Last Thursday (16/8/2012) post-apartheid South Africa and the international community witnessed perhaps the worst state sanctioned violence against citizens when the police indiscriminately fired live ammunition on hundreds of striking mine workers at the London-listed Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana near Johannesburg. The event had the hallmark of the apartheid era; poor black miners protesting against low wages and poor living conditions.
When some individuals among the heavily armed protestors allegedly opened fire at police officers, the response was immediate, decisive, ferocious and brutal. To date, at least thirty-four protesters are known to have died and the number may yet rise should more die from injuries sustained in the ill-fated protest. The incident has understandably raised emotions across South African society culminating with the radical and error prone Julius Malema, the expelled former leader of the ANCYL, opportunistically calling for the resignation of the country’s President Jacob Zuma.
It is understandable that the incident has raised increased emotions across the South African society but Malema’s call for the resignation of the president is rather absurd if not insane and opportunistic at best. Here is a man who saw legitimacy in the song ‘Dubul’ ibhunu…’, a song inciting violence against the white farming community trying to portray himself as the champion of human rights. If anything, it is moral emptiness for anyone to attempt to use this sad incident to settle personal vendettas. President Zuma is right to call for an enquiry into the whole incident. South Africa is crying to know what happened on that fateful day. Meanwhile Malema should leave moral judgement to others, the best being genuine ordinary South Africans who are the real victims of the socioeconomic and political inequalities in South Africa.
Shocking as it was, the violent protest and the calamitous and potentially criminal handling of it by the police was inevitable. South Africa’s gun crime and violence has continued to soar; firearms-related deaths are rated as one of the highest outside a warzone! The Thursday incident is symptomatic of both a deep lack of trust in the relationship between the state and the citizens and the incredibly unequal (unfair to be precise) wealth distribution in the society. One interviewee from the Marikana community aptly summed it up when he argued that democracy was nothing but a term; independence has not done anything for the ordinary South Africans; he likened democracy to a bird flying above the people.
This raises pertinent questions of the political power balance at various levels of South African society. The essence of a democratic state is political equality yet the independent South Africa has accentuated rather than reduced political inequality. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world today; there still remains significantly unequal protection of rights largely due to the pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities that South African democracy has spectacularly failed to address. Arguably, South Africa’s institutions have not been reformed to a level where they can benefit all of its citizens equally.
The sad event of last Thursday is thus best understood from a broader political power imbalance perspective thus president Zuma’s call for an enquiry should be a welcome move to address the essential horizontal mechanisms (mutual checks and balances among different government branches) and vertical mechanisms (how much power is available to citizens for them exercise their control over government). There are however, questions still to be addressed regarding the composition, the scope and the remit of the enquiry. Who fired first and why? The enquiry should try and address questions on the organisation of the protest: how much detail was given about the protest by the organisers to the police, why the protesters were armed, and who gave the instruction to shot at the police and why.
From the police perspective, there is a need to understand who gave the instruction to shot at the protesters and which other interventions had been tried and why those failed; how did the police prepare for the protest: skills of the officers, numbers involved in the operation and how was that determined. South Africa needs to seriously review its gun laws: availability, access and monitoring of usage; the current laws regarding the issue of routinely arming police officers needs reviewing too; does available evidence suggest routinely arming police officers does have a positive impact on the reduction of crime.
The sad death of some protesters and some police officers in last week’s protest must not be in vain; South Africans need to carry out an in-depth enquiry on why the incident happened, what has been learned from it and how that can be avoided in the future. The enquiry must be independent enough to carry its work impartially and be broad enough to cover all the relevant issues. Socioeconomic and political power disparities need to be addressed otherwise South Africa will continue to be a hugely polarised nation with limited harmony within itself. Gun laws need reviewing, without objective measurement tools judgement of the effect of routinely arming police officers and indeed allowing willing citizens to purchase guns will remain subjective and unreliable.