Why Marikana is our Sharpeville

Aug 23, 12 Why Marikana is our Sharpeville

When the xenophobic riots of May 2008 rocked South Africa, Thabo Mbeki took flak for dragging his feet on deploying the army into the townships to resolve widespread violence that the police seemed unable to contain. Not because the army would have been ineffective in quashing the violence, but because he was unwilling to publicly recreate the symbol of soldiers in the townships, recognising the power that the juxtaposition of soldiers and shacks would have in the public imagination. Regardless of the facts of how the 2008 situation differed from the massive insurrections of the 1980s, Mbeki recognised the danger in the symbolism. That there is a power in being perceived to recreate particular moments from the previous regime’s damned past.

Fast forward to the Marikana massacre of 2012, and comparisons in some quarters of the media between it and the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, where outnumbered police killed 69 people when an angry, stone-throwing crowd charged their lines.

Critics have been quick to point out that Sharpeville – in the detail of the event – is nothing like Marikana. The Sharpeville protestors were directly challenging the abomination that was the apartheid state. The army went so far to harrass the crowd with aircraft. And in all these observations, they are absolutely right. Sharpeville was much, much uglier, and situated in a context that the average (theoretically) rights-enjoying South African would struggle to imagine nowadays.

But as much as Sharpeville-as-detail is unlike Marikana, Sharpeville as a political symbol is a different matter. The political symbol that Sharpeville was, and the work that it did – domestically and internationally – is in a very real way being replayed in Marikana.

The state is at war with the poor majority, and until now we have been able to ignore it.

Both marked moments in the life of the nation where the portion of the country that was able to ignore or downplay their government’s war on the majority were forced to confront a rupture in their shared national myopia. Sharpeville laid bare the brutality of the system that acted to maintain the law and order of the privileged (white) elite. Where it had been easier to pretend before that there was no malevolence, or that it was exceptional, or justified, Sharpeville dispelled all illusion that the state was not a violent machine, brooking no dissent to the stratified society it was intent on holding in place.

So has it been in Marikana.

That the South African state and its security services have become increasingly violent in maintaining an abominably unequal social order is not a surprise to anyone paying attention. Activists in the Kennedy Road settlement and elsewhere who have dared to defy the government in demanding a dignified life have been hunted down in the night by shadowy functionaries of the ruling party. The Western Cape wants to send the army into the townships to restore order. The number of South Africans involved in grassroots insurrection has long passed the point of being disturbing. As have the statistics for deaths of such people at the hands of the police.

The state is at war with the poor majority, and until now we have been able to ignore it. As Sharpeville represented a tear in the fabric of white denial about the costs of their privilege, so might Marikana perform similar work as the moment modern South Africa’s sheltered classes learn to confront the costs of their privilege.

Marikana is not Sharpeville as historical reenactment. It is Sharpeville as the moment the privileged must face the naked violence of the system that supports them.

Marikana has made it impossible for us to claim to the next generation that we were unaware that the majority was being repressed.

Critics of the comparison to Sharpeville are literalists, and therefore miss the point. Making the link between the two is a political claim. A furious demand that the beneficiaries of South Africa’s criminally unequal economic system confront the scale of the crime that they are party to perpetrating on the majority. It’s not about whether the two events unfolded identically, or whether death tolls were the same. It’s about trying to establish the truth that this must be a moment of crisis for the country. The thing that cannot be ignored, and from which the previously acquiescent must become radical. Must begin the work of joining the masses struggling against inequality.

Much is at stake here, because winning the comparison to Sharpeville in the public imagination is to win both the recognition that the state is violent and must be reined in, and to force self reflection by intelligent, ethical citizens who must realise that they will be held accountable for their action or inaction from this moment forward. As events like Sharpeville made it impossible for our parents to claim ignorance about  the violence of the apartheid state and the abominable inequality that made such repression necessary, so Marikana has made it impossible for us to claim to the next generation that we were unaware that the majority was being repressed.

Predictably, there is outrage at appropriating a memory from our history and throwing it back at the current government. “The current government is vastly different to that of the old South Africa” runs the refrain. But there is a difference between “we are vastly different to the old South Africa” and “we have changed in all respects”. And it is in the respects that the state and nation have not changed that the comparisons to apartheid symbols like Sharpeville burn most incandescent.

We are still a nation structured towards the economic exploitation of the majority. The state still uses violence to crush those who wish for a dignified life.

For these continuities with our abominable past, Marikana is our Sharpeville. That moment when the mask is removed, to find that the face of the nation has changed, but some of its most terrible scars remain.


Image by takomabibelot

  • Kristen van Schie

    A really interesting read, Richard. Where I disagree, however, is with the idea of a violent state crushing insurrection. Where the apartheid government actively and fearfully targeted the “swart gevaar”, I feel that today’s government is, instead, emotionally removed from both their poor and their police, enforcing tactics they haven’t fully thought out on a population they hardly acknowledge. Isn’t one of the biggest critiques rising out of Marikana that nobody in power deigned to pay attention until it was too late? But in that sense I suppose I completely agree with your central argument: that Marikana is forcing introspection on us, forcing us to pay attention to our poor, and it’s long overdue.

    • Richard

      Bear in mind, though, that the original Sharpeville was also policemen who reacted to an overwhelming situation, not cops who went out looking to kill people. The government of the day had put them in that position to be the front line against massive civil disobedience. Keeping the comparison at this level of detail, it’s not all that different. 

      That said, you are absolutely right that the old regime was far more wilfully brutal than this government. The state then had organised death squads, and (as Pierre de Vos pointed out well) security police who would arrive at your door for even having a conversation like this. That said, it perturbs me that a death squad (of a sort) was uncovered in KZN, and that people who represent the party in power go into townships at night to murder dissident leaders. It’s hard to talk those things away from being compared to the bad days.

      But yeah. Most important is that the country cannot honestly deny anymore.

    • Annie

      Thanks Richard, I do think the comparison is valid (as a revealing comparison, not an equation) and for the reasons that make me disagree deeply with the notion that the  government of today is nothing more than “emotionally removed form their (sic) poor and their police”. I think the what the public is beginning to wake up to is the legacy of institutionalised violence of the Apartheid state, the incompetence of our police force, the inappropriate regulations to guard against these phenomena but, most of all, the consequences of masculanised power that lies at the heart of so many issues in SA today – the sort of reactionary assertion of brute force, of authority and violence in the face of underlying disempowerment, fear, and frustrated weakness that burdens South Africans at the personal and public levels.

      The problems with the police force and the executive and legislative administration that supports it are far deeper, more entrenched, and, yes, of course they are political.
      The techniques of dehumanisation of the “criminal” and/or the “poor” are chillingly reminiscent of Apartheid political tactics and dare I say, supported by a public that continues to push for “tough on crime” policies and permissive “shoot to kill” laws. Let me give some examples: 

      *  Deputy
      Minister of Safety and Security, Susan Shabangu, told cops: “You must kill the
      bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the
      regulations. That is my responsibility. Your responsibility is to serve and
      * In 2009, GENERAL (yes please don’t ignore the remilitarisation of the police force in SA) Bheki Cele said in reference to “criminals” – “that person does not deserve to be a human being… And I don’t know how many rights of humans he has if he behaves like an animal”

      Neither do the following factors bode well for any inkling of the sort of radical reform that needs to occur to shift the institutional legacy of state violence in SA:

      * In 2009/2010 Report, the JICS admitted it lacked the resources to adequately monitor or detect the problem of torture and police brutality in the prisons
      * We have no definition of torture in our law. 
      * The Criminal Procedure Act, Regulation of Gatherings Act, the SAPS Act and the common law on the use of force in self defense are arguably highly permissive of the kinds of violence that marks police action in protest in SA and while the Constitution should support less permissive use of force, we have yet to have a ruling on this as an amendment has been “forthcoming” for years. Moves to reform the CPA currently, however, actually seek to broaden
      the use of force based only on a suspicion of previous crime or threat
      involving grievous bodily harm.

      * As of March 2010,
      there were 190 199 personnel in
      the SAPS, with a National average of 1 police official for every 318 citizens. Current forecasts for increasing
      expenditure on the criminal justice system may see almost a doubling of
      expendiute in the next 2 years. Most of this will go towards hiring more police
      officials increasing the size of the South African Police Service (SAPS) to
      over 200 000 members making us one of the worlds’ most policed societies. With little hope that these new officers will receive superior training to the current force, this is a scary thought indeed.I could continue on this but hey… just some for for thought for the moment.

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