[Marxism] South Africa’s Police Commissioner Defends Officers Who Fired on Miners

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 17 06:59:58 MDT 2012

NY Times August 17, 2012
South Africa’s Police Commissioner Defends Officers Who Fired on Miners

MARIKANA, South Africa — South Africa’s police commissioner on Friday 
defended the actions of officers who opened fire on miners a day earlier 
in an episode that, she said, killed 34 people and wounded 78 during a 
wildcat strike at a platinum mine. The commissioner, Riah Phiyega, 
described a desperate struggle by the police to contain the 
machete-wielding crowd of thousands of angry miners who broke through 
two lines of defense, leaving officers with no choice but to open fire 
with live ammunition.

“The militant group stormed towards the police firing shots and wielding 
dangerous weapons,” Commissioner Phiyega said. Previous attempts by the 
500-strong police force to repel them with rubber bullets, water cannons 
and stun grenades had failed, she said in an emotional news conference here.

“This is no time for finger-pointing,” Commissioner Phiyega said. “It is 
a time for us to mourn the sad and black moment we experienced as a 

President Jacob Zuma cut short his trip to neighboring Mozambique for a 
regional summit to rush to the site of the bloody protest, some 60 miles 
northwest of Johannesburg. It was South Africa’s worst labor-related 
violence since 1994.

The shooting left a field strewed with bodies and a deepening fault line 
between the governing African National Congress and a nation that, 18 
years after the end of apartheid, is increasingly impatient with deep 
poverty, rampant unemployment and yawning inequality.

The police retrieved six guns from the protesters, including one that 
had been taken from a police officer who was hacked to death by the 
workers earlier in the week, Commissioner Phiyega said, as well as many 
machetes, cudgels and spears.

  Earlier on Friday, speaking to a local talk radio station, South 
Africa’s police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, had said that 30 people had 
been killed in the shooting.

In a scene replayed endlessly on television that reminded some South 
Africans of the days when the police of the apartheid government opened 
fire on protesters, heavily armed officers shot into a charging crowd of 
workers who walked off the job last Friday, demanding higher wages.

The strike has pitted the country’s largest mine workers union, which is 
closely allied with the governing A.N.C., against a radical upstart 
union demanding sharp increases in pay and faster action to improve the 
grim living and working standards for miners.

The strike and the government’s iron-fisted response are emblematic of 
the frustration with the slow pace of transforming South Africa’s 
largely white-owned business establishment and the growing perception 
that the A.N.C. and its allies have become too cozy with big business. 
As a result, many people here, especially the young, have looked for 
more radical solutions.

“N.U.M. has deserted us,” said one of the striking workers, who gave his 
name as Kelebone, referring to the older union, the National Union of 
Mineworkers, by its abbreviation. “N.U.M. is working with the white 
people and getting money. They forgot about the workers.”

Besides those killed on Thursday, 10 other people, including two police 
officers, had already died as a result of violence connected to the 
strike, which began on Aug. 10 when thousands of workers walked off the 
job, saying that their wages needed to be tripled.

Kelebone, who works as a winch operator, said he was paid about $500 per 
month for difficult, dangerous work.

“We need more money,” he said.

Like most of the workers who walked off the job last week, Kelebone, who 
is 28 and wears a long mane of dreadlocked hair, is a member of the 
Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union, a newer and more 
radical union. Lonmin, the London-based company that operates the mine, 
shut down operations on Tuesday amid the violent strike.

For the past three days, workers with machetes, sticks and wooden 
cudgels occupied an outcropping of rock near the mine, chanting and 
dancing, pledging their readiness to die if their demands were not met.

“The struggle, the struggle, it will liberate us,” they sang, shuffling 
in formation with their machetes held aloft.

Just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, after repeated warnings to the crowd of 
about 3,000 miners to disarm and disperse, the police began firing tear 
gas and water cannons to try to get them to leave, witnesses said. In 
video captured by several news organizations, the police appeared to 
fire upon a group of workers who charged toward them.

The police in post-apartheid South Africa have been accused of using 
deadly strong-arm tactics to suppress unrest before, but the action on 
Thursday surprised many South Africans and drew quick condemnation.

“Regardless of what police may argue about provocation, there is no 
possible justification for shooting into a crowd with rifles and 
handguns,” Frans Cronje of the South African Institute of Race Relations 
said on Twitter. Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic 
Alliance, called the shootings a massacre.

President Zuma condemned the violence but refrained from criticizing the 
police, saying in a statement that “there is enough space in our 
democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without 
any breaches of the law or violence.” He said he had “instructed law 
enforcement agencies to do everything possible to bring the situation 
under control and to bring the perpetrators of violence to book.”

Frans Baleni, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, 
defended the police in an interview with Kaya FM, a radio station.

“The police were patient, but these people were extremely armed with 
dangerous weapons,” he said.

The strike reflected a deep anger at the slow pace of South Africa’s 
transformation. When Joyce Lebelo moved to the informal settlement near 
a platinum mine in 1998, she built only a tiny shack, thinking the new 
government would soon provide her with a proper house. She is still waiting.

“When we voted, we didn’t think we would spend 10 years living in a 
shack,” she said, sitting beneath the tin roof of her tin-walled house, 
which she has expanded over the years to include a kitchen, bedrooms, a 
dining room and wall-to-wall carpeting. But bricks and mortar, not to 
mention running water and electricity, are still a distant dream.

“The promises they made, they have not delivered,” Ms. Lebelo said. “The 
people who got power are fat and rich. They have forgotten the people at 
the bottom.”

And Ms. Lebelo, who has a job cooking school lunches and whose husband 
works as a driver at a platinum mine, is one of the lucky ones: at least 
her family has two incomes.

Unemployment is a major problem in mining areas, said John Capel of the 
Bench Marks Foundation, a research and advocacy organization that 
studies mining communities.

“There is a kind of desperation, a lack of hope and a resentment for the 
mining industry and the government,” Mr. Capel said. “We have been 
warning for years of these potential uprisings. People are angry.”

A senior member of the rival union, A.M.C.U., says that workers are 
angry and feel betrayed by the party that liberated South Africa.

“We made the A.N.C. what it is today, but they have no time for us,” the 
union leader said, asking that his name be withheld because he feared 
reprisals from the government. “Nothing has changed, only the people on 
top, and they just keep getting more money.”

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