/ 16 August 2022

Marikana stains the tapestry of South Africa’s democracy

Mail And Guardian Illustration Website.marikana
Illustration by Tshepo Mosoeu

No event exposes South Africa’s fault lines like Marikana: from racial inequality to police brutality and from governmental breakdowns to corporate impunity. Marikana is a metaphor for South Africa’s injustices.

Omissions of inquiry

Writer Achille Mbembe succinctly captures the role of commissions of inquiry in political life. They are, to him, exercises in “burying that which is too explosive to confront”. 

The commission of inquiry has long plagued South African history. Historian Premesh Lalu traces South Africa’s penchant for fruitless commissions to the murder and decapitation of the 19th century Xhosa king, Hintsa, by British colonists. Through colonialism and apartheid, commissions became places to safely submerge skeletons. The same is true in our democracy. 

Commissions promise justice and accountability. In the end, they usually deliver neither. So it is with Marikana. 

The Marikana commission stuttered to a close in late 2014. By then it was clear that Judge Ian Farlam, a curious choice to lead the commission, was incapable of parsing Marikana’s intricacies. From the outset, he proved unfamiliar with the cultural nuances and racial disparities at work in Marikana. 

Farlam brought a narrow, legalistic mind to a complex social upsurge. His report, the tone of which suited a mundane tax infraction rather than a major massacre, was non-committal and soulless. 

Omissions of justice

Marikana has also symbolised the limits of law and criminal justice. The titanic and multi-branched legal battle over Marikana rivals any of South Africa’s past judicial struggles. Even today, that battle rages on. But gains, where they exist, have been grinding. 

After Herculean legal efforts, the government has accepted some liability for the massacre. It has settled claims with arrested miners and promises to finalise claims for injured miners by September. That this has taken 10 years, and gargantuan legal energy, is a travesty. 

Beyond this one victory, the legal story has been one of recalcitrance and resistance — from Lonmin, Cyril Ramaphosa, the National Prosecuting Authority and the ANC government. For example, Sibanye-Stillwater (Lonmin’s successor) and Ramaphosa continue to deny any liability. Ramaphosa opposes even an apology. 

Unlike the state, Ramaphosa and Sibanye have conjured technicalities to delay the merits of their liability case. But a trial involving the two private parties is a distinct possibility if they continue to avoid settlement. 

Ramaphosa, Lonmin and other powerful figures may well escape liability, through legal legerdemain. If they do, this will not vindicate them. It will simply prove that money and power can buy impunity. And this will be just another metaphor.

The rise of politicians involved in Marikana is also symbolic. For one thing, Ramaphosa has ascended to the presidency. In many ways, his role at Marikana mirrors his role as president; he is a conduit between private interest and public power. He is the face of capital, of the ANC and of the unity between them. This has persisted so long that it no longer attracts a wince of irony. 

The police brutality that Marikana evidenced has persisted. So, too, have the desperate conditions in Marikana itself.  

As far as criminal prosecutions for the events of 16 August 2012 are concerned, nothing has happened. This failure on the part of the NPA should concern South Africans as much as any state capture case.

For all its redemptive promise, the law alone cannot solve the social crises that burst between the lines of judgments, statutes and constitutional declarations. South Africa is yet to find a way to manifest the promises of accountability so central to the constitutional order. Marikana attests to this reality.

Ten years since the events of 16 August 2012, South Africa is yet to reckon with the causes and consequences of Marikana; 10 years on, Marikana stains the tapestry of South Africa’s democracy; 10 years on, Marikana remains a metaphor.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a lecturer in the department of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.