The Marikana Massacre: 10 Years On

Police advance after shooting striking workers with live ammunition on 16 August 2012. Image: South African History


I do not remember much of my ninth year. In fact, it was perhaps the year in which I shed most (not all) of my naive ways of looking at the world and began to grow into consciousness. I had just turned nine years old when, on Aug. 16, 2012, the South African police shot dead 34 striking mine workers in what we now call the Marikana Massacre. Disconcertingly, it was also the time during which I began to learn about the South Africa that had come before 1994 and before me — of “net blankes” (Whites only) signs and army tanks in Black townships — and the one that I was grateful to have been “born free” of. Over the past 10 years, this cognitive dissonance has increasingly (and troublingly) dawned me. True, I am grateful not to have endured the daily dehumanization of apartheid-governed South Africa. Reflecting on the legacy of the Marikana Massacre a decade later, however, reminds me that the South Africa I call my own is far from utopia.

Perhaps on the day of the massacre, in the heat of the moment and confusion of what actually transpired, one could have innocently accepted the police’s description of what occurred at the Lonmin Platinum Mine located in South Africa’s North West province, situated in the town of Marikana. As the media initially told it, the striking mine workers were in fact a militant criminal mob, responsible for instigating any violence that ensued. The police were consequently absolved of culpability, as they had turned to force only in their own defense.

Such a characterisation of the massacre is factually without basis and and morally negligent. Before the police had shot and killed the 34 mine workers, 10 men, mineworkers, security officers and policemen, had already died under far more obscure circumstances as part of a week-long strike for better wages and a higher standard of living. Working as rock drill operators — which are incredibly technical and dangerous jobs — most of the workers had been earning just $500 a month. They lost their lives asking for a liveable wage of 12,500 rands (approximately $750).

Their employer, the British mining company Lonmin, maintained that higher wages were the greatest threat to the health of its business, and never delivered on their promise to meet with the peaceful protestors in the week that led up to Aug. 16. What followed was a tale of two cites. As a group of miners began to leave the “koppie” (rock) that they had been demonstrating on back home to Nkaneng, the shack settlement where many of them lived, police fired at them without cause or a prior suggestion of escalation. They killed 17 men, almost all of whom had their hands up and were pleading for their lives.

As if this was not horror enough, the police hunted down a second group of protestors and found it possible to kill, again with brutality and impunity. At the second scene, the police again killed 17 men who were also raising their hands in surrender from distances as close as two meters, (seven feet). So much for self-defense.

A face value interpretation of such a cold, barbaric abuse of state force would cast the Marikana Massacre as wildly aberrant in a contemporary South Africa borne of the myth of the rainbow nation, the universal heroism of Nelson Mandela, and the deeply false yet widely-held notion of a bloodless, amenable transition to democracy. An interpretation that pays any attention to detail sees that today, where there was once White supremacy is money. Where South Africa once fought the ills of overt discrimination and legalized racism, today it struggles against poverty, inequality, and raging unemployment. Where there was once apartheid, today there are the worst excesses of capitalism. In Miners Shot Down, a documentary of the massacre, strike leader Mzoxolo Magidiwana decreed that “poverty forces you to forget your ambition, leave school and work as a rock driller at the same mine where your boss will be the son of your father’s boss.”

An unbroken line exists between the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, where 69 Black South Africans were killed merely for asserting their fundamental human right to freedom of movement; the Soweto Uprising of 1976, where as few as 176 and as many as 700 Black South African students, some as young as 12 years old, were killed for affirming their right to an equal and accessible education; and the Marikana Massacre, which occured long after apartheid ended in 1994. It is this succession of state-sanctioned killings that leads one to understand South Africa not as a post-apartheid country, but as a post-1994 one.

What makes Marikana unique, though, is that miners were fighting authoritative figures they could also identify with. Each of the 34 miners shot dead on that Aug. 16 could vote, were under a government that looked like them and was thought to be representing their interests, and had constitutional freedoms. In “Miners Shot Down,” another worker was recorded as saying, “the pain that I am feeling … when I look at you [the police], I only see faces similar to mine. That makes me very sad … when I’m killed by another black brother like me … someone of my kind.” In fact, Lonmin’s non-executive director and one of its largest shareholders at the time of the Marikana Massacre was Cyril Ramaphosa, the current president of South Africa. These are the perils of progress, of being told that your society is past all of the problems that once plagued it: You have to contend with the fact that reality has yet to meet your expectations, and that you have to accept that the most oppressive, violent tendencies of power remain at play.

I wish my nine-year-old self had been more aware of the world around him, and that he would have internalized the severity of this event being broadcasted on national television — but perhaps I am asking for too much. What this means, though, is that as with the reader of this article, my experience of Marikana is largely second-hand; it is comprised of a documentary available on YouTube, of the rare journalism that has sought faithfully and truthfully to present us with the unfolding of Marikana that the police and the state would rather we not see, of the archives and books that try and tell the story of Marikana from below, and of editorials and histories that seek to take their place amongst Marikana’s afterlife.

Yet to suggest that the Marikana Massacre is an event contained within the time of its occurrence and without enduring ripples would be, again, to propagate the wicked lie that Aug. 16, 2012 was an aberration. The Marikana Massacre is as much the story of post-1994 South Africa as any other isolated instance one chooses. It is unique only in its excess. At all other times, it finds its place in a democratic South Africa that has teetered on the brink of upheaval from its inception, and has quickened its pace toward collapse. In his famed poem, Langston Hughes asks what happens to a dream deferred. This one — post-Apartheid South Africa — is due to explode.

If a function of the Marikana Massacre’s memory is to puncture the myth of a post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” characterized by peace and prosperity, let it be so. But let us also remember that the massacre’s memory must be an end in itself. One hopes that the victims of Lonmin’s state and police-sanctioned brutality and those who survive them can achieve the better lives that have so long been promised. It is incumbent on the rest of us never to look away and never to forget.