Loyalists defend whitewash

Peter Manson reports on the willingness of ‘official communists’ to excuse the slaughter of workers

Cold-blooded murder

Finally, president Jacob Zuma has released the report on the police massacre of platinum miners on August 16 2012. Thirty-four miners were killed and a further 78 were injured in what was an unprovoked attack.

As expected, the report completely exonerates the African National Congress government and its officials. It parcels out the blame virtually in equal measure between the police, British-owned mining company Lonmin and the two rival unions: the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the breakaway Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu).

Let us be clear: what happened in Marikana was cold-blooded murder. Police penned in and then gunned down workers who had gathered for ongoing protests - as they were attempting to flee. Sporadic shooting continued for more than half an hour, as police on horseback or in helicopters hunted down individuals desperately trying to get away, shooting several in the back. At least a dozen were picked off in this way, including many as they were trying to surrender.

Survivors tell of being hunted down by officers yelling, “Ja, you cop killers, you cop killers. You are in the shit. We are going to kill you here.”[1] Individual police officers were seeking vengeance for the deaths of two of their colleagues, in a battle which saw police tear-gas the strikers and shoot dead three of them. On the day of the slaughter the police’s own photographs showed dead miners who were clearly unarmed, but later images of the same bodies had had weapons placed next to them in an attempt to maintain the pretence that the strikers had launched a violent attack.

The South African Broadcasting Company televised an interview with a police spokesperson just a few hours before the murderous assault began. Provincial police commissioner Nosaziso Mbombo announced her intention to “disarm” the miners and make them leave the “illegal gathering” on a nearby hill, even though it was common ground with no connection to Lonmin. Mbombo declared: “Today we are ending this matter.” She did not reveal that 4,000 rounds of ammunition had been delivered to the police at 6am that morning - they had already been armed with lethal automatic rifles. Without a trace of irony Mbombo declared to a gathering of police officers on August 17 that the previous day’s action had represented “the best of responsible policing”.

Many of the strikers were supporters of a newly formed breakaway from what had been the country’s largest trade union, the NUM. Those who flocked to join Amcu were disgusted by the unwillingness of the NUM to fight for a substantial rise in their poverty wages and improvements in their working conditions. The NUM, at that time completely under the control of the South African Communist Party, is a key affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which, along with the SACP itself, forms the tripartite alliance in support of the ruling ANC.

When the strike started on August 10, a turning point occurred when miners marched on the local NUM office demanding support. Officials came out with makeshift weapons and at least one had a firearm. Several shots were fired. It was after this that the strikers themselves started to carry traditional spears and sticks. But workers are not permitted to defend themselves, of course, and an official decision was taken to force the miners to disarm.

On the fateful morning, Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa, having got wind of police plans, pleaded with the strikers to lay down their arms and leave the hill - about 1,000 did so. It was after a further attempt by strike leaders to warn the men that they were now in severe danger that all those who had remained rose and began heading together for their shacks. The police claimed that this movement represented a deadly attack and the order to fire was given.

There is footage readily available showing the moment the police opened fire. Contrary to official reports at the time, the strikers were not attacking the police, but attempting to escape. The footage shows the workers moving from right to left, in a direction that is at right angles to police lines.

Apologetics

Afterwards Zuma expressed profound regret at the loss of life and announced the setting up of an enquiry - the standard means of ruling classes everywhere of deflecting criticism and riding out a crisis: “This is not a day to apportion blame,” he said. “It is a day to mourn together.” And the reaction of the SACP and Cosatu was totally abhorrent, confirming yet again that they are totally subservient to the bourgeois ANC. Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini declared: “We will refuse to play the blame game and we will patiently await the outcomes of the judicial commission of enquiry.” The idea that we should refuse to “blame” those who murdered members of our class engaged in struggle is truly nauseating.

The SACP leadership issued a statement “expressing condolences to all those who have lost family members and colleagues” and “our well wishes to those who have been injured - workers and police”. It too welcomed the announcement of a commission of enquiry and urged it to “consider the pattern of violence associated with the pseudo-trade union, Amcu”.[2]

Clearly for the SACP and Cosatu the shooting dead of 34 workers and wounding of scores of others pales into insignificance when compared with the crime of splitting from the NUM and leading workers away from SACP influence. Of course, it is very rarely correct to walk away from one union - however, rightwing, corrupt and incompetent its leaders - in order to set up a rival. The fight must be fought within existing bodies. But, at the end of the day, Amcu is a working class body, not a tool of the class enemy, as the SACP and Cosatu pretend.

Then there was this disgraceful sentence from the central committee: “SACP members from the area confirm newspaper reports today that the armed workers who gathered on the hill were misled into believing they would be invulnerable to police bullets because they had used [the ‘herbal medicine’] intelezi …”

These could be the words of an apartheid-era racist - it is disturbing enough that such stories can still be spread by the press, let alone by so-called workers’ leaders. No doubt some of the strikers believe in ‘tribal remedies’, but does the SACP seriously think that they considered themselves “invulnerable to police bullets”? Why then were they trying to escape those bullets? But the SACP wants us to believe that these workers, who were indeed carrying spears and sticks, left the police with no choice but to open fire in self-defence.

Subsequently the authorities arrested hundreds of miners (those who were still alive, of course), and threatened to charge them with the deaths of their own comrades under the South African legal system’s doctrine of ‘common purpose’. But that was too much even for the SACP and Cosatu, and the charges were quickly dropped.

As I say, a commission of enquiry was announced under retired judge Ian Farlam, and the publicly broadcast evidence made it abundantly clear that events had unfolded along the lines I have just described. Particularly telling was the revelation of an email exchange between ANC heavyweight and Lonmin shareholder Cyril Ramaphosa and a senior manager of the company the day before the slaughter. Ramaphosa declared that it was essential to get the minister of police to “act in a more pointed way”. The strike was “not a labour dispute”, he wrote. The mineworkers’ behaviour was “dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such”. So there must be “concomitant action to address the situation”.

It is difficult to find the words to describe Ramaphosa. Once a militant anti-apartheid activist and workers’ leader - ironically he was the NUM’s first general secretary - he is now one of South Africa’s richest men. He had made good use of the connections arising from the senior ANC posts he has held to acquire top positions in several major companies. Despite his known link to Marikana, he was elected ANC deputy president in December 2012 and after the 2014 general election was sworn in as the country’s deputy president.

Recommendations

Zuma was handed the report on the massacre on March 31, but simply refused to release it. Six weeks later, in response to the growing clamour for its publication, the president declared:

The commission has made some serious recommendations that require careful consideration. Therefore, it is important to apply my mind carefully, so that our response ensures that the events that took place in Marikana are not allowed to happen again in our country.[3]

I will come to those recommendations that required such “careful consideration” in a moment. First, however, let me quote from Zuma’s summing up of the commission’s criticisms in his June 25 TV broadcast.

Lonmin failed to “use its best endeavours to resolve the disputes” and to “respond appropriately to the ... outbreak of violence”. As for Amcu, its officials “did not exercise effective control” over their members and supporters to ensure that their conduct was “lawful and did not endanger the lives of others”. For example, would you believe that miners “sang provocative songs and made inflammatory remarks‚ which tended to aggravate an already volatile situation”? The NUM also “failed to exercise effective control over its membership in ensuring that their conduct was lawful and did not endanger the lives of others”.

What about leading ANC figures and senior government appointees? Well, “it cannot be said that Mr Ramaphosa was the cause of the massacre‚ and the accusations against him are groundless”, was Zuma’s summary. In connection with police minister Nathi Mthethwa, he “played no role in the decision of the police to implement the tactical option on August 16 2012 if the strikers did not lay down their arms‚ which led to the deaths of the 34 persons”. And to complete the exoneration, “no findings were made against” minister of mining Susan Shabangu.

Zuma explained that originally the police had drawn up “an operational plan which entailed the encirclement of a relatively small group of strikers”. The idea was to erect barbed wire around them and provide only one exit point, “through which they would need to move, while handing over their weapons”. But this was replaced at the last moment by a “tactical option” to enforce the strikers disarmament’ on the hill, which was “defective in a number of respects”. The decision was taken by the North West police commissioner‚ and was endorsed by the South African Police Service nationally. Zuma wants us to believe that none of his ministers were involved in any of this.

In this way the blame for all the “defective” decisions was placed entirely on individual police officers, including their commanders, since there was “a complete lack of command and control at scene two” - the location where fleeing miners were hunted down one by one and shot as they fled or tried to surrender. There was also “a delay of about an hour in getting medical assistance to the strikers who were injured at scene one” - Zuma asserted that “at least one striker might have survived if he had been treated timeously”.

But not to worry: the commission has recommended that a “panel of experts” be appointed to review public order policing; that all police officers should be “trained in basic first aid”; that the director of public prosecutions should investigate possible “criminal liability” on the part of all members of the police involved; and that there should be an inquiry into the “fitness to hold office” of Riah Phyiega, the national police commissioner, as well as the provincial police commissioner. Meanwhile, from now on there will be strict enforcement of the laws that prohibit “the carrying of sharp instruments and firearms”. After all, “Violence has no place in our democracy,” concluded Zuma.

You can see why Zuma needed so much time to consider such far-reaching recommendations. And, of course, he most certainly was not negotiating behind the scenes to get the most embarrassing findings ‘amended’, was he?

Although the whitewash had been expected, that did not diminish the anger felt by bereaved families and the various rank-and-file campaigns. For example, the commission refused to make any recommendations on compensation for the victims’ dependants.

Not that this has outraged the ANC loyalists in the workers’ movement? Incredibly, as I write, the SACP has still not issued any statement,[4] while it took Cosatu four days to “welcome” the report. The confederation urged “all parties to play their meaningful roles to ensure that in future labour disputes should never reach such a stage again”. It assured readers that “Cosatu will enhance workers’ education of various issues - amongst others, on the danger of coercing workers to participate in ‘unprotected strikes’.”[5]

And then there is the Morning Star’s editorial. It concluded that “anger and sadness at the scale of this atrocity should not be misused to direct undeserved accusations against the ANC government, its leaders or the South African revolution”.[6] No, the ongoing “national democratic revolution”, which the SACP contends is the “most direct route to socialism”, is far too precious not just to all the platinum miners and others on starvation wages, but to the millions of unemployed and shack-dwellers.

Notes

[1]. http://dailymaverick.co.za/article/2012-09-10-marikana-murders-the-world-now-believes.

[2]. www.sacp.org.za/main.php?ID=3723.

[3]. Statement from the presidency, May 10 2015.

[4]. Although the day before the release of the report the SACP issued a press statement headed: ‘The right to life is sacrosanct’. But this had nothing to do with Marikana: the party felt it had to make a stand against a township protest that had allegedly caused the temporary closure of a hospital (www.sacp.org.za/main.php?ID=4803).

[5]. www.cosatu.org.za/show.php?ID=10597 June 29.

[6]. Morning Star June 27-28.