Discontent has been brewing for months in South Africa’s mining industry. What started with a demand for higher wages ended on Thursday in a massacre that reveals the extent of worker frustration and anger.
The miners gathered over a week ago on the hill next to the third-largest platinum mine in the world. Wrapped in blankets against the winter cold and armed with machetes, sticks and knives they demanded their salaries to be tripled. Their protest has ended with a body count of 44.
They struck illegally because they feel abandoned by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The NUM supports President Jacob Zuma and his ruling ANC – a party that under Zuma’s leadership is increasingly seen as filling its own pockets at the expense of South Africa’s poor and Black majority. The discontent is fuelled by a more militant union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) which is trying to get disgruntled mineworkers to join their ranks.
The police claim they had no choice and say they were defending themselves. But a lot of South Africans are outraged about the tragedy. “The police should have been able to handle this differently than shoot and kill,” says 33-year-old marketing manager Gosebo Mathope from Johannesburg.” He says it’s not the first time that the police’s inability to control unrest has exposed. A protestor was shot last year at a demonstration against poor living conditions.
Mathope hopes that something good will come out of the tragedy. “This is not an issue that will go away. Unemployment is high and people work for slave wages. This could have happened at many other places.”
Mathope’s comment is important because the mine workers are not alone in their disappointment with the progress that’s been made since the end of apartheid. There have been an increasing number of protests in recent years in various sectors.
“These protests in South Africa are becoming more and more violent,” says Quinton Mtyala (34) from Cape Town. “When the police are met with violence I can’t expect them to respond any differently. Two of their colleagues already died earlier this week.” (In an earlier incident at the mine protest)
The strike at the mine wasn’t unexpected. It follows strikes and disturbances at other mines where people were killed earlier this year. Mtyala feels there has been too much silence around the conflict. “The government should have stepped in. It is sad that people got killed like this,” he says.
What is crucial now is that this doesn’t become a blame game but that all parties involved do some soul-searching, says Hilton Johnson (31), project manager of micro-enterprise start ups. “We need to go past pointing fingers. We need to take collective responsibility. We shouldn’t stick our heads in the sand about the level of inequality in our country and the fact that people have had enough. The political machine has to understand that it can’t go on like this,” he concludes.
John Kane-Berman, the Chief Executive of the Institute of Race Relations says that “the use of violence in strikes or as a form of protest or political expression has tragically become routine, rather than exceptional, in recent years. This presents the police with a formidable challenge. All the more reason why they should long since have been trained to handle such situations lawfully, intelligently, and with restraint.”