/ 28 September 2012

A history of violence and elusive hope

Santu Mofokeng’s images are a perfect complement to the narrative in Violence in a Time of Liberation.
Santu Mofokeng’s images are a perfect complement to the narrative in Violence in a Time of Liberation.

VIOLENCE IN A TIME OF LIBERATION: MURDER AND ETHNICITY AT A SOUTH AFRICAN GOLD MINE, 1994, by Donald L Donham with photographs by Santu Mofokeng (Duke University Press)

In the wake of the Marikana murders, the question is constantly being asked: How did we get to this? Like the anti-immigrant violence of May 2008, Marikana was exceptional in scale but not in form — it was a momentary manifestation of a violence arising from deeper and ongoing forms of brutality and inequality that are pervasive in South Africa society.

Yet it sometimes takes a major event for us as a nation (although the word now seems irreparably tainted) to reflect on ourselves. The study of history is now as critical as it ever was. It seems necessary to retrace the paths our country has taken.

Violence in a Time of Liberation by Donald Donham, a University of California anthropologist, published last year, offers a prescient narrative of mine violence. Based on a study of a mine called Cinderella, it provides a piercing and lucid exposition of the path to this violence in a post-1994 moment.

On June 16 1994, two Zulu mineworkers were murdered and five others injured on a gold mine on the East Rand of Johannesburg. Their lacerated, beaten bodies were a by-product of post-liberation euphoria.

On the evening of turmoil, tele-vision commemorations of the 1976 Soweto uprisings inspired a group of Xhosa men armed with pangas and knobkerries to mobilise in the compound and attack Zulu workers, who were a minority at the mine.

What motivated the murders, the book asks, and to what ends?

Mine management, the media and even many miners saw this as another case of ethnic violence spilling over on the East Rand. At the time, violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) was rife and party divisions were becoming split along ethnic lines.

Donham, however, dismisses ethnic hostility as an easy explanation for the violence. His answer draws on research at the mine shortly after the murders, involving extensive interviews and readings of mine records. The setting and characters are anonymised, though sometimes thinly.  

Donham shows that the legacy of apartheid capitalism — the hostile daily conditions of the mines and their ethnic stratification — had a strong role to play in creating the conditions for conflict.  

But the violence was not simply a product of the past: it appeared at the crossroads between the mine’s criminal economy and the moment of national liberation.  

South African mines at the time were struggling with depleted ore stocks, which lowered profits, and were under pressure to reform labour relations. Faced with a poorly organised array of trade unions at the mine, Cinderella’s management sought a respectable negotiating partner in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

As in the case of Marikana, the local branch of NUM was losing support on the mine. To gain support, the union relied on an ethnically based Xhosa gang known as the amabutho. The amabutho controlled the circulation of illicit goods on the mine — alcohol, ganja, weapons and sex. In so doing, the NUM sacrificed a non-ethnic platform.

Donham suggests the amabutho were directly responsible for the murders, though no one was ever convicted. However, the narrative of what happened afterwards exposes a cynicism by both union and management. The NUM gave little support to its Zulu workers on the mine immediately after the attacks, and mine management eventually retrenched 350 of them, in order to hush further tensions.   

The workings of the amabutho, however, remain elusive and the motivations for the murders somewhat speculative. The author suggests that the brutality of the killings evokes “some notion of moral purification, of wiping away the evil within the compound — and within the nation”.

These clouded areas are perhaps inevitable: an archive of violence will always have its missing folders, its burnt pages of which no one will speak — or if they do, only in fragments or allusion.

Santu Mofokeng’s photography grounds this narrative. The book includes his shadowy, boozy images of beer halls and card games; portraits of vitamin salesmen and drug dealers; landscapes of abandoned mining compounds. Workers carry their mattresses and buckets of water through open lots, or dissolve into underground seams of rock and light.  

The unassuming image of miners loitering around the compound gate takes on a particular significance. To control the gate, where the crowd gathered after the violence, was to have power in the compound. But the gate also had a symbolic function: it controlled who was an insider and who was an outsider in the new South Africa.

Battle lines
Donham argues that the events at the mine tapped into a wider populism. The position of Zulus as authentic citizens in the new nation was placed in doubt, according to the author, by non-Zulu ANC supporters. This sentiment arose as a response to the political violence, along with Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s associations with the apartheid state and his brinkmanship over the 1994 elections.

Donham makes the connection between the violence of the early 1990s and the xenophobic violence in recent years. Although Zulu communities are now firmly assured of their place in the national order, the lines of who is in and who is out are still being drawn violently.  

But a connection with the recent violence at Marikana can also be traced. Of course, the paths to violence are not simply analogous. However, there are common threads: violence emerges when the institutions of national liberation falter and lose their hold as guardians of the social contract. The rhetoric of liberation is then reinvoked in new conflicts.

The central point of this book has a disquieting importance here: violence is not anathema to a political and moral community, but part of its creation. It arises not simply from the absence of governance but can also be viewed as an attempt to establish a new social order and hierarchy.

In this light, perhaps we can view Marikana as a morbid symptom of an unfinished struggle.

The shack settlements around the platinum mines are the outcome of the living-out allowances paid by the mines — an attempt by the mines to defer responsibility for the well-being of the workforce.

New patterns of authority are emerging and, as University of the Witwatersrand-based researcher Crispen Chinguno has found, these are becoming no-go areas for state officials and police.

And we may ask: What inchoate social orders can be read in the Marikana violence? What is the nature of life in these settlements on the peripheries of capital, and what economies of disillusion give power to the new unions? What seeds of national hope remain and how will these sprout among the blood-inscribed stones?

Plus, let’s not forget: What political hierarchies allow co-ordinated and systematic police murder followed by the complicity of capital and prosecutors?

Violence in a Time of Liberation offers an exemplary example of how historical ethnography can be used to study violence. It probes us to give time and labour to understand better what has happened, even if its meanings remain elusive. For violence, too, is a way of remembering our disappointed hope.   

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society, based at Wits University. Santu Mofokeng’s exhibition Chasing the Shadows, showcasing 30 years of his work, is at the Basement Gallery and Strip, Wits University, until October 14