Tag Archives: Marikana

Film Review: Miners Shot Down

29 Aug

Earlier this month it was the third anniversary of the shocking events that took place in Marikana, South Africa. A week of violence around the Lonmin platinum mine culminated on Thursday 16th August 2012 with the South African Police Service (SAPS) shooting down 112 striking mine workers, killing 34 of them. Last year Rehad Desai’s film about what has become known as the ‘Marikana Massacre’ was released. Although availability of the film in the UK has been rather limited I managed to order a copy on DVD from the socialist bookshop, Bookmarks. These are my thoughts on the film. [Update 23.11.15, the whole film is now available to watch online]

(Image: Miners Shot Down Press Kit)

(Image: Miners Shot Down Press Kit)

Miners Shot Down covers the week from 10th-16th August, 2012 and not just the final denouement, part of which was witnessed on news broadcasts around the world. In doing so, it provides important details surrounding the escalation of events during that week but it is also explicit in linking what happened at Marikana to the broader historical and political context.

One of the central questions raised by the film is whether the then Minister of Police, Nkosinathi Mthethwa, was asked to authorise the approach taken by the SAPS, not least the deployment of 648 police on the 16th August and the order for 4,000 rounds of live ammunition and four vans from the local mortuary.

The film starts with the horrific images of 16th August 2012 and reminds us of how similar they look to those witnessed during the apartheid era at Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976. The National Police Commissioner, Riah Phiyega, is then shown in the initial aftermath suggesting that the police had acted in self-defence. The rest of the film compellingly seeks to undermine such a claim as it recounts the events in chronological fashion.

As you watch things unfold during that fateful week in August three years ago, you get a strong sense of inevitability of what is to come. For me this is one of the key messages of the film. The massacre feels so absolutely inevitable, not only of course because we are watching the film, already primed with the knowledge of what is to come, but also because of the way the demands of the workers appear to have been handled from the outset.

It documents how Lonmin management repeatedly refused to negotiate with the rock drillers over their demands for a rise in wages and how the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) refused to support their members. Cyril Ramaphosa, interviewed for the film, is portrayed as emblematic of the way that elites in the ruling ANC and business have become so close. Rampahosa who is currently Deputy President of the country, was once a leader of the NUM during the apartheid era, but at the time of the massacre was a board member of Lonmin. Ramaphosa refuses to say anything of any real substance on camera, arguing that if he does it might prejudice his involvement in the commission of inquiry. This is not surprising given that it transpires that he sent an email on the day before the massacre encouraging government ministers to increase the police presence in order to quash the strike.

The sheer brutality of the events of the 16th August 2012 make for decidedly uncomfortable viewing. The film highlights how 17 of the 34 workers killed on that day were shot after the initial barrage of fire that was captured by TV news teams. A number of witnesses have testified that many of these were shot whilst trying to surrender. The impunity with which the police appeared to operate is captured towards the end of the film in a brief, but chilling scene where SAPS officers are seen to be bragging about how they shot one of the mine workers and how his ‘muti’ (traditional medicine) won’t help him.

Since the film was released, the Farlam commission of inquiry’s report into the events at Marikana has finally been published. However, many of the questions raised in Desai’s documentary remain unanswered. Decision-makers including the Minister of Police have not been held to account and instead the focus is on the inappropriate ‘tactics’ adopted by the SAPS. The Farlam commission merely recommends that a further inquiry is conducted into whether Riah Phiyega is adequately equipped to hold office.

The film does a good job of giving a voice to some of the Lonmin workers involved. It is clear that underlying their grievance over their rates of pay, are deep frustrations at the way the economic system in South Africa has, for them at least, continued unchanged during the post-apartheid era. The overarching message of Desai’s documentary is that the ANC government in South Africa is working in the interests of transnational capital and not the workers. To many observers this has been clear for some time, but the events at Marikana, which are depicted so graphically in this film, reinforce this conclusion in such a deeply disturbing fashion.

The Marikana Massacre: One Year On

22 Aug

Can it really be a year since the fatal shooting by the police of 34 striking miners at Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa? The shocking events captured by TV cameras made headline news around the world at the time. A memorial service was held on Friday 16th August 2013 to mark the anniversary of the massacre. At the time, comparisons were made to the Sharpeville shootings of 1960, which was one of the defining incidents of the apartheid era. In making such a comparison the implication is that Marikana was an event that will ultimately change the course of South African history. For example, eNCA’s documentary ‘The Marikana Massacre: Through the Lens’ introduces it as “a story that changed South Africa forever”. Now that the initial international outrage has passed, what has happened since? What are the legacies, if any, of the Marikana massacre? Has anything changed since this use of lethal force by the post-apartheid state?

Marikana

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

An obvious place to start is the ongoing Farlam Commission of Inquiry, which began its investigations in October of last year. It has made very slow progress – not a single police officer who was present on the day of the massacre has testified as yet. Delays have also resulted from a court battle over who should foot the bill for the legal representation of the miners. Meanwhile, the relatives of the deceased are unable to pursue a civil case for compensation until the inquiry has completed its investigation. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) did call for an alternative ‘independent’ inquiry to consider the wider impacts of the mining industry, but has not backed this up with significant efforts to push for such an investigation.

What was most remarkable about the memorial service held at Marikana last week was the absence of the ANC. This decision is related to an ongoing feud between the ANC and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) who organised the event. The ANC’s nonattendance played straight into the hands of its opponents. It was described by a BBC reporter as having the feel of an opposition rally. Julius Malema in the guise of his new political party – Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – was in attendance. The EFF used its platform to define the problems at Marikana within its wider narrative of the need for the nationalisation of South Africa’s mines, which is problematically offered as something of a panacea for South Africa’s poor black majority.

Part of the cause of tensions within the workforce last year was a feeling amongst a number of the miners that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which is affiliated to COSATU, was failing them. As a result some began to join AMCU and since last August we have seen AMCU gain momentum to the extent that just two days before the anniversary of the massacre, it was officially recognised as the majority union at the Lonmin mine.

A year later violent clashes between the NUM and AMCU continue.

The rise of AMCU at the mine is reflective of the increasing tensions within the wider trade union movement most recently demonstrated by the campaign by some within the largest federation to discredit Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU’s Secretary General. Support for Vavi, who has been publicly critical of Zuma’s government, has exacerbated tensions within COSATU. There is clearly an increasing disjuncture between many trade union leaders and the rank-and-file, which is compounded by the political connections that result from COSATU’s continued membership of the tripartite alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). It is the questioning of this relationship with the ANC that has helped AMCU to recruit members from the NUM.

So what has changed in South Africa since last August? Apart from increased divisions within the labour movement, very little! There appears to be limited faith in the ability of the inquiry to get to the truth of what happened last year and the distrust of the ANC is part of a wider and longer-term trend of sporadic and localised protest against the lack of progress enjoyed by the majority of the South African population. The events at Marikana last year raised serious concerns over how the ANC government responds to protest and critique. It seems highly unlikely that such criticism of the government will translate into meaningful change at the ballot box in elections scheduled for next year.