Marikana (from 2012)

How to turn a mas­sacre into a mere tragedy

Business Day, 14 Sep 2012, An­thony But­ler

IT HAS be­come hard to rec­ol­lect that there was a mas­sacre as well as a tragedy at Marikana. More than 30 min­ers were shot dead by poorly trained and in­ap­pro­pri­ately armed po­lice. Many of the killings ap­pear to have been in cold blood. Su­san Sha­bangu may have been an ex­cel­lent Min­eral Re­sources Min­is­ter. As deputy min­is­ter of safety and se­cu­rity, how­ever, she fa­mously en­joined of­fi­cers to “kill the bas­tards if they threaten you or the community” — the bas­tards, here, be­ing un­con­victed fel­low cit­i­zens sus­pected of crim­i­nal of­fences.

Such state­ments are not con­sis­tent with the con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tion of the right to life, or with leg­is­la­tion that gov­erns the con­duct of po­lice of­fi­cers. In the af­ter­math of the Marikana shoot­ings (in which “il­le­gal strik­ers” car­ry­ing “il­le­gal weapons” at an “il­le­gal gath­er­ing” were shot dead) it is not ap­pro­pri­ate for her to re­main in her cur­rent of­fice. Po­lice Min­is­ter Nathi Mthethwa is also in an un­ten­able po­si­tion. The res­ig­na­tion of min­is­ters in such cir­cum­stances is not merely a quaint tradition. It re­moves in­ter­ested par­ties from rel­e­vant po­si­tions of power so that for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tions have a greater prospect of un­cov­er­ing the truth.

Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma has reached for his own time­honoured mech­a­nism of crowd con­trol: the com­mis­sion of in­quiry. The os­ten­si­ble pur­pose of such an in­quiry is to un­der­take a non­par­ti­san in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Com­mis­sions are prop­erly used where cul­pa­ble pub­lic of­fi­cials can pro­tect them­selves from in­ves­ti­ga­tion by sub­orn­ing the very in­sti­tu­tions that might in­ter­ro­gate them. They can also as­sist when in­ves­ti­ga­tions must ex­tend be­yond the term of a sin­gle gov­ern­ment.

Such com­mis­sions, how­ever, can also serve ne­far­i­ous pur­poses. They are for­mally un­der­taken at the be­hest of the head of state and they are there­fore im­bued with an un­earned aura of ob­jec­tiv­ity. Their quasi-ju­di­cial pro­ce­dures bol­ster the cred­i­bil­ity of for­mal po­lice state­ments and de­value the find­ings of in­de­pen­dent ex­perts. Com­mis­sions move slug­gishly, which re­sults in the re­lease of their find­ings only af­ter pub­lic dis­quiet and emo­tion has died down (and lead­er­ship elec­tions have been ne­go­ti­ated). In­volved par­ties can, mean­while, refuse to an­swer le­git­i­mate pub­lic ques­tions about their ac­tions on the grounds that this would pre-empt the in­quiry’s find­ings.

Zuma can now re­tain the ser­vices of trusted min­is­ters in the run-up to Man­gaung. The po­lice es­tab­lish­ment has plenty of time to cover its tracks. And bod­ies such as the South African Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion can be dis­cour­aged from col­lect­ing ev­i­dence on the grounds that it will pre-empt the for­mal in­quiry.

The min­ing in­dus­try, mean­while, ap­pears to have del­e­gated the man­age­ment of the Marikana fall­out to its po­lit­i­cal al­lies. The mine in­dus­try’s ten­ta­cles are deeply spread in Zuma’s camp. One re­cent top-six slate touted by Zuma sup­port­ers in­cluded four mem­bers (Zuma, Mthethwa, Naledi Pan­dor and Cyril Ramaphosa) who are di­rectly in­volved in Marikana or have close rel­a­tives in the plat­inum busi­ness.

Even the work­ers’ al­leged cham­pi­ons seem hos­tile to the vic­tims. The Na­tional Union of Minework­ers is a tac­ti­cal ally of Zuma and its fad­ing ap­peal has been im­pli­cated in the Marikana killings. The Congress of South African Trade Unions has par­roted gov­ern­ment’s mantra that “now is not the time to go into a de­tailed as­sess­ment or to play the blame game. We must await the find­ings of the com­mis­sion of in­quiry.” A state­ment last week from the tri­par­tite al­liance even com­plained that ef­forts to in­ves­ti­gate gov­ern­ment or union cul­pa­bil­ity were tan­ta­mount to “dele­git­imis­ing” the lib­er­a­tion move­ment.

The terms of ref­er­ence of the com­mis­sion of in­quiry em­power it to in­ves­ti­gate very widely and deeply in­deed into the ori­gins of vi­o­lence on the mines. It will no doubt pro­duce il­lu­mi­nat­ing and im­por­tant so­ci­o­log­i­cal find­ings.

Such an ap­proach, how­ever, will pre­dis­pose it to dis­perse rather than to at­tribute re­spon­si­bil­ity for the killings. If so, and per­haps as in­tended, it will com­plete the trans­for­ma­tion of Marikana from a mas­sacre into sim­ply a tragedy.

But­ler teaches pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Cape Town.

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