Ronnie Kasrils: Marikana – It was like poking a hornet's nest

26 August, 2012 — Sunday Times (South Africa) — Those in power say, don’t point fingers. But we need exactly that if we’re to learn from this, writes Ronnie Kasrils.

Our country reels with horror and shock at last week‘s Marikana shootings. There is disbelief around the world that this has happened in a democratic South Africa.

An order was given to deploy almost 500 police armed with automatic weapons, reinforced by armoured vehicles, horsemen and helicopters; they advanced on a desolate hill where 3000 striking miners were encamped. That denoted an order from on high with a determination to carry out a dangerous and dubious operation to clear an isolated, stony outcrop of desperate strikers armed with the sticks and spears often referred to as “cultural” weapons in our country.

These people were hardly occupying some strategic point, some vital highway, a key city square. They were not holding hostages. They were not even occupying mining property.

Why risk such a manoeuvre other than to drive the strikers back to work at all costs on behalf of the bosses who were anxious to resume profit-making operations?

If by occupying that hill the strikers constituted a threat to other workers, officials or rival unionists, then a feasible solution could only be through reasonable, patient negotiations and remedies, no matter the timeline — not a deployment of state force that could only end in the dreadful manner witnessed: 34 strikers dead, up to 80 wounded, their families devastated.

It may well have been instinctive fear that caused the police to open fire as a group of miners apparently desperately charged them, or even possibly tried to get out of the encampment, but why put the law enforcers there in the first place?

The police manoeuvre was akin to poking a hornet‘s nest. What mind-set was behind the police intention?

Who set the agenda? What was the government‘s hand in this? This cannot be kept secret, or can it?

First it was our new national police commissioner who told the nation: “This is not the time to point fingers.”

Our president reiterated the call, word for word, soon thereafter. He naturally announced that an independent judicial inquiry would be appointed. The Minister of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, Collins Chabane, presiding over an interministerial committee, repeated the refrain “we must not point fingers”. It seems the national police commissioner had set the politicians‘ agenda. We dare ask: is this not a recipe for avoiding accountability and just plain stalling until the hue and cry dies down?

We have heard much about the illegality of the strike and the panga-wielding strikers who, it is alleged, brought the disaster on themselves, a clear-cut case of blaming the victims, victims who are among the most exploited of our workforce and who labour under the most dangerous and dreadful conditions — truly the wretched of the earth.

The president hints that there is much that lies behind this incident. Who knows what is implied? Sounds like the stuff of plots and conspiracy.

Of course, much lies behind the catastrophe, which the judicial inquiry should examine — chiefly the exploitative mine owners and the horrendous conditions under which our country allows mineworkers to toil and their communities to fester. Add to the mix trade-union rivalry, demagoguery and intimidation, and previous killings.

Then there is the role of mine management, disputes about pay and conditions, victimisation and dismissals. Whatever manner of cause and effect may be discerned, there is no escaping where the finger needs to point in the first instance.

And that is right at the trigger fingers responsible for mowing people down as at a duck shoot.

Let us not do what the forces of apartheid automatically did in the past and hide the truth about state violence. Let us not create a fog of war around this massacre and declare that fingers must not be pointed, because in effect what that implies is that we shall not point to where responsibility lies.

We shall not point to those who fired the weapons; to those who gave the orders; to those who have encouraged the police to maintain a bellicose culture of “shoot to kill”; to those who failed to train them in acceptable methods of crowd control; to those who decided that the time for reckoning with striking mineworkers had arrived. To adopt such a course will mean that leadership will be exonerated and accountability will become yet another victim.

If we do not point fingers at the right targets, the politicians — who bear executive authority for those who may have given some kind of green light, or by dereliction of responsibility left the police to their own devices — will go unscathed.

We are asked to put our faith in a judicial commission and let the dust settle. Nice, sober talk. But in a democracy that has sworn to make such massacres a thing of the past we need to cry out in the name of humanity and justice and demand full transparency and accountability.

Indisputably the mine owners and managers are guilty for their greed and arrogance. But then we are all guilty for allowing this extreme exploitation of our working people to persist into the 19th year of freedom.

If by default we fail to hold our police system and government accountable for the systemic brutality we run massive risks, detrimental to our very security and democratic freedoms. A judicial inquiry must run its course speedily and, hopefully, provide the truths we desperately need.

A national crisis like this requires frank talk by all concerned South Africans. We need to mobilise and demonstrate solidarity with the victims. Our history reverberates with the words: Do not blame the victims!

For we have seen it all before, from Sharpeville to Bisho and last year‘s police killing of Andries Tatane. If we fail to point to the cause of the gunfire, the fingers will be pointed at the victims as they lie dead in the fields or the streets. And the shootings will continue.

Marikana is undoubtedly a turning point in our history. If we fail to act decisively, we do so at our peril and we leave the space to the demagogues. If, as a young democracy we are to emerge stronger and better we need the truth and we need to spare nobody‘s position or reputation. Above all we need a new deal for our mineworkers and we need a system based on economic justice for the poor of our land. We need a political leadership not distracted by holding on to their positions at all costs, but one focused night and day on urgently solving our people‘s problems and serving their needs.

[Ronnie Kasrils is a veteran SACP members, author, activist and former ANC government minister.]

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