Press "Enter" to skip to content

Marikana: Time to rethink mining rights?

By Takura Zhangazha

The tragic and fatal shooting of 34 mineworkers in South Africa has sadly brought back memories of the violence of the apartheid years. And because memories of apartheid are not only limited to South Africa, the killing fields of Marikana must also be viewed as part of the Southern African narrative of repression, violence and the historical de-humanisation of the African. And this, even in the aftermath of the liberation of the continent from colonial and settler minority rule. This point on its own is a controversial but necessary one. The reason why it must be raised is because parts of the Southern African media debate in the tragic aftermath of these shootings has mistakenly centred around the assumed failures of the leadership of the ANC as well as general derision of South African “exceptionalism” on human-rights observation in the region.

Some debates have gone so far as to argue that had such a tragedy occurred on Zimbabwean soil, there perhaps may have been an immediate invoking of the Responsibility to Protect liberal intervention doctrine that has been used in parts of North and West Africa in 2012. That too is an argument that misses the meaning and full implications of the dreadful shooting of the miners. In other circles, others are arguing (including some South African labour unions) that because the Marikana miners actions are said to have led to the murder of at least two police officers and that the strikers were also armed, the South African police were acting in self-defence. That is an even more controversial argument but one that still skirts the serious meaning of the Marikana shooting tragedy.

In fact, there must now be a distinction made between the tragic event as it occurred and the broader and much more important underlying causes to these most unfortunate of incidences. If not for just this one tragic event but also in order to prevent such from occurring again. I am sure for the nation of South Africa, this may be a task for the commission that has been established by President Jacob Zuma.

For Southern African citizens this tragedy however must be viewed with the utmost seriousness and examination of our collective regional history as it relates to mining operations, the de-humanisation of migrant labour and finally the emergence of new resource extraction oligarchies that are generally acting in collusion with many of our governments in the region to extract/mine without attendant democratic socio-economic accountability. In effect, such an analysis, given the unaccountable state of affairs in mining and resource extraction in most (if not all) of Southern Africa, a “Marikana” can unfortunately occur anywhere else in the region, if it has not silently occurred in worse formats in countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is before we even begin to discuss the processes that are unfolding in Tanzania and Mozambique over gas, coal and potential oil discoveries by international mining companies.

It is therefore of importance that we see the borderline heinous shooting of striking miners in South Africa as a tragic but now necessary wake-up call for all of us to reflect on how issues of mining and mineral wealth discoveries are being handled by our own governments and the regional body SADC. In doing so, we must however, unlike most of our governments, place emphasis on the necessity of prioritising the people’s welfare and above all, tackling with finality, the repressive legacy of colonial mineral and labour extraction in our post-independence societies. This would entail a reflection on how initially most of the workers at big or small mines were mainly migrant as well as chibaro (forced labour) recruits from across the entirety of the Southern African region. We must also examine whether it is the same “colonial” frameworks and attitudes that inform the structure, function and profit of our contemporary mines. Questions such as to what extent do most mines or extractive mineral operations retain the structure of the oppressive colonial past and the extent to which our contemporary leaders are acting as “replacements” for colonial governments will be critical for such an appraisal.

Further still, we must begin to examine the entirety of the Marikana tragedy, not only from the purview of the state (inclusive of the South African Police Service) but from its most human-rights and humanity-related angle. This would be from the point of view of the mine workers, their families and their socio-economic circumstances. This not only for South Africa but for the entirety of the region. In this there should be no exceptionalism. Whether one is discussing the controversial diamond mines in Eastern Zimbabwe or the revived copper mines in Zambia, a key question must resonate, “where in this do we find the people’s socio-economic rights?” Even if the investor appears to make the central or provincial governments in our respective countries happy, we must measure whether there is no deliberate elite cohesion in extractive wealth accumulation for the few at the expense of the poor majority.

As it is, the lessons of Marikana may appear specific to socio-economic and political developments in South Africa. Some may have even chosen to view them in relation to the internal politics of the ANC as well in order to falsely claim that all “African” politics remain the same. The truth of the matter is, Marikana is indicative of a continually emerging and re-emerging Southern African problem in resource extraction, elite collusion against workers and an active lack of democratic frameworks on resource extraction in the region.

Takura Zhangazha is the executive director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe. He writes here in his personal capacity (