Behind the Marikana massacre

South Africa is not a country at peace with its people.

Deep underground, men crouch in low galleries, eight hours a day. Their arms held straight ahead, they drive the 25kg drills into the rockface. The heat is stifling, the din unbearable. The miners at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana earn less than £350 a month. Their patience finally snapped, resulting in the clash last Thursday that left 34 bodies in the veld.

The National Union of Mineworkers headquarters in central Johannesburg is a world away. The air-conditioned offices of the general secretary, Frans Baleni, with black leather furnishings and glass coffee table, speaks of power and influence. He is a man used to dealing with mining bosses – the Randlords of old. He is a staunch ally of President Jacob Zuma, now fighting for his political life ahead of December’s ANC party elections.

Baleni rose through the union ranks, but today he’s accused of turning his back on his grassroots. When I met him it was about another dispute – the Aurora mine. Bought by Khulubuse Zuma (the president’s grandson) and Zondwa Mandela (Nelson’s grandson) they had left its 5,500 workers without pay for 18 months. When pressed to act, Khulubuse Zuma provided a one million rand donation to the ANC for election expenses.

The NUM had led protests through the streets of Johannesburg, but why didn’t Baleni take the case of the Aurora miners directly with the president, whom he meets regularly? He looked down and remarked that it was inappropriate. “We have avoided speaking directly to the president,” he said. “Interactions with the president are very limited.”

This is extraordinary - the NUM is one of the best connected organisations in the country. Its past leadership include the deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, and the ANC’s Secretary General Gwede Mantashe. The union has fallen foul of a corporatist culture. Unions are members of the Tripartite Alliance, running the country with the ANC and the South African Communist Party. The Alliance was vital in the fight against apartheid, but today the movement is distanced from the people it seeks to represent.

Describing South Africa’s massive inequalities as "very sick indeed", the leader of the Cosatu unions, Zwelenzima Vavi told his conference in 2010:

“Our belief is that if we were to confiscate all the medical aids, that most of us here have; if our cabinet ministers and MPs were forced to take their children to the public hospitals and be subjected to the same conditions as the poor; if we were to burn their private clinics and hospitals and private schools; if the children of the bosses were to be loaded into unsafe open bakkies (trucks) to the dysfunctional township schools; if the high walls and electronic wired fences were to be removed; if all were forced to live on R322 a month (£25), as 48 per cent of the population has to do, and if their kids were to die without access to antiretrovirals, we would have long ago seen more decisive action on many of these fronts.”

The alienation of ordinary men and women has allowed breakaway unions, like Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), to poach members from established unions. The NUM has spoken darkly about management backing AMCU to split the shop-floor. This may have a grain of truth, but it does not address the wider issue. Protests against the failure of the government to provide the basic needs of communities are a daily occurrence. As Paul Holden and I have shown in our book Who Rules South Africa, service delivery protests have brought more than two million people onto the streets every year since 2008. That is roughly 5 per cent of the entire population. The protests frequently turn violent and there are frequent losses of life. South Africa is not a country at peace with its people. 

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. To get your copy please visit www.bitebackpublishing.com or call 0207 091 1260

 

Miners sit together during a strike calling for increased wages at a platinum mine in Marikana. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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