When primitive superstition turns to violence and death

The shooting of striking workers at the Marikana platinum mine in South Africa last week shocked many people.  At the time of writing it looks as if the death toll stands at 34 dead, 78 wounded and 259 arrested – not including ten people who died before the shooting incident, including two policemen who were murdered by the strikers and their weapons stolen.

For those who may have missed news of the incident, here’s CNN’s initial video report.  WARNING – you’ll see men die in this footage.  It’s not for the squeamish.

I was struck by the extremely poor performance of the South African police.  Their fire discipline was appalling, their tactics were seemingly designed to provoke a confrontation, and their post-shooting handling of the affair was abysmal in its incompetence.  In many ways, they came across as just as uncaring, arrogant and indifferent as the widely hated and distrusted racist police force of the apartheid era.

However, some things never change.  Reuters published a very interesting analysis of the union behind the strikes, and their pugnacious in-your-face tactics.

Since the start of this year, the AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) has been muscling in to grab members from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in a bitter turf war that has triggered violence at several mines and shaken the industry.

While critics, which include mine executives and the NUM, accuse it of using strong-arm tactics to recruit members and press labor claims with illegal strikes, AMCU’s leaders wage their campaign in the name of Jesus Christ and racial justice in one of the most unequal societies in the world.

. . .

Police, union officials and social researchers say AMCU members use “muti” or witchcraft, in which miners use potions they believe will protect them against enemies and bullets.

Police said they had taken pictures of one such anointing ceremony by a “sangoma“, or witch doctor, at Marikana.

“At all of the AMCU meetings I have attended, they have a prayer to start but then someone sprays around some muti,” said Crispen Chinguno, a researcher at the sociology department at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, who has spent time with the platinum mining communities.

. . .

The events at Marikana gave South Africans a frightening glimpse of the threats and violence that accompany the union turf war in which the AMCU admits it is fervently engaged.

Extensive television footage of the week-long standoff showed several thousand strikers carrying traditional weapons – spears, machetes and clubs known as “knobkerries” – massing like a Zulu “impi”, or army, on a rocky hill near the mine.

Police, who said they fired in self-defense on Thursday, said the strikers also carried firearms.

The Marikana miners said they carried the weapons to defend themselves, but witnesses say there is a clear edge of aggression to the AMCU drive for membership and prominence.

At an AMCU rally attended last month by a Reuters correspondent, marchers sang: “Who is this NUM, how can we kill it?” The pungent smell of marijuana filled the winter air and the young men waved banners and sticks.

A pattern of violence and illegal stoppages has also characterized the AMCU’s recruiting efforts from Implats to Lonmin to Aquarius Platinum.

There’s more at the link.

I’m very familiar with such violent tendencies in South Africa, as regular readers of this blog will understand.  For those who know South African history, the NUM is aligned with the African National Congress and South African Communist Party alliance, which today rules South Africa.  The AMCU is more in sympathy with the ideology expressed by the Black Consciousness Movement founded by the late Steve Biko, which later found expression in the Pan Africanist Congress during the 1980’s.  It’s politically moribund now . . . or was, until the rise of the AMCU.  We’ll see whether the broader movement can resurrect itself in the wake of recent events.

The thing to remember is that life is cheap in Africa.  It always has been, and I doubt whether that will change in my lifetime.  Racial, tribal, ethnic, political, social, cultural, religious and language differences have long divided the continent – and not only in South Africa, but in many other nations (witness the current and ongoing conflicts in Zimbabwe, the Sudan, the Congo, Nigeria, etc.).  Where society as a whole is primitive, tribal and insular, anything and anyone that’s an ‘outsider’ is invariably greeted with distrust and suspicion.  If another group – such as a mining company, or the police – is seen as standing in the way of something your group wants, you fight it.  The concept of actually sitting down and talking about differences in order to resolve them is a relatively recent innovation in Africa.  It led to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, but only after thousands of innocent people had been killed by opposing factions during the run-up to them.  (I’ve written about those years before.)

I’m profoundly saddened to see that the murderous instincts that are still at the heart of Africa have not yet abated . . . but I’m not at all surprised.  It’s been depressing to find some of the old nightmares returning after watching that news report.  I hope they leave soon, but I guess they’ll be around for a while.  When you’ve seen too much, the images never leave you.  Nor do the memories of the coppery taste of fear in your mouth, and the rising burn of vomit in your throat, and the feeling of a thin hot wire being threaded through your guts as you watch a mob like that coming towards you at a dead run, iklwas (short stabbing assegais) and pangas (a local variety of machete) raised, their battle cries roaring and echoing in your ears.  When you’ve seen the way those weapons tear and hack up a man (or woman, or child), you don’t forget.

I don’t blame the police for shooting to stop that sort of attack.  I blame them for not managing the situation better, because it need never have come to that.  South Africa would have been far better off if they’d done so.  As it is, this bloodshed will call forth further bloodshed in the weeks and months and years to come.  It’s always that way in Africa.  Nothing’s changed.



  1. *sigh* and then this…

    I want to be able to say something, but I've seen it before and we'll see it again, and I just pray that those who can do something about it makes the right decisions.

    And I wonder. How much of Africa is in every one of us?

  2. As Kim DuToit says, "Africa wins again." I notice that the news footage starts with the police already firing, and with a cloud of dust covering the miners who were running towards the police.Creative editing, do you think?

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