Marikana – Turning-point or just another local incident?
Richard Stupart argues eloquently that the tragedy at Marikana is something more than just another violent incident. I use tragedy rather than the much-hyped term “massacre” intentionally. While the situation at Marikana tragically left 45 people dead, I’m not sure it’s responsible to characterise it as a massacre. I’m also not convinced that the black-and-white terminology is convincing anyone else anymore.
What at first shocked the nation as a simple-to-comprehend case of the big, bad government murdering its own citizens, has emerged over the past week – and is likely to continue to unfold so over the coming weeks – as a much more complicated situation. Conflict between different unions vying for power and influence probably fuelled the violence. In spite of the shock and horror of the liberal media, this isn’t exactly unprecedented. The mining company played a role in how they handled the run-up to the crisis, as well as the post-crisis management, but a 300% salary increase demand when the price of platinum is depressed isn’t an easy request to stomach. Of course, the Platinum mining companies are also learning what gold learned a long time ago – that worker satisfaction is not directly linked to the demands of unions and that blaming other people, whether or not you’re right, generally doesn’t help. The local municipality bears some blame – whether or not the miners identified them as such – for their dismal (and desultory) attempts at service delivery. Anyone who has visited townships in the area knows that the once-off donations from mining companies (even on the rare occasions that they really are the schools and clinics people want) can’t take the place of regular, everyday, ordinary municipal services. Basically, it’s complicated. What is clear, however, is that it is not a situation where the police systematically built up to an outright attack on enemies of the state. This wasn’t even primarily about the government. The cops were called in to try and keep the peace in a fight between labour and capital.
And that is where the situation differs from Sharpeville. An awful lot of commentators, it seems, would like to see this as a start, a symbol of the people rising up against an unjust, oppressive government system. They assert so, however, with little actual evidence.
That the police have become increasingly determined to put down escalating, violent service delivery protests, that there are groups who threaten loudly to make certain parts of the country ungovernable, seems terrifyingly like the start of an uprising. Unfortunately, the reality is rather more of the media choosing to amplify extreme voices than a true representation of the situation.
Yes, some people – mostly young, unemployed individuals living in townships and informal settlements – are angry. But across South Africa, every day, millions of people do not rise up against the government. And, more importantly, every few years those same millions choose to re-elect said government. To suggest that they do so for any reason other than that it is the government they want is the worst kind of patronizing. I’d guess people keep voting for the ANC because they ANC has done just what they said they’d do: provided a better life. The system isn’t anywhere near perfect and there are an awful lot of municipalities where things are a dismal mess. But a large number of people who did not have schools before, now have schools; who did not have clinics before, now have clinics; who did not have houses or improved toilets or electricity or access to clean water before, now have all these things.
This is not to suggest that the government has done enough for everyone. Not by a long stretch. But to suggest that nothing has changed or that the government has done nothing for the vast majority is naive. Perhaps it is this belief that accounts for some of the more dramatic analysis suggesting that there is a cold war being waged between the government and the poor/majority/voters and that any violence must be symptomatic of that.
But a war with the government assumes the masses are massing. It suggests that violence is brooding in the centre, right where the majority live. It suggests that ordinary people – a group, for the record, more diverse than disaffected youth and pay-increase-demanding miners – are ready to take to the streets.
There is no evidence that this is happening. Instead, violence continues at the margins. The workers at Lonmin were protesting for a direct and immediate improvement to their own lives. They wanted better wages, better living conditions and possibly better union reps, but they wanted this for themselves, not for everyone in the country. Neither they, nor the many individuals involved in service delivery protests in various places, have shown a desire to rise up against the system as whole. In some cases, in fact, such as parts of the Western Cape, the concerted action seems designed to favour the current system, or at least the current national government.
Could the system be improved? Of course. But unlike the Apartheid system, the majority now have the choice to change the system. We have had that choice for nearly 20 years. And yet the majority has not chosen wholesale change. The idea that the majority is “being repressed” is difficult to sustain in a functioning democracy. Particularly when the numbers show that inequality is slowly decreasing and that the government has successfully provided at least the major once-off changes (houses, electricity, voting rights, social grants) to millions and millions of people.
Perhaps the masses should overthrow the South African system. Perhaps it is a corrupt and unsustainable system inherited from our Apartheid past. I don’t know. But Marikana and incidents like it are not evidence that this happening – they’re messy, complicated, personal, local conflicts, no more national and nation-changing than on-going inter-tribal violence in parts of the Eastern Cape and KZN.
Image by bobbychuck24 (flickr)