Police slaughter and apologetics
The Morning Star has come unstuck with its uncritical support for the ANC, writes Peter Manson
The police massacre of 34 striking miners in South Africa on August 16 has left the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain highly embarrassed at having to defend the appalling apologetics of its South African Communist Party ally.
Let us be clear: what happened in Marikana was cold-blooded murder. Police penned in, tear-gassed and then gunned down workers who had gathered for ongoing protests - as they were attempting to flee. It seems indisputable that many were shot in the back. Sporadic shooting continued for half an hour, as police on horseback or in helicopters hunted down individuals desperately trying to get away. At least a dozen were picked off in this way, some 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 The police were seeking vengeance for the deaths of two of their colleagues, who were among the 10 people killed in violent incidents over the previous few weeks. The South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) televised an interview with a police spokesperson the day before the massacre, who stated categorically that the “illegal protests” would be ended the next day. She did not elaborate on how that would happen, but made it very clear that ruthless measures were to be undertaken.
The strikers were, of course, members or supporters of a newly formed breakaway from one of the country’s most important trade unions, the National Union of Mineworkers. Those who flocked to join the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) were evidently dissatisfied by the apparent inability of the NUM to win a substantial rise in their poverty wages and improvements in their working conditions. The NUM, led by SACP members, 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 African National Congress.
There is footage readily available - not least the news coverage provided by Al Jazeera - showing the moment the police opened fire. Contrary to official reports, 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. However, the version shown by the SABC - and, incidentally, both the BBC and ITV too - omitted the first few seconds of the footage that includes the workers in the background, showing only the police opening fire and being ordered to stop shooting.
The reaction of the SACP and Cosatu was abhorrent, confirming yet again that they are totally subservient to the bourgeois ANC. President Jacob 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. Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini said: “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.
For its part, the SACP leadership could not bring itself to make any statement at all for three whole days. But the SACP North West region did issue a statement the day after the massacre, headlined: “Arrest Mathunjwa and Steve Kholekile” - the two leaders of the Amcu breakaway. It began: “The SACP NW joins all South Africans in mourning and passing our deep condolences to all mineworkers killed in the platinum mines in Rustenburg as the result of anarchic, violent intimidation, murder of workers and NUM shop stewards.” It referred to “this barbaric act coordinated and deliberately organised by Amcu leader Mr Mathunjwa and Steve Kholekile, who both are former NUM members expelled because of anarchy.”
No, you have not misread the statement. These ‘comrades’ are stating that only Amcu is culpable for the deaths (not that they want to “play the blame game”, of course) - as though Mathunjwa and Kholekile had shot dead their own members.
After the first meeting of its new central committee on August 19, the SACP leadership eventually got round to issuing 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 inquiry and urged it to “consider the pattern of violence associated with the pseudo-trade union, Amcu”.
Clearly for the SACP and Cosatu the shooting dead of 34 workers and wounding of scores of others pales into insignificance when compared to 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 is 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 believe 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 traditional spears and sticks, left the police with no choice but to open fire in self-defence.
One notorious SACP hack, Dominic Tweedie, went much further - no doubt to the extreme displeasure of the party leadership. He is quoted by rightwing journalist RW Johnson as saying: “This was no massacre: this was a battle. The police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to. That’s what they have them for. The people they shot didn’t look like workers to me. We should be happy. The police were admirable.”2
Tweedie has since said that he was “misquoted”, but refuses to explain how these words came to appear in a web article. My experience of him as the moderator of several SACP-influenced internet discussion lists tells me that he is more than capable of coming out with such shocking language - and the quoted words are certainly reminiscent of Tweedie’s style of written expression.
True to form, the reaction of the Morning Star was to uncritically adopt the line of its ‘official communist’ allies. The day after the massacre, its report was headlined: “NUM: rival union ‘may have planned’ mine violence”. It read: “National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) secretary general Frans Baleni … blamed the unrest on the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union making promises which could never be delivered and, in the process, organising an illegal action which led to the loss of lives.”3
However, by the time it came to write an editorial on the subject three days later, the Star seemed to realise that perhaps it was stretching things a bit to place the entire blame on Amcu. In a piece titled ‘Hard questions for SA police’, editor Richard Bagley stated: “There can never be justification for a massacre of striking workers and it is essential that the committee of enquiry set up by Jacob Zuma to examine the tragic events at Marikana makes this a central conclusion.” It went on: “The South African Police Service must explain why its officers were armed with automatic weapons when an order was issued last year banning the use even of rubber bullets during public protests.”
But then the editorial goes on to slate Amcu in terms the SACP would be proud of. It noted that the NUM “accuses one company, BHP Billiton, of initially funding the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union … whose recruitment efforts across the platinum industry have common features. These include systematic violence, extravagant demands - such as a near trebling of pay at Marikana - and collaboration from the mining companies.”
It concludes: “None of this excuses police commanders of their responsibility for arming their officers to the hilt and ordering them to open fire with automatic rifles. But it should give some people pause for thought before they repeat erroneous allegations that NUM is a sell-out union or that president Zuma ordered the slaughter.”4
So at one and the same time Amcu demands the “trebling of pay” and enjoys “collaboration from the mining companies”. Don’t you think you’ve got your lines crossed there, comrades? But why does the Star consider such pay demands “extravagant”?
For a taste of the lifestyle of the Lonmin workers (monthly pay: 4,200 rands, or just over £300), I can do no better than to quote the South African online newspaper, the Daily Maverick: “The workers gathered at Marikana live in shacks they have built for themselves, or rent from shacklords. Their tin rooms lack insulation, water, toilets or electricity. Others live in the hostel compounds the mine provides. Callers to a radio show told a Lonmin spokesperson that the hostels are squalid and not even waterproof. Indeed, from the outside one can see the roofs are rusted through.
“The miners in the shacks choose not to invest in their Marikana dwellings. They want to use the majority of their earnings to support their families back home, whether in the Eastern Cape, Lesotho or Mozambique. They know their time at the mines will not be long - they age quickly, mostly from silicosis and other dust-related diseases that enfeeble these once strong men. They live and work under conditions of grave institutional violence.”5
But we cannot contemplate their pay being increased to £900 a month, can we? If that happened some of them might even be able to move out of their shacks and perhaps take their families just above the poverty line.
As for the NUM being a “sell-out union”, its leadership, like those of all unions in all countries, naturally tends towards compromise. Its bureaucracy has its own separate interests which do not coincide with those of the membership. In South Africa this contradiction is complicated by the domination of the SACP, which tries to balance the rival interests of workers and bureaucrats with those of the capitalist state.
What about the allegation that “president Zuma ordered the slaughter”? We cannot know the exact details of communications between police and government, and it is highly improbable that Zuma would have wanted such a bloody outcome. But it also seems unlikely that he would have been completely ignorant of police tactics and decisions - including the decision to arm its elite force so lethally. We can also say that he is hardly rushing to bring the killers in uniform and their commanders to book.
Blame the victims
All this was evident even to some loyal Star readers, a couple of whom voiced their discontent at the paper’s coverage of the story. One letter-writer said he was “dismayed and disappointed at the lack of outrage shown”.6 But “lack of outrage” continued to be a feature - for example, when 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!
If ever there was a cause for “outrage”, here it was. But the Star slipped this piece of vital information halfway down a report headlined: “Miners stay away, as crisis talks continue”. It told readers: “But the prospects for peace were not enhanced when it emerged that, under the South African legal system’s doctrine of ‘common purpose’, all 270 workers detained after the police massacred 34 miners would be tried for murder.”7
The following day, however, the Star was forced to change its tune in view of the “outraged” reaction by the general secretary of the NUM in Britain, Chris Kitchen, who asked: “How can you be charged with murder when running for your life? It’s deplorable.”8 The paper also reported the reaction of South African justice minister Jeff Radebe to the decision of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to charge the miners. Under the constitution the justice minister - ie, himself - “must exercise final responsibility over the prosecuting authority” and so he had asked the NPA for an “explanation of the rationale behind such a decision”.9
Both the SACP and Cosatu quickly came out against the proposed murder charges and so the Star was able to criticise the decision too. But note the mealy-mouthed terms of that criticism from justice minister Radebe - his main concern seemed to be that correct procedures had not been adhered to, although he also opposed the actual decision to press charges (it goes without saying that the Star did not inform its readers that Radebe is a member of the SACP central committee). Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven also opposed the decision on technical grounds: the NPA “should have waited for the findings of the judicial commission of enquiry … before jumping the gun and laying such charges”.
In the face of such powerful opposition from within the alliance, the decision to charge the miners was quickly reversed. But not before many of them were subject to brutal mistreatment amounting to torture at the hands of the police. Neither the SACP, Cosatu nor the Morning Star have called for charges to be pressed against the actual perpetrators of the killings - both individual police officers and those who ordered them to shoot.
The Star’s line reminds me of its fawning attitude to those who ruled the roost in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. When the Polish ‘communist’ authorities gunned down more than 40 workers in Gdynia in 1970, British ‘official communists’, while regretting the ‘tragedy’ and criticising the ‘mistakes’ of the Polish United Workers Party, remained loyal to its comrades in high office.
And that is the way it is today when it comes to the SACP - some ‘solidarity’. Instead of following every twist and turn of the class-collaborationist SACP leadership, the Star and its CPB should demand an immediate ending of the cross-class alliance and the adoption by the SACP and Cosatu of independent working class policies. Unless this happens, Cosatu unions will continue to lose ground to rival breakaways and more workers will look for solutions in the politics of black nationalism.
2 . www.politicsweb.co.za/politicsweb/view/politicsweb/en/page72308?oid=320136&sn=Marketingweb+detail&pid=90389.
3. Morning Star August 17.
4. Morning Star August 20.
6. Morning Star August 24.
7. Morning Star August 31.
8. Morning Star September 1-2.