Weeping for Reeva, ignoring Marikana

The Western press's obsession with Pistorius has been grotesque.

Moses Dube

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Without any sense of irony, the Western media, in the wake of the trial of one-time Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, have appointed themselves the judge and psychoanalyst of post-Apartheid South Africa. Their key observation is that the Pistorius trial has revealed the macho culture of violence that lurks beneath the surface of the new South Africa. But their observations are grotesque in the extreme. By concentrating on the violence of a privileged white South African, the media have not only rewritten the history of Apartheid – they have also sanitised the real source of violence in Nelson Mandela’s ‘rainbow nation’: namely, the post-Apartheid state run by the African National Congress (ANC).

According to the Guardian, in a piece titled ‘Reeva Steenkamp was a victim of South Africa’s macho culture’, the trial revealed ‘how this heedless, hidden violence manifests itself’ in contemporary South Africa. Apparently, South Africa is in the grip of a ‘seemingly endless cycle of male violence that did not end with Apartheid’. The piece continues: ‘[C]asual everyday social violence’, which was ‘the defining feature of Apartheid’, ‘has endured and thrived in the two decades since’.

So ‘casual everyday social violence’, perpetrated by ordinary men, was the ‘defining feature of Apartheid’? What planet is the Guardian on? Apartheid – the forcible denial of any semblance of democratic rights to South Africa’s black majority – was enforced by a racist state through the barrel of a gun in order to keep in place an economic system that ruthlessly exploited black workers. The everyday social violence of South Africa was a result of the daily humiliation, dehumanisation and oppression of ordinary black South Africans. To ascribe this violence an independent existence, and explain it as being ‘primarily fuelled by a chauvinistic, macho culture that cuts across all races and social classes’, as the International Business Times does, is to rewrite South African history, turn it on its head, and, even worse, fail to interrogate why violence persists in the post-Apartheid land created by Mandela and the ANC.

But the media are not interested in looking too closely at the so called ‘rainbow nation’ of post-Apartheid South Africa. After all, Western commentators and politicians frequently hold it up as a shining example of how peace can be achieved through negotiation and a commitment to multiculturalism. Instead, it is masculinity and gun ownership that are held up as the source of everything that is rotten in contemporary South Africa. According to the Independent, Pistorius represented ‘a section of society that is violent, self-obsessed and contemptuous of the law. It was a lawlessness that represents a certain kind of South African impulse, not just an Afrikaner impulse.’ In this heady talk of ordinary people’s impulses, the perpetuation of white privilege stands out as the crime against humanity. According to Channel 4, which cited an anecdote involving Pistorius getting a gun out in a restaurant, the Pistorius case shows that if you are white and rich (and famous, too) ‘you can disrespect the law and the law itself will look the other way with nothing more than a wink and a nod’.

But according to some observers, if there’s any redemption to be found in the trial of Pistorius it lies in the new South Africa’s justice system, in which a black judge can now put a privileged white guy, an Afrikaner, in his place. In other words, the Pistorius trial has served to recast the judicial system as being in the vanguard of the struggle against violence against women and racial prejudice. In post-Apartheid South Africa, white men now apparently know their place. They are no longer above the law, and their macho culture can now be publicly humiliated and unmasked by the rainbow nation’s colour-blind justice system. Keep on dreaming, as the saying goes.

The Western pontificating about the tragedy of Pistorius has been nothing more than self-aggrandisement, an exercise in egotistical moral chest-thumping devoid of any substance or integrity. It has been designed self-consciously to perpetuate Western commentators’ view of the ANC’s ‘rainbow nation’. If they genuinely believed what they wrote about the culture of violence in South Africa, about the flaunting of the law and the state of the judicial system, then it is hard to see how they could avoid contrasting the Pistorius trial to the starkest example of the ANC-led government’s authoritarianism – the cold-blooded, premeditated massacre of 34 striking miners at Marikana on 16 August 2012.

Compared with the column inches devoted to Pistorius, hardly a word has been said about a new documentary that came out earlier this year, which systematically reconstructs the Marikana massacre. Miners Shot Down, directed by Rehad Desai, is uncomfortable for the Western media because it exposes the fact that the post-Apartheid regime under Nelson Mandela’s ANC is no different to its predecessor. The same state violence under white-minority rule lives on. In fact, it is growing and being perpetuated by the multicultural justice system. While the prosecution in the Pistorius trial failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Pistorius was guilty of premeditated murder, Miners Shot Down contains no such ambiguity about the ANC and the police’s responsibility for mass murder.

The documentary, drawn from interviews, police and security footage, and other evidence, chronicles the six days before the Marikana massacre. It begins with the refusal by mine-owners Lonmin to negotiate with the rock drillers’ demands for R12,500 (approximately £710) per month. You might think that striking for a mere £710 a month, which is hardly a living wage for some of the most dangerous labour in the world, is a reasonable thing to do, especially in the new ANC-led South Africa, which promised to return the wealth of the people to the people as a whole. This dispute was not an expression of South Africa’s macho culture; it was just a grim struggle by ordinary black South Africans for a better wage and some dignity. But the ANC-led government regarded the strike as a criminal act. And, just like its predecessors in the Apartheid regime, the government set about ‘killing the strike’, as the national police commissioner, Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega, put it in a press conference on the morning of the massacre. Thirty-four miners were executed in cold blood as a result.

The premeditated character of the massacre is chillingly captured in Miners Shot Down. Footage shows how the police were armed to the teeth with machine guns and automatic weapons. They arrived on the day of the massacre with riot vans, barbed wire and four mortuary vans. That’s right: mortuary vans, not ambulances. The police proceeded to corral the strikers down a predetermined path, flanked by barbed wire and riot vans. The strikers were then attacked from behind with tear gas and some live rounds, which caused the column to run for the only exit given them. As they emerged, running from the terror behind them, the miners were mown down by police firing machine guns indiscriminately into their panicked ranks.

When this footage was shown on TV news in the West, the impression given was that the miners were rushing towards and attacking the police. Self-defence was the justification given by the government and its police forces. But Miners Shot Down reveals this to be a lie. The documentary shows in the most disturbing graphic footage imaginable how, after the dust had settled, the police stood in a line, holding their automatic weapons, taunting the miners who were now lying on the ground and bleeding to death. None of the police officers bothered to call an ambulance. In fact, it was worse than that: they ordered the ambulances not to enter until an hour after the shooting, during which time the police hunted other miners who had run up a small koppie (a rocky outcrop) before shooting them in cold blood. This was premeditated murder, pure and simple.

To date, not one policeman has been charged for what took place at Marikana. There has been no black judge dressing down a police commissioner for lying and plotting murder. The wonderful South African justice system has not held one police officer or government minister accountable for the massacre, whereas 270 of the miners were charged with common-purpose murder charges (these charges were recently dropped).

It is not South Africa’s macho culture that stands exposed in Miners Shot Down. Instead, what is revealed is how the ANC-led government is as ruthless and calculating as the previous Apartheid regime, and that its sole focus is protecting the mine owners and the wealthy at the expense of ordinary South Africans. Desai’s interview with politician, businessman and now deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa brings this out in some of the film’s most unsettling and memorable scenes. Silky smooth, debonair and almost feline in manner, Ramaphosa explains that strikes in South Africa exist because of the robust ‘democratic system that allows workers to express themselves’. ‘People’, he goes on, ‘should never be alarmed – this is the South African way’. And who can contradict him? What happened is precisely the ‘South African way’, the same way of the old Apartheid regime that also gunned down defenceless black protesters during the Apartheid years.

This is the same Ramaphosa who become a national hero in the 1980s and 1990s for leading the National Union of Mineworkers in strikes not dissimilar to those at Marikana. This time, however, silky Cyril is no longer a mere trade-union leader; he is now on the other side, a Lonmin board member and shareholder. Desai cites emails sent by Ramaphosa 24 hours before the police fired live ammunition at the unarmed workers. In the emails, Ramaphosa denounced the miners as ‘dastardly criminals’ and stated that there ‘needs to be concomitant actions to address this situation’. And in true Apartheid style, the ‘concomitant’ action that followed was the ‘South African way’: the state gunned down striking workers to prop up a system that is no less exploitative and oppressive than the past.

What’s the lesson here, you may ask? Well, it shows that in the ANC’s South Africa, a man like Ramaphosa, whose ANC-grandee status has enabled him to amass a vast personal fortune, making him one of the richest men in South Africa, can flagrantly flout the law. In the ‘rainbow nation’, violence is a state institution backed by a multicultural justice system that has the backing of the Western media.

The Pistorius trial has brought into the open just how craven the Western media have become. Their silence on Marikana while pontificating about the macho culture of ordinary South Africans shows how they’ve become the inadvertent apologists for state-sanctioned murder and violence. Their silence on Marikana is deafening, far louder than the four bullets Oscar Pistorius fired on that tragic night.

Moses Dube is a writer from South Africa.

Picture by: PA

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