On August 16 2012, police outside the Lonmin mine in Marikana shot and killed 34 striking workers. This week Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa told the Marikana commission set up to investigate the deaths that everyone in South Africa was responsible.
“The responsibility has to be collective,” he said. “As a nation we should dip our heads and accept that we did fail the miners of Marikana and their families.”
He went on to say: “The tragedy that occurred has to be approached as a collective failure.” He was responding to an attacking line of questioning from advocate Dali Mpofu, the lawyer for the families of some of the dead miners. He said Ramaphosa should be held criminally liable for the killings.
At the time Ramaphosa was a nonexecutive director of Lonmin and chairperson of the Shanduka Group, which owned parts of the mine. Emails presented during the commission showed Ramaphosa exerting pressure on senior government officials – such as mining and police top brass – to force an end to the strike.
But should South Africa as a whole own up to the “collective failure”?
‘Evading the truth’
Thaddeus Metz, of the University of Johannesburg’s philosophy department, said the only collective failure was that of the government and the companies involved. Those in power should have taken responsibility, he said.
“It would have been more appropriate if the deputy president had said he and government were taking responsibility when he was in front of the commission.” Instead, the commission had been an exercise in evading the truth, Metz said.
Police commissioner Riah Phiyega had gone so far as to refuse to admit that police had shot at protesters, he said. “It is precisely the job of government to provide a secure environment. It is the responsibility they take on when they assume their positions.”
Ramaphosa’s use of collective responsibility was a way of diverting attention from his own culpability, Metz said.
In his testimony Ramaphosa labelled the living conditions of workers “appalling” and “inhumane”. But he continued to include everyone in the blame for the Marikana massacre, saying: “We bow our heads and accept that we failed the people of Marikana.”
Collective responsibility has another side – collective guilt. By implication, it apparently means South Africans were responsible for the conditions at Marikana because they did not ask about them. The nation as a whole benefited from a system built on the suffering of miners, it seems Ramaphosa was intimating.
The battle over responsibility has stood at the centre of the Marikana commission. The state and police have refused to accept responsibility, saying they fired in self-defence at a perceived threat to their safety. But civil society has argued the opposite.
Bishop Jo Seoka, from the South African Council of Churches, has been an outspoken voice from the beginning. He said in the week of the massacre that a lack of attention had created horrific conditions for workers, with sewage spills making people ill and crime rates increasing. That reality eventually forced workers to ask for better treatment.
The mines, unions and police did not handle the situation properly, he said. Each was therefore responsible for what happened on August 16. He has been a constant critic of the police narrative, saying: “There is enough to say about how they’ve tried to plant things on people, change statements … Police in this country can never be trusted.”
The killed miners were looking for a R12 500 “living wage”. And what Ramaphosa did not mention, which Mpofu raised in his questioning, was the failure of Lonmin to look after its workers. Only three of the 5 500 houses it had promised to build for workers materialised. The platinum producer had benefited from a commodities boom in the 2000s, which saw platinum peak at $2 710 an ounce. This was a decade of so-called “super-profits”. Mpofu argued that this neglect had created the conditions that forced workers to strike for a bigger share of the pie.
Research by the universities of the Witwatersrand and Manchester on the platinum sector, released last month, said these profits had gone to shareholders and executives. Workers had not benefited. “These trends show the prioritisation of shareholder value maximisation, which dictates that costs are minimised, especially labour costs,” the study concluded.
Ngoako Ramatlhodi, the new minerals minister, raised the idea of collective responsibility for the plight of mineworkers at a mining lekgotla this week. “We have a collective duty and responsibility to recognise our ugly and unhappy past, and to act in concert to shape our common future.”
Yasmin Sooka, a commissioner during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, said current labour conditions stem from apartheid: business leaders had used its enabling environment to profit.
“They exploited the slave labour conditions, which remain intact today.” There is therefore some collective guilt for the conditions experienced by workers in Marikana, she said. Those who had voted in “overwhelming numbers” to support the apartheid state “bear a collective responsibility for having benefited from the policies of apartheid and for not contributing in any way to reparations”.
Collective responsibility and collective guilt are strong themes in South African history, especially during apartheid. People voted for the apartheid government, and others stood by as people were necklaced in the townships. By not questioning the system they were supporting, people were by default accepting it. This is at the heart of the philosophy of collective responsibility.
One of the core objectives of the TRC was to get individuals to admit to their crimes, and start dismantling the blanket of collective responsibility.
That blanket does not appear to have been removed. Tapping into collective guilt and responsibility seems to be a convenient way to distract from those in power who make the decisions that they should be held to account for.