Disbelief followed by an irresistible urge to suppress; nausea, then denial. Like most people, I saw the Marikana massacre on television news. Unlike most South Africans, I saw it far away, in a hotel in Rome, and through the frustrating eyes of the foreign media. Suddenly, it seemed my country had turned into Syria.

Days before I left South Africa, I attended a talk by economist Sampie Terreblanche at the Cape Town Press Club about his latest book, Lost in Transformation: South Africa’s search for a new future since 1986. Terreblanche said he had misjudged things in his landmark text A History of Inequality in South Africa, published in 2002. He believed then that the 1994 transition to democracy meant South Africa had transformed politically, but not economically. Now, after 18 years of ANC rule, Terreblanche concluded that the country had not transformed politically either. The new political and BEE elite were of the same ilk as the last lot. The “mineral energy complex” still ran the show, as they had always done; enriching their interests and indifferent to the poor.

If anyone had any doubts about who the ANC actually represents, the massacre of black (many of them migrants from the Eastern Cape) workers at the Lonmin mine followed by prosecutions and the invoking of apartheid security legislation has surely unmasked the truth.

During the strikes of 1922, Jan Smuts dropped 25-pound bombs on the workers holed up in Benoni, killing 230 of them. They were his people too – white men. Although he was prime minister, Smuts lost his seat as a result and embarrassingly had to be offered somebody else’s constituency.

And yet there seems no obvious or satisfactory political repercussion for President Zuma; another reason the ANC elite will continue to cling to the proportional representation system. (It was after all designed to protect minorities; something which they increasingly resemble themselves.)

Have I returned to the same country after Lonmin? The answer is yes, of course. In fact, it is a country that may even have regressed to the days of the robber barons and the thoroughly corrupt and corrupting Cecil John Rhodes. The captains of the mining industry then too spoke about how they will improve the working conditions of miners; a yarn management has spun for over a 100 years with shamefully little progress.

Lonmin has stripped away the rhetoric and laid bare some hard truths about South Africa. Many commentators have now made these points: the inability of the nation to redress past injustice; the unsustainable, gross and widening inequality of society; an overpaid management’s callous disregard for their employees; the inexcusable failure of the unions to represent the needs of their members because they have objectified workers and made them instruments for political ends and voting fodder (something I wrote about six months ago with specific reference to the platinum industry); the appallingly violent nature of strike action in South Africa and the militarisation of the police instead of it becoming a safety and security force suitable to a democratic country.

The commission of inquiry into what happened is necessary, but as far as the soul of South Africa is concerned, somewhat beside the point. We have a political economy that not only perpetuates but seems to be exacerbating inequality. This has at least two catastrophic consequences: the system can only be maintained through state violence, and secondly, extreme politics will continue to gain traction.

In the 1950s, when wages in the diamond and gold mines were below the poverty line, Ernest Oppenheimer defended the billions in profits the industry made saying: “Fair profits for our shareholders, which are commensurate with the risks that are involved.”

Shareholders do not risk their lives and their limbs and do not die in their scores producing that wealth. It is true that unemployment is high and that rock drillers earn perhaps 20 times as much as the average worker in Marikana, but the purely economic argument of supply and demand in the labour market is not morally acceptable when people motivated by desperation are compelled to put their lives at risk. That people doing such dangerous and arduous jobs cannot earn enough to maintain a decent standard of living for themselves and their family is patently unacceptable.

Mining companies are of course not governments. Not to let the mine owners off the hook from their social responsibilities, but the government of the ruling tripartite alliance is just as much to blame for the misery in Marikana. The squalor of life there is not due to bad wages, but the unforgiveable lack of service delivery by the government of a political party that seems now to have thoroughly lost the plot.

Unless business and the government become more responsive, South Africa is headed for an increasingly brutal future. Lonmin has put the country back on the trajectory towards self-destruction it was on under apartheid.

Follow Brent on Twitter.

This article was commissioned by the Wry Republic.


  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of GroundUp.org.za and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit www.meersman.co.za


Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of GroundUp.org.za and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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