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.