a piece I wrote last year in response to the dangerous and pathetic media coverage
of the Marikana massacre which seems to be repeating itself of late
The 16th of August 2012 will surely join March 23 1960* and June 16 1976** as a day of infamy in South African history. The police force of the democratically elected government shot 102 black working-class miners (killing 34 and wounding 78), while arresting an additional 270 men at the Lonmin (London Mining) mine in the small North West town of Marikana. This followed the deaths of 10 other men in the week leading up to the massacre, beginning with the murder of two miners- allegedly by NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) officials.
The initial coverage of the massacre in the print media and the TV footage played out to the world appeared to indicate that the miners – carrying traditional weapons – were shot in a suicidal charge at the police lines. The blame for the deaths was largely placed at the feet of the ‘violent miners’ or the perceived opportunism of the independent union AMCU (Association of Mining and Construction workers Union), who ‘led’ the workers along by making false promises of being able to deliver successfully on the workers’ basic demand of a R12500 wage.
In the course of my own analysis of the coverage I’ve identified four principle narratives of the massacre: 1. the massacre as a threat to the economy, in terms of industrial unrest disconcerting foreign investors; 2. the massacre as a result of inter-union rivalry; 3. the massacre viewed through the lens of the ANC leadership battle, particularly through the political battle between Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma; 4. The massacre as a result of primitive superstition in the form of ‘muti-use’, leading to a ‘suicidal’ charge against police lines and the police shooting in self defense. An example of how these narratives are reproduced is provided by Jane Duncan of the Rhodes Journalism department:
What is emerging in the public domain is a hierarchy of views about what actually happened on that day. The one version of events—which seems to be the version borne out by the television and most journalist accounts, particularly the Sunday papers—effectively points to the striking workers having precipitated the fatal shooting by effectively firing on the police first.
1. The Initial coverage of the Massacre
Later media reports alleged that the miners were driven to this ‘suicidal charge’ by the belief that muti provided to them by traditional healers rendered them invulnerable to the bullets of the police. Other coverage suggested that great beret-clad bogeyman of the white middle-class imagination, ex-ANCYL (African National Congress Youth League) president Julius Malema, whipped up miners into a murderous frenzy using his ‘demagoguery to hit back at his nemesis, President Zuma.
The most farcical moment, though, occurred when the state charged the miners arrested on the day of the massacre with the murder of their own comrades. The sense of this injustice was further accentuated by the widespread reports of torture which emerged from the police cells of the North West.
A survey of media reports conducted by Jane Duncan revealed that only 3% of the reports on the massacre actually included the views of the miners, instead focusing on ‘expert’ opinion in the form of economists, Lonmin management and other elite representatives. Furthermore these narratives consistently referred to the strike as ‘illegal’ and ‘criminal’ in the media. This is despite the fact that wildcat strikes are not illegal according to South African law, they are rather ‘unprotected’ meaning an employer can fire workers embarking on a wildcat strike.
Later reporting, particularly from Greg Marinovitch of the Daily Maverick indicated that the ‘official story’ of the Marikana massacre was an utter distortion of what actually occurred, despite the large presence of journalists at the scene of the massacre. Around half of those killed on the 16th of August, were shot in the back and many were killed at the so-called second kill zone dubbed ‘the small koppie’. Witness reports collected by Marinovitch have indicated that many of those killed at ‘the small koppie’ were executed in Cold Blood. The strike at Marikana lasted over 6 weeks ending in a settlement of a reduced wage demand between the striking miners at Lonmin.
The ANC, NUM, Lonmin and the South African mining industry in general all referred to the massacre as a ‘tragedy much the same as a natural disaster would be something that must be mourned collectively as a nation . With no one in particular being responsible, it was said that ‘the police did their jobs’ and ‘we regret what happened’. In the words of President Zuma, “We must this week reflect on the sanctity of human life and the right to life”, the absent presence being the actual massacre of workers carried out police and the structure of the mining industry which led to the shootings.
Lonmin CEO Roger Phillimore claimed in a statement issued on the 18th of August “that the deaths were deeply regretted” but this did not stop Lonmin from issuing an ultimatum soon after in which the striking miners were told that. NUM also began to refer to a criminal element among the miners and the SACP denied that the miners were really working class at all. Instead, they cited a range of reasons for the massacre: from ‘imperialism’, to a ‘third force’, to a lack of class consciousness. The consensus amongst them was that the miners were essentially criminal and unauthentic in nature.
One SACP salwart, Domnic Tweedie of the SACP’s ‘Communist University’, claimed that: “This was no massacre, this was a battle. The police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to. That’s what they have them for. The people they shot didn’t look like workers to me. We should be happy. The police were admirable”.
It clearly is convenient to these various actors to put as much distance between their own political houses and the worst act of state violence in post-apartheid South African – something I don’t think to be a controversial claim. The question that thus arise is how these claims get reproduced in the representations of the massacre and thus situate the event within a particular set of shared assumptions which are favourable to the established order within the country.
Representations of a political event have real power, they structure both what interventions are possible both by the state and ‘civil society’, they also to an extent are responsible for the idea of the event among the general citizenry and thus are partially responsible for the public reaction to an event, either in terms of support or opposition. They frame events within the dominant ‘common sense’, they structure what possible interpretations of an event are possible within the mainstream media.
One of the first discrepancies that occurred during the initial reporting on the Marikana strike was the body count – a crucial aspect toward understanding the politics behind the killings. Reports such asthis SAPA report from a journalist at the scene of the massacre suggests that there was around 18 dead on that day. A Mail & Guardian news report claimed that at least a dozen were killed.
The following quote seen in the Mail & Guardian the day after the massacre, from provincial health spokesperson Tebogo Legathwane, suggested that “The death toll is standing on 25″. It was left to the police minister Mthethwa to announce a couple of days later that the final death toll was 34 with an additional 78 injured. The reason for this, as it turned out later, was that the majority of those killed at Marikana were killed at a ‘second kill zone’, allegedly execution-style by police special forces, far from the prying eyes of journalists.
As noted by Duncan this raises the issue of embedded journalism as the majority of those journalists present at the scene of the massacre were standing behind police lines and therefore saw only a circumspect view of the massacre. It took independent researchers to later unearth the details how the miners were not in fact charging the police, but instead were being driven from their point of gathering by tear gas and rubber bullets.
2. The Market’s reaction
Moving on to a SAPA article from the day of massacre which cites the opinion of an ‘expert’ in the form of Konrad Reuss of the South African branch of the international ratings agency S&P (Standard & Poors); this expert’s opinion on the impact of the Marikana on South Africa’s overall economic situation was represented in an article titled: “Mine violence puts South Africa’s Structural Flaws in the spotlight warns S&P”.
The first point to be made about this article is the narrative it situates itself within: namely that of ‘economics’ . This understanding of economics uses the market as the universal arbitrator; things are good in so far as they lead to economic growth. Alternatively, things are bad if they scare off ‘investors’ or lead to an economic downgrade.
What precisely are “The Structural Flaws” in the South African economy referred to in the headline- which Konrad Reuss of S&P refers to as something that “we’ve always been concerned about”? They are not specifically identified. rather they are loosely referred to as “(T)he external environment, weaker fiscal parameters and debt”. Such words as poverty, inequality, unemployment, underemployment, living age, lack of a consumer base, two-tired labour market, apartheid and the deaths of the miners are conspicuously missing from this short article.
Instead the expert identifies the key problems concerning investors, thus constructing a image of the massacre in which the principal concern is how the economy reacts to ‘bloody union clashes’ and giving credence to the narrative that Marikana was a result of the AMCU attempting to move in on majority union NUM’s turf. The real concern is that “the external perception of South Africa is definitely not healthy”. The word that appears again and again in this very brief article is “external”, and external I take to be code for ‘foreign investors’. The violence is not condemned in and of itself, but condemned for its role in sparking investor fears.
3. Muti and the Massacre
A series of articles made the link between the Marikana strikers and alleged muti-use, muti being used by the miners in the belief that it would render them invulnerable to bullets or invisible to the police, depending on the account. A Business Day editorial (which has now been removed from their website) made the claim that the strikers were: “…driven by antiquated beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery, [… and believing] in the powers of ‘sangomas’ (witchdoctors) to make them invincible. Try reasoning with that”.
Deputy-president and former NUM secretary-general Kglama Mothlanthe claimed, according to an article in Business Day, that “mineworkers at Marikana had been in a muti-induced trance in which they would either kill or be killed”. He suggested that “it is a tragedy. When they are in a trance they are capable of killing and being killed, because their perception of danger is also blurred”. Before adding the further detail that “The first prescription of the witch doctor would be for a human body part or blood….So the first task is to kill. Once strengthened you can go and intimidate”.
A SAPA article which appeared in the City Press (alluded to earlier) went further and claimed that a rabbit was in fact responsible for the deaths of the miners. According to this report mineworkers claimed that “the medicine man who was alleged to have told them his muti would make them invincible had warned them not to kill the rabbit”. The rabbit was according to this article later killed, by some mineworkers; the reason for the taking of this unfortunate rabbit’s life was however not cited.
It was however stated by one of the mineworkers interviewed that he still believed, “that if it wasn’t for the healer far more lives would have been lost on the day. If we had let the rabbit free all of the dead would still be alive”. The article cited the views of exactly one mine worker and an earlier report, also from SAPA, that was published in the City Press, which made the claim that; “miners drank brown muti to strengthen them ahead of their confrontation with police”. It also quoted a miner who claimed that: “They were cut several times on their upper body and a black substance was smeared on the wounds”.
A SACP press statement issued on the 19th of August, alleged that these killings fitted the pattern of violence of the “pseudo-union AMCU” whenever it has tried to ‘implant itself’ at the mines. The same press statement denies somewhat contradictorily that the violence can be blamed on ‘inter-union’ rivalry. It also claims that SACP members in the area report that the miners were misled into believing they “would be invulnerable to police bullets after having used ‘intelezi’ (muti) and provided they isolated themselves from women and did not turn their backs on the police”. The connection between AMCU and the violence is made again in the Business Day editorial, when it connects AMCU’s origins to the consumption of traditional beer and superstition around fires in rural Pondoland.
None of these articles made any connection between muti and ‘aggressive or violent’ behaviour, it was simply assumed that it existed. No interviewed miner claimed they attacked the police due to the belief that they were immune to bullets. Instead it was suggested by the few miners interviewed, that muti was used purely because it would protect them from police bullets. It’s an unfounded jump to move from this to suggesting that miners were driven by an irrational murderous trance as claimed by Motlante. That aside, would the media ever cite similar Christian rituals and prayers whom, in other situations, people often claimed would protect them? I suspect not.
Julius Malema first entered the scene on the 18th of August, according to a SAPA article titled “Cops distance themselves as Lonmin miners welcome Malema”. The article directs one to believe that the miners welcomed’ Malema. (It should be noted at this point no other major political figure had yet to visit Marikana after the massacre).
The same article refers to a woman holding a placard which read “Julius Malema, Boeremag, please stand up”. The article then refers to the woman explaining that the sign was a message for Malema “that the boer (white men) have killed their husbands”. The word boere fits into the pre-existing discourse of the apartheid-era security police, who were commonly referred to as the ‘Boer’ by black South Africa and later in the context of the national debate/scandal which emerged around Malema singing the struggle song ‘shoot the boer’ .
4. Malema as catalyst
Fast forward two months: NUM has recently issued a statement in which they seem to blame Julius Malema for the mining violence. According to NUM general secretary Frans Baleni, Malema under the banner of the newly formed Friends of the ANC Youth League (aka the Economic Freedom Fighters), “had been mobilising resources, weapons and legal support as early as 2011 in an effort to destabilise the country’s mines”.
Baleni also suggested that the Economic Freedom Fighters had formed an alliance with AMCU to undermine NUM and the country’s mining industry in an attempt to overthrow president Zuma. This sort of accusation fits well within the established ‘third force’ discourse which has been a feature of the country’s political scene since the darkest days of the 1980s and early 1990s when the apartheid state’s tacit support for IFP militas resulted in attacks on ANC/UDF-affiliated activists and communities, resulting in a low level civil war in the Province of Natal and urban areas across the Rand.
As noted earlier these accusations are given air due to the power of the individuals who make these accusations, rather than on their merit. Often the stories carrying the allegations present no counter-arguments. Rather they merely quote, unchallenged, official press statements or speeches.
The continuation of the earlier logic of the need for an intervention to placate the fears of foreign investors is also present here. Stability is a persistent need in both the long term investment prospects and a core prerequisite of the NDR, which is based on a compromise with capital.
NUM, as the official representative of the mining proletariat, which cannot admit to its own failures, instead needs a scapegoat in the form of this shadowy third force. Blade Nzimande of the SACP, even suggested that, “The ring-leaders must be dealt with and separated from the mass of misled strikers, many of whom are not actually employees of Lonmin or even workers”.
5. The Consequences
The denial of the agency of the strikers does several things. Firstly, it places the blame on external subversive forces, justifying further intervention from the state repressive apparatus. Secondly, it criminalises political activity or working class organising outside of official structures. Lastly, it places the state and its allies in a position, defending the ‘stability’ of a nation encircled by subversive ‘counter-revolutionary agents’.
To quote NUM spokesperson Seshoka, who gives us a pretty clear example of this discursive strategy: “The police have to be there, and they must be there in bigger numbers. Even if they are there now they are losing the battle to criminals. They are not losing the battle to strikers, but to criminals – those people are there to cause chaos, to ensure that property is burned, that people are killed. We can’t have the promotion of lawlessness,”
Having established the various representations of the Marikana massacre and narratives given play in the media coverage, the question that still needs to be answered is: what were the results of these representations?
I’ve alluded to the various strategies of intervention necessitated by these modes of representation throughout the course of this section. To recap on these themes: (1) the government needed to intervene in order to placate the fears of foreign investors about the economy; (2) the government needed to intervene to prevent inter-union rivalry, driven by the ‘opportunism’ of AMCU, from destabilising the mining sector; (3) the government is up against an irrational mass driven forward by ‘witchcraft’ and thus a violent reaction was justified; and (4) the government needs to intervene to prevent Malema and his allies from using the miners in a insurrection against the government.
On the 14th of September, president Zuma announced that the army would be deployed in the Marikana area, the North West province and unnamed other areas ‘if needed’ until January next year. A number of reports following this date suggested an unofficial state of emergency was existent in the Marikana area, as the police force had implemented a curfew in the communities surrounding the mines.
People who were suspected of being involved in the strike had their homes raided, while residents had dug holes in the roads to prevent police armoured cars from entering the community. This stand-off between the community and the police appears to have no end in sight.
These images and reports are reminiscent of police and military deployment in the townships during the 1980s when many “emergencies” were declared by the apartheid government. The re-emergence of such authoritarianism in post-Apartheid South Africa , threatens the foundations of what meagre gains have been made since 1994 and the bedrock of the precarious electoral democracy which reigns in the country.
*The day of the Sharpeville Massacre in which 69 protesters were gunned down by the police.
**The days which marked the beginning of the Soweto uprising in which over 500 mostly black youths were killed by SAPS and SADF.