BY Sahra Ryklief
On Thursday 16th August, 34 striking mineworkers were shot dead by police at LONMIN’s platinum mine in Rustenberg. It is not yet clear why the police were using live ammunition, nor whether a warning was issued. Audio-visual depictions of the event demonstrate a systematic attack on strikers, with dead bodies strewn on the field while police continue with open fire.
In no way can this action be excused as a police warning to violent strikers to desist from attacking them. Police have access to buckshot; teargas; tazers; the ability to cordon off the strikers with layers of barbed wire or other more solid re-enforcements. They have the resources and expertise to contain and prevent violent crowds from harming others whilst trying to defuse the situation through negotiation. They should have knowledge of dozens of siege/negotiation combination tactics and actions, even if I am not aware of it.
I know that these exist internationally. I have watched Korean fishermen hurl themselves at policemen, battering them mercilessly with every weapon at their disposal during anti-WTO demonstrations in Hong Kong for days, without any fatalities. I have seen line after line of fresh police troops replace their furious and embattled comrades holding the frontlines of worker demonstrations in various countries of the world without even resorting to teargas. I have seen, here in South Africa pre 1994 and post, police cordon off uncontrollable areas and, if unable to influence or change the situation, wait for order to be restored. What has changed? Who do we hold responsible for this example of extreme moral bankruptcy, when the situational restoration of ‘order’ becomes more important than the lives of countless workers?
If we want to prevent this from occurring again, we have to make sure that this black Thursday of the 16th August 2012 is never forgotten. This means we have to acknowledge our culpability. In apportioning blame I do not exclude myself. As a labour educator and researcher, I have taught and written about the pioneering role of strikes in this country in shaping the organisations, legal protections and improved conditions of our industrial relations system, whilst either glossing over or excusing the coercive actions and violence workers have direct towards each other in the name of unity and solidarity. I will do so no longer. Worker unity has to be based on something superior to violent coercion. Unity on that basis cannot lead to any lasting, positive outcome. It has shaped the way we approach strike organisation in this country for far too long. As labour, we need to take responsibility for change in this respect.
Which is not to say that those who study, educate, lead and organise workers and communities have, in any meaningful way, control over whether violence will occur or not. They do not. As long as we have the depths of deprivation and differentiation we have here in South Africa, violence will shadow collective action, electoral and associational freedoms notwithstanding.
As the working poor, mineworkers live under similar levels of deprivation as the wild-cat strikers of the 1970s and 1980s whose actions shaped our current labour movement and constitutional dispensation. As the jobless youth, those who currently are burning tires and debris and stoning buses and taxis live under similar, appalling socio-economic conditions, are imbued with comparable levels of anger, frustration and helplessness to those of the 1980s and 1990s. Unless the socio-economic conditions change, violence will remain endemic to protest and resistance in South Africa.
By its mere prevalence, it becomes open to manipulation. Claims by various politicians and trade unionists of a “third force” summoning up the violence for their own advantage, have some resonance. However, despite their resonance, these claims of a third force should be no less acceptable to us today than they were when the apartheid government claimed this as the force behind the anti-apartheid and labour movements of thirty years ago.
Firstly, because to focus on an invisible (or visible only to some) external, third force as the main driver behind the strikers’ actions is a grievous disrespect of these workers’ own volition. Secondly, because the apportioning of blame externally both hides stakeholder culpability and also exonerates the responsibilities of said stakeholders to prevent a re-occurrence in future. We do not yet know the full extent of culpability behind the LONMIN disaster, but we already know enough to speculate on the consequent actions that could emerge.
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