Analysis of Miners Shot Down; Violence Culture in Post-Apartheid South Africa

The opening scene of Miners Shot Down, portraying the infamous video footage of police officers gunning down strikers in the Marikana area, is an incredibly powerful exposé of the violence that was committed during August of 2012 between wildcat strikers, the South African Police Department and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In the documentary, the culmination of this violence in the shooting of 34 mine workers on the 16th of August 2012 is followed by an address by President Jacob Zuma and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega. Both the President and the Police Commissioner assert that the country should focus on beginning a process of mourning, and should refrain from apportioning responsibility for this violent and fatal incident. This explicit refusal by South African leaders to engage with the source of violence in South Africa evidences the lack of a unifying theory of how to approach and deal with violence, as well as the refusal to conceive of violence in South Africa as an institutional problem.

In order to truly engage with the causes of violence in South Africa, several elements of our media and social culture need to be honestly and actively interrogated. By allowing the chronological development of the film to guide an analysis of the conflicts, I will unpack the development of the violence that took place in August 2012 while deconstructing the causes of the violence presented in the film.

The need for illegal strikes and direct action by strikers since the 10th of August was a result of the perceived failure of unions to support the workers they represent. Mine-workers represented by the National Union of Mineworkers marched to Lonmin offices on August 10th to demand that their demands for wage increases be considered.

Upon arriving at the Lonmin offices, the strikers were met not by representatives of their employers, but by security forces that were deployed to meet them. With the history of South African protest being based in resistance against Apartheid, South African strikers typically carry traditional weapons. The presence of weapons among strikers, coupled with the typical engagement of strikers with armed security forces rather than their employers, characterizes most strikes as a militaristic standoff between workers and security forces. This militaristic environment contributes massively to the potential for violence to erupt.

The history of violent protest in South Africa characterized the protest songs sung by strikers as antagonistic and violent. The strikers chant ‘let us fight’, evidence of the violent baggage of Apartheid-era resistance protest carried into the protest culture of the new South Africa. The rationale for this need to fight, ‘because white people wont let us negotiate,’ is another element of historical protest culture carried into the new South Africa.

This strong conceptualization of the employer as ‘the other’, especially when drawing on the emotionally charged racial antagonism of Apartheid, sets up an antagonistic environment where empathy with ‘the other’ is difficult to achieve and thus violence against this ‘other’ can be more easily justified.

Furthermore, the strategy of security forces is not one of conflict resolution but one of containment. This is a result of their job being to protect the private property of their employers, and not to resolve the grievances of employees. By acting as intermediaries between employers and employees, conflict resolution becomes secondary to fulfilling the role of security employees as protectors of private property.

This alternate objective of the people who the strikers attempt to negotiate with creates frustration on the part of the strikers, which while not directly resulting in violence, creates greater antagonism between employers and employees. This contributes to an environment without empathy and that is characterized by strong feelings of ‘the other’, allowing value judgments to characterize perceptions of opposing sides rather than real casual explanations.

As the documentary continues, the rubber bullets of the security forces are displayed to the camera. They are presented to evidence the security forces’ ethical use of alternatives to real bullets. As evidenced by this presentation, the use of firearms against citizens voicing their economic grievances with their employers is deemed justified because the ammunition used on them is less likely to result in fatalities. This evidences a clear acceptance of violence as a tool in South Africa not just for punitive measures, but for instrumental corporate purposes.

The first interview with Cyril Ramaposa further highlights the refusal of ANC leadership to engage with the causes of violence and the lack of a unifying theory of violence in South Africa. Ramaposa states that ‘we have always had strikes’, suggesting that this is the result of a ‘robust democratic system.’ This attitude not only ignores the corruption of NUM officials who fail to represent the demand of their union members, but his characterizing of the use of violence by strikers as a ‘behaviour pattern’ mystifies their concerns and grievances, evidence of his condescending attitude that suggests that miners should ‘behave’ before they can be expected to be taken seriously

The same attitude was evidenced by National Police Commisioner Riah Phiyega, who refused to answer questions directed at her during the inquiry and even seemed irritated that she was expected to do so. This was clear in her condescending assertion that, in light of being the national commissioner of police following the most lethal use of police force since Apartheid, the day after the massacre was not the time to point fingers. The same sentiment was expressed by President Jacob Zuma the day after the massacre. These attitudes of ANC leadership contribute to the refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the culture of violence that exists in South Africa and the lack of a theory of violence.

Workers then decided to march to the NUM offices to demand that they be better represented. The decision by Lonmin security to advise NUM to lock their doors and simply refuse to meet the strikers as well as NUM’s decision to follow their advice evidences the classist disregard for the grievances of miners and clear boundaries between superior and subordinate by Lonmin security and NUM. This suggests the that dismissive attitude of ANC leadership is shared not only among South Africa’s economic elite, but also those who are simply more economically and socially empowered than the miners. The shooting of strikers by NUM employees evidences the profound degree to which South Africans can justify a punitive enforcement of these distinctions and violence on subordinates.

It also evidences the effect of media coverage of strikes and violence on the perception of violence being random and senseless. The lack of consideration for context in reporting on violence creates the impression that incidents of violence are yet another instance of meaningless, mindless violence, giving the impression of societal collapse and the idea that everyone is equally at risk of being a victim. From this perception, NUM officers may react with violence as a means to protect themselves from the perceived threat of strikers who are often represented as responsible for random and senseless violence in the media.

From the 12th of August, strikers march to Lonmin and were encountered by Lonmin security guards. Two guards were killed in the confrontation, one burnt horrifically. In focusing on this particularly gruesome death, the media is able to achieve their goal of getting an audience to consume news but this only increases fear on the part of the police and contributes to the likelihood that police would use violence in order to protect themselves from this perceived threat.

Two days before the massacre, a num official was found dead with a cow skull on him, a sign of a traitor. Num describes the practices as ‘barbaric’ and states that they would never engage in such ‘barbaric practices.’ These value judgments do little to affect change, and only make real engagement and progress in reaching a resolution with the strikers less likely.

The Provincial National Commissioner stated on the morning of the massacre that ‘our intention is to make sure they leave that illegal gathering. We wish that we will do that amicably, but I don’t want to explain to you what then. Today we are ending this matter.’ As a result, 648 police are deployed to Marikana, as well as 4000 rounds of live ammunition and 4 mortuary vans. This gross overreaction and evidence of violent intention is a clear result of the move made by the South African Police from crime prevention tactics to crime control.

The focus on ‘killing’ crime rather than protecting citizens is clear in the statements of Former deputy police minister Fikile Mbalula, who said last year that the TRT’s job is “not to negotiate, but to fight”. National police commissioner General Bheki Cele used aggressive and particular language in his ‘war on crime,’ saying that the police would ‘squeeze criminals until they had no space to move. The job of the police is to arrest people, but if they give us trouble when we are arresting them, where a life of a person can be lost, it won’t be the police officer who will lose his life.’

There is a clear belief among South Africans and particularly police that legitimate policing does not deter crime in South Africa, and police use brutal torture methods not only on criminals but on new recruits in order to break them down and build them up again to face an ‘enemy.’ This process of humiliating and abusing new police officers achieves a militaristic brotherhood, whereby police officers defend their abusers by suggesting that it prepared them for the violent criminals they would one day have to face.

This enforcing of mandatory abuse may result in the displacement of violence onto other members of society, whereby police might commit heinous acts of violence against strikers as a means of displacing their internalized abuse elsewhere. This may explain why strikers were hunted into the second scene of the Koppie and executed, and why and ambulances were barred from entering the area for an hour after the shooting, despite the lack of threat to police in both these circumstances.

The culmination of violence that resulted in the Markana Massacre can clearly not be dealt with by vague and non-committal processes of ‘healing and rebuilding.’ The antagonistic legacy of Apartheid protest culture, the use of the police as shields between the rights of employees and obligations of employers and the authoritarian aggression evidenced by leaders of government, capital and police have inhibited the legitimate engagement with violence in South Africa. Violence has been normalized to the point that rubber bullets are considered valid instrumental tools of protecting corporate interests, and the police are prepared to hunt down and execute those who seek only to communicate their financial grievances to their employers.

In addressing South Africa’s problem of violence, the macho authoritarian culture that motivates the ‘shoot to kill’ policies and the unwavering loyalty to oppressive and violent systems of policing need to be remodeled. Value judgments need to be put aside for the sake of promoting collaborative efforts between the elements of society that are suffering from poverty and neglect. A conscious effort needs to be realized to find and eliminate the causes of violence in South Africa, in a manner that respects and empowers the human beings who have up until this point been characterized as worthy of death, but who have as of yet simply been unable to functionally and positively participate in the new South Africa.

Watch the documentary here;


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