Editorial: Silence that hurts
The guns fell silent after three minutes, leaving 34 people dead, and then the clamour began. First the sounds of outrage and weeping and then, louder and louder until they drowned out the mourning, the war drums of ANC factions and their proxies among the expelled leadership of the ANC Youth League.
As the Zuma administration, Lonmin management and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) floundered in the immediate aftermath, Julius Malema took the initiative. Malema may not have an organised mass base outside the ANC, but he is a past master at going where there is pain and a sense of alienation from the centres of power and letting that pain amplify his own cry from the political wilderness.
He was cheered by strikers led by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) at Impala Platinum as early as March and he was the first major figure on the scene at Marikana, railing against Jacob Zuma, Lonmin director Cyril Ramaphosa and white capital.
In the annals of grotesque opportunism this will go down as a particularly brilliant sally, drawing together the legitimate outrage of marginalised people, the populist nationalisation platform built by the Youth League and Malema's own position vis-à-vis the ANC and the NUM, which largely supports Zuma's bid for a second term.
It would not have been as easy to pull off had the government, the ANC and mainstream unions not left such an utter vacuum of leadership in the wake of the massacre.
The line consistently spun by Cabinet ministers, and by police commissioner Riah Piyega, was that the police had been justified in responding forcefully to a threat. It was five days before Zuma himself began to articulate a more nuanced approach, push back against Malema's account of events and meet with strikers.
He managed, by and large, to avoid direct entanglement in the personality politics of his young antagonist, insisting that he would not apportion blame before a commission of inquiry had established the truth. He signally failed, however, to strike a chord with a country in deep distress and on the ground the initiative quickly swung back to the rebels. A government memorial service was quickly subsumed into the one organised by the Friends of the Youth League, and government ministers who had been maintaining an awkward dignity staged a walkout as Malema once again laid into the government and ANC leadership.
It was a shameful display of how the party's factional battles have come to dominate national life, a brawl at the graveside over who should inherit the political capital carried by all of those bodies.
Zuma's strongest moment this week came just minutes later, with the announcement of wide terms of reference for a commission of inquiry chaired by retired appeal court Judge Ian Farlam. The police, Lonmin, Amcu, the NUM, the government and individual actors will all come under scrutiny.
The results, Zuma's critics will point out, are due to go to him after Mangaung, but that seems inevitable given the scale of the investigation, which must, as far as possible, be held in the open to build public confidence.
We need an outcome that builds better conditions for the living – and ends the war over the dead.