Opposition members of the South African parliament spent today asking questions about the Lonmin Marikana shootings, and the one question they asked more than others was “Who authorised the use of live ammunition?”
It is the main question the South African government should answer, but it might do us well here in our part of the world to consider that question.
In all the hot exchanges of the past couple years we’ve had about the Occupy protests, one question none of us have needed to ask is “Who authorised the use of live ammunition?” Thankfully, in those protests, no one has. The protesters, for whatever they have done that meets or fails to meet with my approval, have not killed anyone; but equally important, neither have the police. There has been a stand-off, but not a die-off.
South Africa, right now, is different in that regard.
There are some easy answers to the question “Who authorised the use of live ammunition?” and some which are a little more difficult.
It is pretty obvious that the AMCU-led wildcat strike had a comfort level with violence from the very beginning. The appearance of pangas (machetes), knobkerries (clubs) and assegais (spears) at strike rallies on the mining site were obvious from the very beginning, and it was also obvious from the very beginning that pro-AMCU workers were willing to use them not only purely defensively, but against other workers not supporting their strike and against security or police officials.
The strikers subsequent welcoming of the divisive demagogue Julius Malema to speak on their behalf afterwards also suggests an emphatic willingness to embrace violence. Malema is a troublemaker, and the kind of trouble he makes will do no one any good. He has been notorious for involving himself in controversies relating to the public singing of particularly violent “struggle songs” from the struggle against apartheid (such as the song called “Bring me my machine”, which refers to a machine gun, and “Kill the Boer”, which exhorts people to kill Afrikaners). These were songs which might have made sense in the context of South Africa’s warlike conditions during the apartheid struggle, but which are nothing but provocations now. (Think of a song exhorting people in our part of the world to arm themselves to “Kill the German” nowadays, when we are no longer at war with the Germans, and I think you’ll get what the difference is.) The strikers giving Malema a soapbox to stand on is neither wise nor likely to lead to positive results.
But the police nevertheless did not have to resort to such openly lethal force to deal with this threat, substantial though it was. It is common here on this side of the pond to see people disparage police equipping themselves against protesters with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, but had the South African Police Service used rubber bullets instead of real ones, 34 people might still be alive today.
The reason the police officers fired live rounds into the crowd, I think it must be conceded, is that they were afraid. This is understandable under the circumstances, of course. Police officers had been killed earlier on by the strikers.
Fear is a major part of this story, though, and to really resolve things, that fear must be dealt with.
Police officers can’t resort to lethal force just because they are afraid. There are other ways to control crowds.
But the fear shown by the police pales before the fear of the ANC government and the NUM union officials, where Lonmin Marikana is concerned. Both the ANC and the NUM are isolated from the day-to-day concerns of the mineworkers on site. This got out of their control because both the ANC and the NUM have been more concerned with placating Lonmin’s management than helping workers.
Much is made of the idea that businesses, if they are not satisfied with the levels of political control with which they must deal, can now, in our globalised world, pick up and move the company. Yet, could it be more obvious that Lonmin cannot pick up and move a platinum mine elsewhere? If the ANC and NUM were willing to challenge Lonmin, here and now, South Africa could be healed after this pointless tragedy.
Fear of confronting the real problem is the most toxic kind of fear South Africans have right now. But if South Africans do not confront the real problem, what comes next may be scarier than that.