Earlier this month at the Marikana platinum mine near Johannesburg armed South African police massacred striking miners who attacked their lines. 34 lives were lost. That's 20 more than the Irish experienced in a similar massacre in Derry just over 40 years ago and which continues to shape Irish perceptions of the British state's security trumps rights agenda.
To think that only two years ago the global sporting fraternity was watching soccer’s World Cup finals being played out in South Africa. Its very location suggested a monumental amount of progress having been made since the murderous days of Sharpville in 1960 or Soweto in 1976. In that bygone era a headline that armed South African police massacred children or workers was the stuff that could send reverberations pulsating throughout the world. That was under the apartheid system and that type of headline was supposed to have died with white minority rule. Had the ANC not brought the curtain down on police massacres of black civilians?
What is there to be said about working men being gunned down in a clash that has its origins in demands for better wages? Whatever it is it must surely be more than the words of the country's president Jacob Zuma, 'I do feel your pain.' Not felt that much however, with him choosing to speak publicly about the matter from a private lodge owned by the mine company. Only after he was bounced into it by political opponents did he venture onto "miners' territory."
Such vacuous gestures cannot fill the vacuum created by mass murder nor should it it be allowed to function as a balm designed to take the sting out of the injury as a prelude to things carrying on much as they always did. Why has he not said that he feels the rage and molten anger of the striking miners towards the barbarism that was inflicted on them by the country's murderous police carrying on in the brutal tradition of their apartheid era precursors?
For those who thought the burden that the multitude of South African blacks laboured under was transient white power there will be a lack of comprehension. Those who thought that permanent greed played a part will be less stumped for an explanation.
Even the Thatcher government in its long running dispute with the Scargill-led NUM did not gun striking miners down in the streets, political savvy curbing the murderous Tory instinct that was on public display on the streets of Derry a decade earlier.
For both sides in the mine dispute wages is the life or death struggle. The sheer callous audacity with which the mine owners seek to press home their right to keep pay down was evident in its post-massacre demeanour. Since the slayings the British listed Lonmin company, which has 28 000 workers on its payroll, has persisted in its refusal to pay higher wages and at one point threatened to sack those continuing to take strike action in pursuit of better pay and conditions:
The final ultimatum provides RDOs (rock drill operators) with a last opportunity to return to work or face possible dismissal ... Employees could therefore be dismissed if they fail to heed the final ultimatum.
For the workers poor pay has given rise to widespread resentment. One miner said after the massacre, ‘it's better to die than to work for that shit.’ Another said ‘you work so very hard for very little pay. It is almost like death.’
Colleague Kaizer Madiba added his voice:
People have died already so we have nothing more to lose ... we are going to continue fighting for what we believe is a legitimate fight for living wages. We would rather die like our comrades than back down.
It is not as if the mining companies cannot afford to pay them, something acknowledged by the country’s president when he threatened to cancel licences to companies that refused to improve living accommodation for mine workers. He added, 'in fact it should not be such an industry that has the lowest paid worker, given the wealth they have.'
Lonmin's adherence to the profit before people concept was summed up by the resident of a village near the mine who while airing no sympathy for the strikers’ actions nevertheless claimed:
We are so angry. They (Lonmin) don't treat us like people. Lonmin has done nothing for the local community. They take our platinum and enrich themselves but where is our royalty money going? We don'thave tar roads and our youth are unemployed.
A political opponent of Zuma, Julius Malema - a former ANC Youth League president expelled from the party for his strident flaunting of leadership authority - tapped into this sentiment and called for nationalistion of the mines, alleging that the ANC government 'has turned into a pig. It eats its own people.'
The South African 'corruption-riddled, scandal-plagued police service' hardly comes with a record that inspires confidence. It is gripped by an apartheid mindset. National Education, Health, and Allied Workers' Union spokesman Sizwe Pamla firmly pointed this out in saying 'our police service has adopted and perfected the apartheid tactics and the militarisation of the service, and encouraged the use of force to resolve disputes and conflicts.' Nor is it a mindset restricted to dealing with the mining industry. According to a recent report sex workers have been gang raped by police.
Is this what an ANC government in a supposedly post-apartheid age has brought to the black workers of South Africa - a state of affairs where the country's police 'are there not to protect the lives of people, but the property of the mine'? Is Jimmy Kruger still Minister for Justice and Police?