Marikana massacre: charging miners with murder

Supreme irony that the ANC should deploy the very laws that sent their comrades to the gallows.

This week, the Marikana massacre took another, extraordinary twist. The events which saw 34 miners mown down by automatic fire from the police is already, by common consent, a turning point in post-apartheid South Africa. On Thursday the 270 miners currently being held by the police were charged with the murder of their 34 comrades. “Officially the 270 accused were charged with murder,” National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Frank Lesenyego told local journalists. “To confirm, the charges against all 270 are murder and attempted murder,” he said.

It is a supreme irony that a government led by the ANC should even consider turning to what are termed ‘common purpose’ clauses in the Riotous Assembly Act. These were the very laws that sent their comrades to the gallows. Pierre de Vos, the Constitutional law expert at the University of Cape Town described the charges as “bizarre and shocking and represent a flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system in an effort to protect the police and/or politicians like Jacob Zuma.”

Fortunately the Minister of Justice, Jeff Radebe, has intervened, calling on the state prosecutor to explain why he had laid the charges. “There is no doubt that the NPA’s decision has induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public,” Mr Radebe admitted.

While confusion reigns in the state’s approach to Marikana, others have reached firm conclusions. A careful re-construction of the events around the Lonmin mine by the Pulitzer prize winning journalist Greg Marinovich indicated that most miners were not shot while charging at police lines. Rather, they died amid a maze of boulders on another hillock, Small Koppie, apparently shot at close quarters. Others were crushed when they were driven over by police armoured cars.

He quotes one of the surviving miners as saying: “When one of our miners passed a Nyala (armoured car), there was a homeboy (local man) of his from the Eastern Cape inside, and he told him that today was D-day, that they were to come and shoot. He said there was a paper signed allowing them to shoot us.”

This narrative – of a premeditated attempt by the police to confront and kill the defiant miners, who were armed with spears, machetes and a few stolen pistols – was reinforced at a seminar on Thursday at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Professor Peter Alexander, who has been investigating the events said evidence from interviews with the miners was that at least 14 died on Small Koppie. From this position they could have been no threat to the police. “I have very little doubt in my own mind that this was straight-forward murder,” Professor Alexander concluded.

South African journalists are not all convinced. Phillip de Wet, deputy editor of the country’s most respected left-wing newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, was at Marikana when the shooting took place. He believes the evidence can be read to reach other conclusions. De Wet points out that the forensic evidence is not yet available, that the eye-witness accounts could have been embroidered and that the police have yet to make their case. “Could a striker armed with a handgun and holed up among the rocks of the koppie, hostile either in fear or panic or because he believed in protective muti, been shot at and killed before he could fire in return,” he asks.

While the tragedy has been played out in the media, the miners and Lonmin have been holding a series of meetings in an attempt to reach a settlement to their wage dispute. At the same time President Zuma is struggling to gain control of the crisis. He has asked that no one jumps to conclusions about what took place. “Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination,” the president declared, when he announced an inquiry into the shooting.

Kicking troublesome situations into the long grass with a Commission of Inquiry might be a convenient political ploy under other circumstances, but it fails to address the urgency of the issue. The former Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, an ANC and Communist Party stalwart, rejected Zuma’s ‘no finger-pointing’ injunction. “In a democracy that has sworn to make such massacres a thing of the past we need to cry out in the name of humanity and justice and demand full transparency and accountability,” he wrote.

Kasrils believes it will be too easy to blame the policemen who opened fire, letting those in authority off the hook. “If we do not point fingers at the right targets, the politicians — who bear executive authority for those who may have given some kind of green light, or by dereliction of responsibility left the police to their own devices — will go unscathed.”

It may be that Marikana points to another, even more disturbing conclusion. Dr Saths Cooper, president of the International Union of Psychological Science, argues that the killings need to be seen against the background of brutality and violence that scars all levels of South African society. From rape to infanticide and inequality, the country tops global charts. “All of this is while we are not at war. But we are at war with ourselves,” Dr Cooper points out.

Martin Plaut is the Africa Editor of BBC World Service News. Who Rules South Africa? by Martin Plaut and Paul Holden is published by Biteback Publishing.

Striking Lonmin mine workers form a group to sing and dance after listening to a report about the state of their wage negotiations. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left