Major challenge to ANC government after reports that many miners were shot in the back, and now murder charges against other miners, no police charged.
Guest: Vishwas Satgar has been a grass roots activist in South Africa for the past 28 years. He is currently engaged in supporting the Solidarity Economy Movement in township communities, supporting food sovereignty campaigning , climate jobs campaigning and defending popular democracy in South Africa. His academic interests include a focus on African political economy, Empire and Global crisis, Green Global political Economy and Transnational Alternatives. He is a Senior Lecturer at the Univesity of the Witwatersrand.
Paul Jay, Senior Editor, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
On August 16 in South Africa, at the Lonmin mine in Marikana, police killed 34 miners who were on strike amongst hundreds in a confrontation with police. A postmortem exam, according to a local television station, revealed that most of the miners killed were shot in the back while they were fleeing police, not as they were, according to the police, about to surround and attack the police.
Now there have been charges laid for these murders. Two hundred and seventy miners were charged in the deaths, and no policemen.
Now joining us to help us make sense of all of this is Vishwas Satgar. He’s a grassroots activist in South Africa for the past 28 years and he’s a senior lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand. And he’s recently helped form something called Solidarity with the Marikana Minors. Thanks for joining us.
Vishwas Satgar, Senior Lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand: Thanks. And thanks for having me.
Jay: So lead us through the basic story here first of all, just to kick it off. If I understand it correctly, miners were on strike for higher wages. There is a division within the unions. There’s a newer, more militant union and an older, people would say, less militant union allied with the ANC government, and this confrontation develops. So give us the context of what happened, and then we’ll get into how it is that the miners get charged and not the police.
Satgar: Yeah. I mean, all these essential facts you point to are key, but we just need to take a step back to sort of August 9, when workers at this particular mine, particularly the rock drillers, came together to really think crucially about their work situation and then, of course, make a demand to the management. The management response to their immediate demand for higher wages was to suggest some kind of minimal back pay. In the minds of the workers this really meant that, you know, this mine was a cash cow and, you know, the management could respond in a more serious way to this substantive proposal.
This then snowballed since August 9, with the workers first marching to the National Union of Mineworkers office, which many of these workers were members of and probably still are. On their way to the offices of the National Union of Mineworkers, they were shot at, according to, and allegedly, by members of the National Union of Mineworkers. This led to the death of two workers.
Subsequently this just spirals. Two security guards are killed. Two policemen are killed. Another six workers are killed.
And then the infamous day of August 16, where the workers gather on a location, on a little mountain, what is called a koppie in South Africa, close or adjacent to the mine. The mine calls in a rival union to the National Union of Mineworkers called AMCU and basically tries to get AMCU to try and pull these workers off the koppie and get them back in to work. AMCU tries. They go and speak to the workers. And that is unsuccessful. The National Union of Mineworkers also around this time tries to speak to these workers.
And one of the issues, material facts here that rarely comes out in the sort of witness accounts and the narrative by the workers themselves is that they were addressed by the president of the National Union of Mineworkers while he was inside a police armored vehicle. And that really also irked them and angered them, and while in a context in which they were completely surrounded on this hilltop.
Subsequently, it would seem—and this is based on an academic reconstruction of what happened on August 16 done by a professor at the University of Johannesburg. He essentially went to the site and interviewed various workers and witnesses and put together the sequence of things. And what seems to emerge from this picture is that the police surrounded these workers, they put barbed wire fence, razor wire fence around the perimeter, they left a very narrow opening for these workers, and basically opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets. The workers then ran for the one and only opening they could see in the barbed wire fence.
Now, a lot of media coverage shows this particular scene and it comes across as though the police are on the retreat and the workers are attacking offensively. But actually it’s seen from—according to the professor at the University of Johannesburg, this was the only opening left for those workers. And at least about ten of them were gunned down at that entrance or that opening.
Now, there are other kind of bits of information coming together and are now beginning to come to light in the public arena. It would seem that most of the workers ran in the opposite direction while—from the top of the koppie or the mountain, and they were then gunned down systematically in cold blood in different locations. A journalist link to the Maverick Magazine today has basically carefully documented the various sites where these workers were killed and basically has put out the story that, you know, in the difficult rocky crevices and so on, this is where mineworkers were shot. At the same time, there are reports coming out increasingly from eyewitness accounts that many of these workers were also run over by police motorized or armored vehicles. So this is basically the kind of picture that’s beginning to emerge around the facts and the details.
Jay: This seems systematic. It seems like the police were given—what’s the word?—some direction on this. Or should I say, does it seem police [were] out of control? But it seems like there’s more going on here than that.
Satgar: Well, on August 17—and this, again, is according to newspaper accounts and some eyewitness accounts that the senior police commissioner of the area basically made a public statement that they were going to stop the strike. In addition, the National Union of Mineworkers made a public call on national radio and national news for the police to intervene and deal with the situation and the violence. So the kind of perception created is that this clearly was an orchestrated, a planned sort of attack by the police.
Also, just the precision around which they kind of surrounded the whole area, the way they kind of intervened, the kind of firepower—I mean, you know, there were helicopters, there were armored vehicles, I mean, just many, many police in the area. And apparently, according to even the head, the president of AMCU, who spoke at a public meeting, he was quite taken aback by the scale at which the police were handling this operation. Initially, after he made his appeal to the workers to come down and end the strike, they walked away from the situation and they passed what seemed like a very sophisticated sort of command center.
Jay: Okay. So I don’t quite get this, what happened on Thursday, then. We have evidence that the postmortem examination of the bodies are that most of the miners that were killed were actually running away. You say there’s evidence now from this professor that they were actually sort of kettled, in a way, with barbed wire and led towards the police. And then the miners get charged, 270 miners get charged with the deaths of the other miners. What’s the logic there?
Satgar: Well, actually, it’s illogical, but it does point to a deepening crisis of our postapartheid democracy.
There are four elements to the state response post the Marikana massacre. The first response has been to continue a heavy police presence in and around the communities that make up the Marikana area. And that has also led to a lot of police harassment.
The second element of the response has been the state president of the country, Jacob Zuma, announcing a judicial commission of inquiry, headed up by three judges. He’s defined the terms of reference, which is important, but also has certain limitations.
The third element has been [for] the state to call for a peace court process. Right now in the town of Rustenburg is an attempt by the minister of labor to sit down with the unions and hammer out some kind of peace agreement.
The fourth element in this whole equation has been the charging of the mine workers that are currently in police custody with the murder of their colleagues.
Now, this all really doesn’t add up. Increasingly, it would seem that what’s at heart of the state response is really an attempt to stop the kind of demands, the kind of worker militancy from spreading throughout the platinum belts right now. So there’s a lot of doublespeak coming out of government. It doesn’t add up, it doesn’t make sense, and really the government is not contributing to a climate of trust. There is deep skepticism on the ground within the community about the intentions of the South African [crosstalk]
Jay: And what are these miners actually charged with?
Satgar: Well, that’s the thing. They’re charged with the murder of their 34 colleagues.
Jay: But they use some law about—that because they were there in common purpose, they created the scene where the police shot—they’re responsible. I mean, it’s something along these lines?
Satgar: Yeah. I mean, it’s—I’m no lawyer, but, I mean, clearly they’re trying to kind of construct a legal argument or a legal case, you know, trying to kind of, you know, pin it on them collectively. They had a common intention, a common purpose.
But, you know, again, this—the whole thing about the charging is embroiled in a larger kind of political battle. The workers themselves went to the police station, and this together with Julius Malema, the former Youth League president in South Africa, ANC Youth League president, and he, together with the workers, charged the police for murder. Now, it would seem that the state response is a counter to this, and it’s really beginning to become a tit-for-tat issue, sadly, in this situation.
Jay: We’re going to do a part two of this interview where we step back and look at the bigger picture, at the conflict amongst this new and more militant union challenging the older traditional union allied with the ANC, and then what this incident of the shooting of the miners has sparked in South Africa, which is a whole examination of the state of inequality and the state of ANC leadership. And the whole neoliberal policies of South Africa are now under a new kind of examination. So part two of our interview is going to take us there. So please join us for that on The Real News Network.