Between the Lines

by Judith February, 22 August 2012


It has been a grim week.

The events at Lonmin’s Marikana mine have left a deep stain on our country. But it is not only a stain, it is also a deep wound which must be healed in some way.

It is a story of desperation and inequality; one of violence and anger. Many have been asking how we arrived at this place 18 years into democracy when our Constitution provides mechanism for dealing with conflicts and when we have solid labour laws. Yet, for the past few years there has been an alternative discourse fomenting in South Africa. It is one of protests against corruption and mismanagement at local government level. We have labelled them ‘service delivery protests’, another example of a language which seeks to portray citizens as passive recipients of government grace. Often these protests have turned violent. They simmer at the heart of South African society, eating away at our already tenuous levels of social cohesion given the persistently high levels of poverty and inequality.

In Ficksburg in 2010, Andries Tatane was shot dead by the police in one such protest, while holding up his arms in surrender. Yet, we do not seem to have learned the lessons of Tatane’s death.

But the issue goes much further than a culture of policing. To narrow Marikana down to a policing matter will ensure that we don’t answer the hard questions of the ills of our society or the unacceptable inequality which leads men to become desperate and depraved. We cannot ignore the culture of violence ingrained in our society. We have some idea of its roots and yet we are no closer to building a decent society than we were when apartheid ended.

We also cannot ignore the culture of political impunity and power-mongering which has now become common-place within the ruling ANC. When words fail, chairs are flung and violence erupts. At the ANC conference in Polokwane in 2007, shouting down leaders was par for the course. What does that tell us about the way in which our current leadership views deliberation and problem-solving?

And what is the line between that and a culture of broader societal intolerance? Probably a rather thin one. Where, one wonders, is the outrage of Gwede Mantashe and Blade Nzimande who were so vocal in their opposition to ‘The Spear’ artwork? Is only President Zuma worth defending by mobilizing thousands? Clearly, the dead of Marikana warrant no such organisation or outrage.

Underlying the dispute is also a deep political one about the power struggle between a rival union and the organized COSATU affiliate. The details of that affect the ANC conference at Mangaung and whether Zuma survives for a second term. It is about the powder-keg which modern South Africa has become; the unfortunate story of a political establishment which has become removed from its core constituents and about desperate, angry mine-workers and mining companies quite used to exploitative practices to create wealth. We would fool ourselves if we did not recognize Marikana as a watershed moment in post-apartheid history; that point at which things shifted because we have come face to face with our demons. No longer can the faces of desperate men be hidden from our sight, no longer can they be the faceless, nameless ‘other’. They cast an indelible shadow over the land.

There will be a commission of inquiry. Yet, that commission of inquiry cannot take us into the soul of South Africa, or on the deep journey to understand what Mamphela Ramphele refers to as our ‘social pain’ and the effects of inequality’s degradation. Instead it may well seek merely to absolve the power-brokers and appease the outraged.

And so potentially, Marikana could happen again. We are too slow to learn the lessons of our past and also too slow to grasp the implications of what has been happening on a macro level both socially and politically.

The tragic events of this week tell a rather different story to what we all imagined for a democratic South Africa in 2012. It was not supposed to be like this.

So we mourn not only for our dead at Marikana but for ourselves. Alan Paton’s words of 1946 still ring true: This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauties of any country. Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind……Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.”  

Judith February is head of Idasa’s Political Information and Monitoring Service (PIMS)


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