Marikana Massacre - The Police Had No Choice

2012-08-17 16:28

“Any man’s death diminishes me,” wrote John Donne, one of England’s greatest ever literary minds.

As have the deaths of 44 people, and counting, over the past week at Marikana’s Lonmin platinum mine near Rustenburg in South Africa’sNorth West province. In the past seven days 10 people were killed, including two policemen who were hacked to death in the “run-up” to yesterday’s massacre which has now hit world headlines.

Veteran South Africa watchers would have seen it coming. Here in the UK my paper of choice, The Daily Telegraph, chose to all but ignore the first 10 deaths, preferring to tuck the story away in its business section in a two-paragraph story which focused on Lonmin’s six-percent drop in its share price because of “ongoing demonstrations at the mine”. That is symbolic of the importance in which South African news is viewed by the media here in the UK.

But 44 deaths and some remarkable pictures of piles of corpses? Give it a full page, no problem.

However, that’s not what I set out to write about. I genuinely feel the South African Police Services (SAPS) officers had no choice but to open fire on what was surely a howling, blood-crazed, perhaps marijuana-fuelled mob which had long discarded its reason for being (a £1000-per-month wage increase demand) in favour of settling old scores between competing trades unions. The police had used up their options. The water cannon, the stun grenades and the tear gas and rubber bullets had not worked. Still the mob came, chanting their war cries and carrying their “traditional” weapons like pangas (machetes), spears, knives and knobkerries – a lethal hardwood club. Other “traditional” weapons carried included rocks, steel pipes and any other missiles available. Police suspect there may have been firearms involved too given that two had been taken from their dead colleagues.

I think I write with some authority here, before the human rights’ types start bleating. I was by accident the first journalist on the scene at Entumbane in Bulawayo in the early days of Zimbabwe when what turned into a bloodbath broke out between the rival factions supporting Mugabe and Nkomo. In the 90s I faced similar scenes on the east and west Rand when Inkatha/ANC violence erupted. By sheer chance I was again first at the scene at Sebokeng when I witnessed the then SAP encouraging Inkatha fighters in their battles with ANC supporters.

I was at Daveyton, Phola Park, Thokoza, Alexandra and other battlefields, the worst being Boipatong where so many were slaughtered. In short, I’ve seen these mobs in action, seen their blood lust, their uncontrollable rage. I’ve run for cover behind vehicles, dustbins and dived into ditches along with, yes, policemen and women who knew the situation was beyond their control. Frankly, after months of that I was a wreck when I got home at night.

It’s no joke when the aforesaid howling mob of 500 run towards you and all that is between you and them is perhaps a small sign hanging around your neck saying, “Press”. Or a small badge on your epaulette saying “SAPS”.

Looking at the video footage coming out of Marikana, I absolutely shuddered as the memories came flooding back.

To all those who are condemning the SAPS for their actions, I say think again. These men, many of them youngsters and family men, were facing certain death. It was looking them in the eye and in self defence, in the name of sanity and the maintenance of law and order, they really had no choice but to open fire.

In my humanity I don’t condone it, I certainly don’t condemn it, but I understand it.

And therein lies South Africa’s tragedy. The daily violence has become so commonplace that nobody sits up and pays attention to it anymore – until something like this happens. It’s the South African mindset that needs to be addressed and it is no longer any good sitting back and smugly blaming it on the “apartheid legacy” as is already happening.

No, Marikana will, like Sharpeville and Boipatong go down in infamy as yet another manifestation of a very, very, sick society.

And there’s the rub.

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