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INSIDE LABOUR: Fake news, myths and Marikana

Aug 24 2018 06:15
Terry Bell

Fake news continues to be in the news. But often not included in this category are myths that can promote deliberate distortions of history.

There were several examples this month concerning the tragic events around Lonmin’s Marikana mine six years ago. The massacre, by police gunfire, of 34 strikers on August 16, 2012 was the obvious focus of what happened – described at the time by then-police commissioner Riah Phiyega as an example of the finest in policing.

That such an event should never happen again is the demand on everyone's lips. But in order to ensure this, it is essential that all the evidence and statements made be carefully analysed before drawing any conclusions.

And the same should apply to claims such as those made in the US Senate on August 15, that corporations only triggered the huge wage and welfare gap after the 1980s; that the present economic system is fundamentally fair.

There is a long and, all too often bloody, history to show that this is simply untrue.

Protection from harm

But what happened at Marikana was only six years ago, and there is plenty of solid evidence about the events. From film footage and eyewitnesses, it is now clear that strikers were leaving and did not attack the police when the firing started and 17 died. Others were wounded, some severely.

Even more worrying is the now-established fact that 17 of the strikers were killed while running away through an area known a 'Scene 2'.

Police pointed out, in one of their own videos, that one of these men was wearing, on a thong around his neck, a traditional amulet. It was thought to confer, in the manner of a crucifix to a Christian, protection from harm.

This appears to be the origin of the myth of the muti, used to promote the claim that the police had been attacked by strikers who had been told by a sangoma that bullets would turn to water. This is merely a repetition, beloved of patronising racists, of an event that occurred in the Eastern Cape in 1819.

But the major confusion, leaving open the prospect of further distortions and myth making, concerns the deaths of ten men who were killed before August 16. In print and radio commentaries, strikers have tended to be blamed for these deaths. Yet two of the dead were strikers, one shot from behind while apparently scrambling across a stream.

There is no justification for these and any other killings, but it is vital that the background and the circumstances to this series of shocking events are clearly understood. And by concentrating solely on the violence that occurred, sight is lost of the events leading up to what quickly spiralled out of control.

Smouldering anger

In the first place, Lonmin management refused to speak to an obviously popular delegation of miners who, at the time, were demanding a R7 000 a month basic wage. It was the elite rock drillers who upped that to R12 500.

The reason the miners marched on management was because they felt let down by their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). So, rejected by management, a large group marched on the NUM offices at Marikana on the following day.

There is no indication that they were armed or sought more than another verbal confrontation.

But here was the trigger for the events that followed: shots were fired and the protestors fled. I received a telephone call to tell me that "mine security" had shot and killed two protesting miners.

The human rights campaigner who made the call had not been on the scene and was merely reporting what he was hearing from the strikers.

I asked him to check it out, to try to find eyewitnesses to what might have happened. He phoned back later, saying that everywhere it was believed that two miners had been shot dead, only by then the rumour mill had obviously moved into gear: it was still two dead, but shot by "mine security and NUM shop stewards wearing red T-shirts". The strikers started arming themselves.

As it later transpired, shots had been fired, but only one striker had been wounded. Even at that late stage, it might still have been possible for mine management, the NUM leadership or politicians to step in to calm matters down.

Instead, on all sides, fuel was poured onto smouldering anger.

Two mine security guards were killed, and two policemen and two strikers died in the turmoil provoked when the police, without warning, fired stun grenades and teargas into a column of strikers returning to Marikana, escorted by police also on foot.

These are among the factors that must be taken into account, not to seek blame or justification, but in the hope of gaining a clearer understanding of how such a tragedies occur and to avoid a reoccurrence.

As the writer James Baldwin once noted: Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.

The same should apply to all claims and statements of supposed fact, no matter where they originate. This applies, especially now, in the face on the ongoing economic crisis and the looming reality of massive global joblessness heralded by the digital revolution.

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lonmin  |  terry bell  |  strikes  |  labour  |  marikana
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