The only shocking detail of the shootings at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana was the number of victims (34 deaths and many injured within minutes) but certainly not the incident itself. The shootings and the associated deaths of police officers and protesters are symptomatic of South Africa’s deep-rooted problem of violence, in particular firearm-related murders. The shootings, while shocking, are not entirely surprising in a country where millions of guns are illegally acquired and owned.
What however, has been worrying has been the partial reporting of the event by news media, Facebook contributors and online bloggers. While there is no doubt the South African Police Service (SAPS) acted with deficient professional performance, an equally deficient critique that portrays SAPS as a brutal and murderous State organ while on the other hand creating vulnerable, innocent victims out of a group of militant, fiercely armed protesters more than prepared to illegally use their weapons against the police. If South African society is to explore alternative and better ways of managing future protests, the debate has to centre on predisposing socioeconomic factors of which firearm-related crime and economic inequality has long been a dominant feature.
Understanding the full-scale of the South African firearms problem is hampered by a lack of systematic data collection which restricts objective analysis and comparisons. The proliferation of guns is astounding, Taylor (2012) estimates that there are 13 million firearms in the country of which 5 million are owned by the South African Police Service and the National Defence Force while civilian own the rest (that is, 4 million legally and the other 4 million illegally). Estimates (Taylor, 2012; BBC, 1999) also indicate that at least 30 people are shot dead everyday in South Africa. With a rate of 26.8 deaths per 100,000 due to firearms and rated third behind only Colombia and Venezuela, the country has one of the highest firearm-related deaths in the world per 100,000 people (Abrahams et al. 2010).
Significantly, 212 law enforcement officers are murdered each year in South Africa compared to an international mean of just 17. Undoubtedly, the officers are murdered for their guns that the criminals go on to use to commit further crimes; it therefore is hardly surprising that the police dealing with the Lonmin situation responded with sheer brutality when confronted by an armed and angry group of miners. I do not intend to condone the unwarranted use of extreme force to contain potentially or indeed explosive situations involving civilians by the State yet I do understand why SAPS may have seen it fit to act in a self-preservation mode instead of being primary providers of public safety.
The proliferation of firearms and firearm-related crime is exacerbated by the apparent societal tolerance to it. Gun-related consumption in the form of toys is in the increase, for instance 1,120 replica toy guns (ball bearing ‘BB’ or non-power guns) were bought in 1999 in the greater Johannesburg area (Taylor, 2012) despite the fact that the velocity of pellets fired from some of these BB ‘toys’ is equivalent to that of guns requiring a licence in the US and indeed the US deems the BB toy as a public health hazard.
Arguably, the proliferation of these toys has undesirable societal outcomes such as trivialising the real dangers posed by guns, the desensitisation of young people to guns and the romanticising of guns, making them a desirable accessory, especially among young men – including 16 year old boys – most of whom abuse them. In this context the enormity of the task facing SAPS in securing public safety is undeniable; desensitisation of people to guns means that merely brandishing a gun or firing warning shots is no longer a viable deterrent in a significant minority of situations but firing one to disable targets becomes the primary action which may probable have been the case in Marikana.
There is an underlying generalised public lack of confidence in the State’s ability to adequately provide public safety due in part to the perceived and/ or real pervasive corruption within the force and the lack of policing reforms that significantly distinguish the role of the police in the democratic South Africa from that of the apartheid South Africa. This arguably drives individuals towards private firearm ownership to augment personal security.
There is often the assumption that private firearms provide protection for owners and their property yet there is evidence too of a correlation between easy access to guns and their use in crime; homicides and suicide; intimidation, control and murder of female partners as opposed to providing protection (Abrahams, et al. 2010; Institute for Security Studies, 1999). In 1999 two-thirds of gun-related homicides in South Africa occurred at home; a third of teenage and adult women died from gunshot injuries and a third of them were killed by their intimate partners. Statistics show that 19.4 percent of men who killed their intimate partners went on to commit suicide within a week (Abrahams, et al. 2010).
The Marikana incident should not be politicised but be an opportunity to extensively look at State provision of public safety. I hope the inquiry will, beyond shedding light into the events leading to the shootings, explore the issue of gun control: availability of, trade in and use of guns. As long as there remain millions of unaccounted guns in civilian hands and South Africa’s democratic benefits continue to be impenetrable to the working class, the likelihood of a recurrence of Marikana-style incidents remains high.
ABRAHAMS, N et al. (2010) Guns and gender-based violence in South Africa. South African Medical Journal, 100, pp. 586 – 588.
BBC (1999) Silencing South Africa’s gun culture [Online]. BBC. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa (Accessed 22/08/12).
INSTITUTE FOR SECURITY STUDIES (1999) Firearms and violent crime in South Africa. Nedbank ISS Crime Index, 3 (1).
TAYLOR, C. (2012) Gun-related consumption and South Africa’s gun culture [Online]. ChildSafe. Available at http://www.childsafe.org.za/gunfree9.htm (Accessed 22/08/12).