Updated: Aug. 17, 2012 at 7:40 a.m. EST
South African police opened fire on a crowd of striking miners on Thursday, killing 34 people and leaving a field strewn with bodies in a massacre that instantly revived memories of the brutality of apartheid. At a press conference Friday, the South African Police Service claimed its officers had been under attack by a group of miners armed with machetes, spears and clubs when they opened fire with automatic weapons into a crowd a few meters away. They added that 78 strikers had been injured and 259 arrested.
Regardless of whether the police were provoked, the shooting of demonstrators automatically invoked memories of massacres of protesters carried out by South African forces under apartheid, which ended in 1994. Calling for the suspension of all police officers involved pending charges of murder and/or culpable homicide, the independent think-tank, the South African Institute for Race Relations, said television reports clearly showed “that policemen randomly shot into the crowd with rifles and handguns. There is also evidence of their continuing to shoot after a number of bodies can be seen dropping and others turning to run.” Referring to the security services’ notorious killing of 69 anti-apartheid protesters in March 1960, it added: “This is reminiscent of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. What happened at Lonmin is completely unacceptable.”
While not agreeing, the country’s political leadership expressed horror at the police action. Mac Maharaj, spokesman for South African President Jacob Zuma, said the head of state was “in shock that an industrial dispute has degenerated to such a point, to such a tragic loss of lives.” In a later statement, Zuma added: “We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence.” Lonmin chairman Roger Phillimore said in a written statement: “We deeply regret the further loss of life in what is clearly a public order rather than labor-relations-associated matter.”
Lonmin, the world’s third largest producer of platinum, shut down its South African operations on Tuesday after 3,000 workers walked out a week ago, demanding a tripling of wages. Before Thursday’s killings, the strike at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana in northern South Africa had already claimed 10 lives, including those of two policemen and two security personnel, in clashes sparked by the rivalry between two rival unions, the National Union of Mineworkers and the more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
The AMCU’s emergence is a symptom of the smoldering and sometimes violent discontent in South Africa’s townships, where anger runs high at the corruption of Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) government and its establishment union allies, their failure to alleviate poverty and the continued white domination of the economy. Every week sees a fresh “service delivery” protest erupt in a different parts of South Africa. In July, Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape province and head of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, asked Zuma to deploy the army to the Cape Flats, the sprawling township outside Cape Town that is home to millions, after 23 people, including seven children, were killed in gang shootings. A war between rival gangs over territory and the illegal drug trade were the immediate cause. But the violence has its roots in widespread economic deprivation: most available jobs in the Flats rarely extend beyond casual, manual labor that pays as little as $10 a day. Coupled to that, many poor South Africans have little hope that their grievances can be addressed legitimately when faced with a political system that, though ostensibly a democracy, is so dominated by a single political party — a legacy of its victory over apartheid under the towering leadership of Nelson Mandela — that the ANC can seem all but unaccountable to its electorate.
Some in the ANC do understand this. On Wednesday, presenting a revised national plan to Parliament, which, in a nation of close to 50 million people, called for the creation of 11 million jobs by 2030, Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel warned of a “huge chasm” between today’s South Africa and one where poverty and hunger are eliminated. Around 40% of the country survived on an income of 432 rands ($52.30) or less per month, he said. “Without faster progress, there is a real chance that South Africa could slide backwards [as] dealing with the immense challenges overwhelms our capacity to succeed,” he added. Setting out a series of targets and milestones for government, Manuel said, “We’re aware we will not hit all of these, but all of us need a consciousness of how wide off the mark we actually are.” Whether the likes of Manuel can succeed in turning the South African government into an entity truly willing and capable of addressing the needs of its people is open to question, however. As Manuel admitted to reporters outside Parliament: “Our weakness is implementation.”