Marikana: How clashes between “us” and “them” culminates into violence

2015-08-04 07:41

There are many convoluted ways of looking at Marikana. You can blame apartheid and capitalism. You can look at a host of other historical factors. But I think you will be missing the obvious.

While I do not aim to completely dismiss the influence of these factors, I want to suggest that it is perhaps more important to focus on the context over those few days leading up to Marikana. Firstly, the Marikana Report points to a growing antagonism between workers, and Lonmin security and the police. And it seems that this antagonism was due to a few aggressive members within both groups. There were reports of violence and intimidation directed at workers who did not join the strike. Some striking workers were carrying pangas, spears, sharpened pieces of iron, sticks and knobkerries. Lonmin security also shot at workers, and apparently at times, their actions seemed to have no justification. Meanwhile, a post-mortem report on the killing of a worker by strikers found that he had been stabbed with sharp instruments including pangas and knives. There was then the killing of two police officers and more workers.

Second, there was a growing depersonalisation of opposing group members. It seems that police and Lonmin security began stereotyping union members (including moderates) to be a threat because of the actions of a few militant members. Union members also developed a generalised antagonism towards the police because of the actions of a few trigger-happy police and Lonmin security personnel. By this time, it was only natural for these opposing groups (functioning in a heightened sense of us versus them) to view each other as a collective threat. I would argue that these preceding events culminated into a deeply exaggerated animosity between these two groups on that tragic day. The context was now set. More bloodshed was imminent.

Observing police were naturally going to perceive the rituals among a small group of striking workers armed with traditional weapons and a superman muti concoction, “rhythmically tapping their traditional weapons, humming and chanting”, as a sign of a genuine threat. Similarly, striking workers were going to perceive police as the enemy once they arrived in SAPS helicopters, Nyala armoured vehicles and other police vehicles, carrying automatic R5 rifles and 9 mm pistols. And then you have the TV cameras arriving (more potent than any muti) and the scene was set for a showdown. I think it was this emerging context brought about by the actions of a few individuals involved within these groups during this short period that gave rise to Marikana. But perhaps even more importantly, I also think that Marikana was shaped by key invisible actors – that is, the inaction of Lonmin executives and political leaders – who failed to use their social influence to change this escalating context.

Anyway, perhaps our trade unions need a unified identity that provides workers with a set of new norms to guide their future actions. Jointly trade unions by the effective mobilization of its members – collective strength – can construct the intellectual muscle to defeat greedy politicians and corporate captains. Passive resistance and signs and slogans should replace factions, traditional weapons and the spells of Sangomas. I do not think that a few heavy handed police and corporate security personnel will dare shoot at striking workers who behave appropriately.

But if a few striking workers continue to carry so-called traditional

weapons and cling on to traditional rituals .... well this will only make all union members look like common criminals, and worse fools.

Unfortunately our trade unions do not appear to have the kinds of leaders than can create a vision and establish a modern set of norms that can improve the status of workers and lead them into a brighter future. But there is still hope for change here.

However, I cannot imagine the possibility of an effective police services in this country. Nor can I imagine the possibility of effective leadership by politicians during a crisis.

Not all human problems, it seems, have solutions.

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