As South Africa marks Heritage Day, the recent unrest in Marikana gives cause for reflection as a meaningful resolution continues to be sought
This week Heritage Day was celebrated in South Africa – a day in which South Africans are encouraged to celebrate their diverse cultures, historical inheritance and that intangible essence of ‘South Africanness’. In an address by the former President Nelson Mandela in 1996, explaining the decision to mark September 24 as a public holiday, he said:
“When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation. We did so knowing that the struggles against the injustice and inequities of the past are part of our national identity; they are part of our culture. We knew that, if indeed our nation has to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of division and conflict, we had to acknowledge those whose selfless efforts and talents were dedicated to this goal of non-racial democracy.”
In light of the Marikana mining unrest and the subsequent conflict and confusion, South Africa’s democracy is being questioned and harshly criticised, for good reason. The government reacted badly to the situation, and what could have been a minor incident escalated into something terrible.
Put very simply, the miners were striking because they wanted to be heard. Striking isn’t necessarily the most reasonable way to go about wage complaints, but due to incitement from union leaders, the workers felt that it was the only option available to them. The government did very little when the miners began striking, but in a system where striking seems to be the only option, surely that dissatisfied group needs to be sent a message of solidarity from the people that govern them? Instead, no peace was offered and the government sent in armed forces to intimidate them further. The frustrating reality is that the violence was not necessary. If peaceful solutions couldn’t be found for the unrest at Marikana, then perhaps the country is heading for something much larger.
As of last week, some resolutions have been made. The miners have accepted a pay rise and a cash payment, and went back to work on Thursday. Investigations into the incidents that resulted in a total of 46 deaths will be completed in the next four months, according to the Justice Minister. A judicial commission of inquiry has been appointed by President Jacob Zuma to question the mine violence in Marikana, and will investigate incidents to form conclusions and recommendations. The roles played by Lonmin, the two unions – Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – as well as by the South African Police Service (SAPS) will be determined. In addition, roles played by relevant governmental departments, like the department of mineral resources, and individuals and groups that played a role in promoting and inciting confrontation.
Lonmin mine is just one mine out of many, and mining unrest has not ceased. Miners from other mines in the area have followed the Marikana example and began striking too. What will our government do if things escalate elsewhere? Finding resolutions are all very well in print, but life for those miners has been irrecoverably changed. The military has been deployed in Marikana and intimidation is rife. The unions are intimidating miners, miners are threatening each other and the military is certainly not a neutral party.
The mining tragedy could mean several things for the country, and though it might be presumptuous to guess, it seems quite clear from last week’s by-elections that the ANC’s overwhelming majority support has decreased somewhat. Appeasing the striking workers with promises may cover the wounds, but does not address the underlying illness.
Has this nation really risen like that proverbial phoenix? The Marikana incidents have left little doubt in the minds of South Africans that there is still more work to do. Now as much as ever.
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.