/ 16 August 2014

Lessons for national healing

Nelson Mandela's home town of Qunu.
Nelson Mandela's home town of Qunu.

On August 16 2012, the South African Police Service opened fire on mineworkers who had been on a violent strike for weeks at Lonmin platinum mines in Marikana near Rustenburg. Twenty-four men were killed on the day, and others died later. Many were injured. 

At the time of writing, a commission of inquiry was in the process of establishing an accurate sequence of events in order to determine ultimate culpability. I shall therefore only deal here with some objective facts that I believe are useful and relevant in explaining the purpose of this book. The strike by mineworkers had been unprotected. In other words, the strikers did not follow South Africa’s labour laws, which expressly give workers the right to strike. They were also armed with an assortment of very dangerous weapons, including firearms, spears and machetes.

Before the massacre took place, at least 10 people connected to the strike had already been killed, many of them allegedly by striking mineworkers. Some of these victims included police officers who were known to have been murdered by the strikers.

In the days after the massacre, national police commissioner General Mangwashi Phiyega seemed to be feeling little regret. She told a gathering of senior police officers that they had done the right thing. She later had to qualify her words when public outrage mounted but she never really recanted, perhaps for legal reasons.

The minister of police at the time, Nathi Mthethwa, was equally unrepentant. He retained his post until he was moved to the ministry of arts and culture after the 2014 general election. He remains a member of the ANC national executive committee. 

On the side of the company involved, Lonmin, the chief executive was gravely ill at the time of the incident and therefore unable to attend to it. All the other senior officials, however, subsequently either retained their posts or left of their own accord for unrelated reasons.

No one, it seems, has taken responsibility of their own free will for any of what happened at Marikana.

Public outrage was severe but temporary. In May 2014, the ANC was returned to power with a resounding majority. People’s anger clearly did not extend as far as removing the ANC from office, although a far smaller proportion of the population voted for the party than had done so at any other point in the 20 years before.

Many of the striking mineworkers were not from Rustenburg or the surrounding areas. Some of them were from outside the country — Lesotho and Mozambique — and others were from the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and other provinces. Most of South Africa’s mineworkers live and work far away from their families and only see them once or twice a year. 

The work they do is backbreaking and it does not pay particularly well. In fact, given the financial obligations many South Africans have in supporting not just core but extended families too, the salaries of the striking workers simply do not go far enough.

The same is true for millions of other workers in the country, who are obliged out of necessity to live apart from their families without the opportunity of being a complete household. This means that women are left to do most of the work that should be done by, or with the help of, their husbands. This is particularly the case in the rural areas. These women are also extremely vulnerable to violence and other forms of abuse, as indeed are women from all walks of life.

Deep examination of Marikana reveals, in many ways, the story of South Africa so far. It has violence, displacement, anger, resignation, hope and potential. So much is rooted in a dark history, the vestiges of which remain very much alive but which can only be resolved by the choices and actions of those who are in the present.

The question I have thought about often, and which is a salient feature of every chapter in my book, Raising the Bar, is whether it is possible to repair South Africa’s broken society and to give it a purpose and strength to face an initially difficult future, but one which can have so much reward for future generations.

In the midst of so many possibilities, there is also much about which to despair. A lot is broken, like families and communities, and we face many hurdles.

I believe that the challenge of our time is the development of ideas that will underpin a new consensus for a united future, where there is just access to opportunities, the equitable distribution of resources and the freedom to succeed in all areas of life. 

This is not a consensus of the victors over the vanquished but the triumph of a new social ethical code that recognises and obliges all of us to sacrifice where necessary for the greater good. This consensus will not be achieved if we fail to acknowledge some basic truths, and the fundamental truth is that we do not have this consensus at all.

Our discourse avoids the most difficult questions. Coming up with solutions that challenge our dearly held narratives and beliefs in order to create a new society appears to be an unexciting task. 

Often “solutions” amount to the propagation of internecine conflict, where one sector of society will eventually defeat the other. It is my view that, should such propositions be actively pursued, this will only result in new imbalances and new, grave consequences.

Our society is fractured and in disarray. Those who are weak are left to fend for themselves while the strong prosper on the bones of those who do not have the means to make something of their citizenship of this republic.

I do not believe that we can build a future together as a people if we do not confront the cancers that make our society sick, and without admitting our culpability in their growth.

It is only when we confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves that we can find genuine solutions to them. Whether or not we have the will to do this or any of the hard work that needs to come afterwards will be revealed by the passage of time.

I do believe that it is entirely possible for South Africans to work together to build a nation future generations can be proud of, that it is possible for us to cohere and to achieve something really great as a country. First we need to start the discussion — as soon as possible.

Songezo Zibi is the editor of Business Day. Raising the Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa is published by Picador Africa, an imprint of Pan Macmillan South Africa. The book will be available next month. Zibi will be on the panel Looking Back, Looking Forward: Twenty Years of Democracy, chaired by Shaun de Waal, on August 31, 9.30am to 11am. They will be joined by Frans Cronjé (A Time Traveller’s Guide to Our Next Ten Years, Tafelberg), Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (Dare We Hope? Facing Our Past to Find a New Future, Tafelberg) and Jane Duncan (The Rise of the Securocrats, coming from Jacana)

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