Activists decry talk of ‘third force’ at Marikana

The Marikana dust appeared to have just settled on the bodies of the 34 dead miners last week when the spin machines started whirring out the spectre of a "third force", whispering of "agents provocateur" and "criminal elements" at work.

The suggestion, presented with a sprinkling of muti, was that the 34 miners would not have been shot dead by police if some unseen hand had not been at work, manipulating miners' away from the organized neatness of the National Union of Mineworkers (Num) and the tripartite alliance towards an illegal strike and a nefarious – but undefined – end.

Lonmin, Num, the ANC and government, despite being painfully absent in the days immediately after the massacre, still collectively managed to awaken the spectre of something uncertain, but counter-progressive, behind the deaths. Their panicked, heavy, silences, punctuated only by scrambled attempts to fend off Julius Malema's presence, reassure markets or suggest that an un-named Svengali was at work.

According to grassroots activists the accusations of "criminality" and "third forces" are familiar: used to delegitimise and dismiss dissent and grievances – and perpetuate the notion of a society homogenously content with an ANC-led government.

Mnikelo Ndabankulu of the shack dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo noted police's ramped up presence, arrests and intimidation at their marches compared to "Cosatu marches".

Fighting for a living wage
"Treatment by the police is ten times worse than for someone like Satawu [the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, a Cosatu affiliate] who go to the streets and destroy it and chase all the traders away," said Ndabankulu.

Ayanda Kota, chairperson of the Unemployed People's Movement, said these allegations "take the agency away from us. It's the same argument used for the mineworkers fighting for a living wage: they are being used by some 'third force'… Poor people…apparently can't organize. It was the same with Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement – the CIA were behind them."

It is a depoliticisation of discontent that McGill University academic Jon Soske suggested in an online piece this week introduced a "new politics of grief" where "counterfeit mourning" and the packaging of "tragedy and condolences" by those in power "attempts to rob these deaths of any political meaning".

Nigel Gibson, professor at Emerson College and author of Fanonian Practises in South Africa said: "Criminalization is absolutely essential to dividing a movement. It hamstrings it. But also it is an important tactic to dissipate support from outside, just as was done after the attacks on Kennedy Road [informal settlement in Durban, the former Abahlali headquarters]. Immediately the media focus – strategically promoted by the ANC of course – was to accuse Abahlali members for the murders and thereby not only criminalize the whole organization but create confusion among potential supporters in civil society. That the case was later thrown out of court and the accused acquitted is less important. The criminal label has already done its work."

The 2009 attacks on Kennedy Road left two people dead and allegations continue to circulate that the ANC was involved in an attempt to eviscerate the uppity social movement.

Richard Ballard, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's school of development studies, and co-editor of Voices of Protest: Social Movements in Post-Apartheid South Africa, noted in a chapter of a volume entitled Democratising Development that the ANC has a "somewhat hysterical response" to the various social movements that emerged post-1994 that "may initially be seen to be an over-reaction" in light of its large electoral majority.

"Yet they can be read as a shrewd attempt to monopolise the definition of legitimate expressions of citizenship," continues Ballard.

This monopolistic impulse, combined with paternalism derived from an electoral majority and increasingly authoritarian tendencies by state security apparatus expressed itself most extremely in Marikana.

Rhodes University's school of journalism's Jane Duncan, said the violence could not "simply be attributed to the militarization of the police" but also reflected a global policing trend that "has moved away from a facilitative, rights-based approach to protest to something more authoritarian".

The replacement of Public Order Policing units by police untrained in crowd control and leadership's shoot first messaging where also contributing factors she added.

Academics like Ballard suggest that events like 2002's World Summit for Sustainable Development, when civil society mobilized more numbers than the "official" ANC-organised march, thus "upstag[ing] it" were pivotal moments in the ANC's response to dissenting voices. The ANC's hold on popular mobilization and its mantle as the majority's representative was threatened.

Mainstream press
This while ANC demagogues attacked the tripartite alliance's "ultra-left" opposed to government's Growth, Employment and Redevelopment macro-economic policy.

In 2002, SACP deputy secretary-general Jeremy Cronin was humiliated for warning against the "Zanufication" of the party. Cronin in an interview with Helena Sheehan talked of the conjuring of the "spectre of the [ultra]left", a tendency with "quasi-treasonable" intent according Thabo Mbeki's pitbulls.

The growing sense in civil society was if there was a clamp down on dissent within the tri-partite alliance, there was also less space outside it.

Duncan noted the emergence of dynamic social movements in the early 2000s twinned with "increasing abuse of activists [away from the barricades] that has been inadequately documented by the mainstream press."

Random arrests and torture appear commonplace: Kota said UPM meetings were regularly disrupted by ANC members and that he was publically undressed and beaten in a police station earlier this year. Goaded by police for being the Grocott Mail's 'Newsmaker of the Year'.

When international eyes focus on South Africa, the response is insidious. At a civil society march on Cop17 in Durban last year, the Democratic Left Front's Rehad Desai remembers municipality volunteers disrupting it." Stones and blows were exchanged. One "volunteer" told the M&G they were there "to defend the president [Jacob Zuma]".

From state intelligence infiltrating social movements to the murder of Marikana miners, there appears a greater intolerance towards dissent.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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