Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The shootings in South Africa

Last week's killings in Marikana, South Africa -- "34 dead and 78 wounded in the bloodiest day of protest since apartheid," as an article in South Africa's Mail and Guardian summed it up -- are appalling, and that may be the most important thing to say about them. Who would have believed, in 1994, that some years down the road the police of post-apartheid Africa would shoot into a crowd of striking workers and leave dead and wounded strewn across the ground? A ghastly event.

But what can we make of it? One answer surely is that the police were not well trained. But while the exact events that led to the shootings remain to be clarified, it's been reported by Devon Maylie in the online Wall Street Journal that:
Police said they fired live ammunition into the crowd, after a group of protesters shot at and charged them. The police said they had tried to disperse the crowd with water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, to no avail.
The same article says that in the course of the ongoing industrial dispute that led to the shootings, 10 other lives had also been lost -- 8 employees and 2 police officers. Another Mail and Guardian article, by Kwanele Sosibo, reports that:
A man found lying in crucifixion position on the edge of the koppie on Tuesday with his head split open and stab wounds to the torso, had apparently committed the cardinal sin of "fishing for information". His lifeless body was left on display the entire day as a warning to non strikers.
Though the police were not well trained enough to deal with it -- and plainly they weren't -- still this was no easy crowd control situation.

How did such a situation ever arise in post-apartheid South Africa? One answer is that the workers who went on strike were deeply frustrated by the ANC's failure to redress the ferocious economic injustices that remained even after apartheid ended. No doubt this is true, but by itself it is not illuminating. What did the ANC's "failure" consist of? Was it a failure to move towards a more truly redistributive state (and would other policies have better negotiated the tension between domestic need and world economic pressures)? Or was it a failure to keep moral faith with the people of the country, as leaders came to seem more interested in their own power and privilege than in the grinding suffering of millions of South Africans?

The ANC's failings certainly must have contributed to the violent frustrations on display at the Lonmin platinum mine. But this explanation also misses some of what makes this situation so troubling. The workers at the mine reportedly sought a wage hike from 4000 Rands per month to 12,500 per month, or roughly from $484 to $1513 per month. (Perhaps the wage hike was somewhat smaller; I've seen multiple figures.) These are not generous salaries, viewed from an American perspective, and it may well be that they should simply be described as exploitative. But $1513 per month, or $18,156 annually, would appear to be well above the gross domestic product per capita of South Africa, estimated at $11,100 in 2011 according to the CIA World Fact Book. There are a lot of people in South Africa poorer than these workers. In fact, in a country with an estimated unemployment rate of 24.9 % (also according to the CIA's World Fact Book), these unionized workers might even be described as relatively privileged -- which is not to deny how hard their work evidently was, or how bad their living conditions reportedly are.

There is one more deeply depressing feature of this situation. I mentioned just now that the workers were unionized, but that was an oversimplification. What seems to have happened at this mine is that workers became dissatisfied with what had been their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). NUM was an important contributor to the struggle against apartheid, but apparently it has lost the faith of many of the workers it represented, and Sosibo, in the Mail and Guardian, reports  that a new and more militant union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), now has the allegiance of many employees -- 21 %, according to a management representative.  Much of the violence, in turn, appears to have been between different groups of workers. Sosibo writes that after alleged sniper killings by people wearing NUM T-shirts, other workers "embarked on a retaliation campaign." Perhaps some of the violence was also simply labor militancy in the service of the strike; Sosibo cites a doctoral candidate "studying patterns of violence in platinum mines in the Rustenburg area," who says that "violence had become routine in strikes in the region."

So the violence is part of a pattern of labor struggles with management, and of internecine struggles among workers and unions. It is also, the same doctoral student suggests, a result of
the fact that workers have become more fragmented than before. Some are residing in informal settlements outside of the mines, some still live in hostels and some black workers occupy more skilled positions than others. Violence is used as a way of enforcing solidarity.
At this point the passions and divisions of South African society begin to seem intractably deep. I very much hope that that is not in fact the case. 

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