In July 1981, 1,700 workers at the Penge asbestos mine in the Northwestern Transvaal struck after a bitter, two year struggle for recognition by the Black Allied Mine and Construction Workers Union. After four days, the mine owners fired all of the workers, who then responded by occupying the living compounds attached to the mine. The company brought in scabs and petitioned the South African supreme court to evict the mineworkers: since the strike was technically illegal, the company claimed that the workers had quit their jobs, and therefore had no right to remain in its quarters. Predictably, the Pretoria court ruled in the mine owner’s favor; the company offered to reemploy 1,000 of the striking workers at reduced wages. The strikers refused. Given the absence of ventilation and other basic safety measures, most of the workers faced a slow and excruciating death from silicosis if they returned to work. One trade unionist later explained: “We don’t envisage a situation where we would choose to die in order to earn very little. We’d rather starve than sell our lives.”
I thought of this 31-year-old statement when reading Joseph Mathunjwa’s description of begging the Lomnin mineworkers to abandon their occupation a few days before 34 miners were killed by police gunfire. “I pleaded with them,” the Mail & Guardian quotes, “I said leave this place, they’re going to kill you.” Government press conferences, mining executives, and newspaper articles have now spent several days wringing hands over the “senseless” and “regrettable” and “preventable” loss of life, counseling that we should await the cataloguing of facts before rushing to judgment. Witness the new politics of grief. In the aftermath of state violence, it has become routine for those in power to greet such events with somber invocation of “tragedy” and sympathy for the families of the dead—rather than, of course, solidarity with the assassinated. Counterfeit mourning serves to deflect the demands for justice and accountability, as if a miners strike and police repression were natural disasters or vengeful acts of some incomprehensible god. It attempts to rob these deaths of any political meaning.
Take, for example, the admission by national Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega that she authorized the police to “execute the task they needed to do.” Needed? Explaining that this is a time for “mourning” not “blaming,” she insisted that the police had to use force to protect themselves. Since the police were present to break the strike by disarming the workers and ending the occupation, it was necessary to defend themselves in the process of breaking the strike. And since all this is treated as a given, she can describe the heavily armed cops who boxed in the workers and bombarded them with tear gas as “adjacent” to the miners and fearful of attack, potential victims in a sequence of events that somehow spiraled out of control. Nothing else merits discussion. Connections between leading ANC figures and the mining house? Conspiracy theory. The hostility of the ANC-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to strikers who had rejected their leadership? Irrelevant. The miners’ demands? Illegal and unrealistic in any case. The only relevant fact is that the police were in danger. Events then followed their inevitable, but all-too-tragic, course.
This self-absolving rhetoric is buttressed by the resurrection of apartheid-era stereotypes in much of the press. Consider the article by Greg Marnovioch entitled “Beyond the chaos at Marikana: The search for the real issues” in the Daily Maverick. (I have picked out Marnovioch’s piece precisely because he has produced some of the most valuable and informative coverage sympathetic to the miners). Following a discussion which emphasizes the rural backgrounds and bellicose character of the strikers (rather than, say, the business practices of the company), the article uncritically quotes a NUM official who alleges that uneducated strikers from the Eastern Cape and Lesotho have been manipulated by “scam artists” posing as unionists and peddling the fantastic promise of 12,500.00 a month salary. So much for the real issues. Exactly why this salary should be unrealizable is left unexplained–although it does, by chance, happen to approximate the median income of a white South African. Other media sources have been even more gratuitous in splashing about the decontextualized images of the tribal innocent: pangas and blankets, sangomas carrying out rituals with naked men, bullet-proof medicine. Scarcely a word about the significance of these symbols to the miners, or the long history of marshal culture on the mines, or the meaning of the occupation site. Apparently, Jim hasn’t even made it to Jo’burg.
The other theme that reporters have lifted from the Nat’s press kit is “complexity.” It’s all too familiar: the obsession with rival organizations, the swirling rumors of factional warfare (more “black-on-black violence”!), unattributed suggestions that outside political forces had a hand in events. Why has report after report suggested that a union rivalry—and not the workers’ clearly articulated demands—was the underlying cause of the strike and the police violence? It’s almost as if some people have forgotten that the fight against apartheid was characterized by multiple, competing tendencies. Or the ways that the apartheid press used internecine political violence in an attempt to delegitimize the liberation struggle. Or the insinuations that black South Africans were being misled by agitators who ultimately did not have the “natives” best interest at heart. Perhaps the anodyne and self-serving history promoted by the ANC has led some people to forget that every political struggle of importance is “complex,” multifaceted, and replete with errors, divisions, and truly unnecessary casualties. Remember that old liberal game of waiting for the pristine and unsullied movement, the true cause with a monopoly on virtue, the perfect leader accompanied by angles belting out arias from the rafters?
The way in which one views a situation is a political choice, and in the case of the Lomnin miners, the issue is not terribly ambiguous. Do a group of workers who do some of the most dangerous labour in the country have a right to demand the wages of a middle-class, white South African from the international mining companies (and their BEE shills) that still have enormous control over the country’s economy? The answer of the ANC government is a resounding no. The failure of COSATU to show solidarity with the struggles of fellow workers shouts a resounding no. The silence by former union leaders and Communists now turned ministers and parvenu waterboys for global capital screams a resounding no. And every prefab expression of regret over these deaths by someone in power, every promise by COSATU that they could have kept these workers in check like a good little corporatist union does, every last goddamn liberal evocation of untrained police who thought they were in danger (because, of course, they had encircled and were attempting to remove the miners), and every lazy media “revelation” about the situation’s many and imponderable nuances only serves to obfuscate what happened. The police were there to break a strike; the miners refused to disperse and appear to have tried to defend themselves when attacked; the police killed them with government approval.
I have no doubt that a thorough and responsible commission of inquiry will find substantive evidence to show that mistakes were made on all sides, that a “climate of violence” had developed on the mines, that the government should have intervened sooner, that the unions failed to something-or-other, that the companies could have been more humane [or insert other abstract and gaseous quality], that the workers shared responsibility for their own mass murder, that blah-blah-blah. A showpiece exercise will find a way to distribute the blame, bemoaning what each and every party failed to do, and maybe scapegoating some conveniently marginal figure to take the symbolic fall in a sorry piece of overwritten daytime television. Maybe the commission will even quote Alan Paton and Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and the constitution and sententiously intone that this “tragedy” affected all South Africans. Unlike mining wealth, grief and guilt can be nationalized.