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