict also has its downside on the economic front. Sadly, the modern age of instant reportage means  often magnify these tragedies. It can appear to foreign investors as if the whole country is ablaze. Sadly too for the economy, it can mean that foreign investors, who all too often invest on sentiment, can turn away from a needy economy like South Africa. To prove this point, Lonmin’s share price has fallen during the unrest and, as platinum is a big foreign currency earner, the Rand has also taken a knock.      

As one veteran  political activist once put it to me, the new South Africa talked and negotiated its way out of hell. Surely, it can talk and negotiate to stop itself from falling back in. If nothing else, the red soil of South Africa has seen more than its fair share of massacres. Enough is enough.       

*Chris Bishop is Managing Editor of Forbes Africa. This article was originally published in the September 2012 issue of the magazine.