SOUTH AFRICA - Giant water cannons circle the shacks of Marikana’s squatter camps. Lines of armed police form, preventing the mine workers from marching. Many stay huddled in their homes, too frightened to emerge, after the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets during the weekend. Soldiers arrive to help enforce a government order to settle disruption and end the intimidation of colleagues who want to break the strike.
The windswept meeting points on the hillside near the Marikana mine have fallen silent. For more than a month, it has been the scene of a so-called “worker revolution.” Thousands of men, some carrying machetes and sticks, have held frequent marches from the township where they live to the vast mine where they worked until they put down their tools several weeks ago.
It is here where this national crisis began, when police opened fire and 34 protesting miners were killed on August 16 – the worst security incident in South Africa since the end of white minority rule. Their actions will be the subject of an independent investigation.
Now, after weeks of wildcat strikes at this and other locations that threaten to cripple the mining industry, the government has launched a “security crackdown” at the giant Marikana mine close to the provincial city of Rustenburg. To many, the massive operation has come down with shades of South Africa’s apartheid past.
“Government has not and will never take away the constitutional rights of our people that they worked so hard for during the struggle for liberation,” said President Zuma, responding to accusations of heavy-handedness against the striking miners.
Yet, “Government cannot allow a situation where people march in the streets carrying dangerous weapons,” he said.
What started as a labor dispute involving a few thousand workers for better pay and conditions has exploded into South Africa’s greatest scandal since its miracle birth of democracy in 1994. Dozens have been killed in clashes with police as thousands have protested at seven mines.
Senior lawmakers believe that the country’s economy may now be under threat. “On Wednesday the world’s top platinum producer, Anglo American, suspended all of its operations in Rustenburg, South Africa due to ‘intimidation’ of its workers,” reports CNN. The mining industry is the nation’s backbone.
Political futures may also be threatened by the fallout from a crisis that appears to have exposed the failure of “The Rainbow Nation” to deliver better lives to millions of black people who are still struggling post-aparthied.
As if the echoes of the era of racial segregation were not great enough, during the aftermath of the Marikana shooting, prosecutors dusted off an apartheid-era law to arrest and charge 270 miners who had managed to dodge the bullets that killed their colleagues. The so-called “common purpose doctrine” had been used during the 1970s and 1980s to criminalize crowds of black protestors for what appeared to be the actions of a few people amongst them.
The charges were withdrawn after a nationwide outcry, but many South Africans had already been forced to consider whether the actions of the police and prosecutors had shown that parts of the state were regressing.
Enter Julius Malema, a controversial political firebrand, who has leant his voice to the frustrations of many mine workers. Aged 31, he was a child when apartheid ended, but he has become the country’s foremost critic of the enduring impact of poverty amongst black South Africans.