Daily Maverick Marikana

Marikana: Social scientists seek understanding and demand justice

Daily Maverick, 18 September 2012

As optimism grew on Monday for a breakthrough in wage negotiations between striking workers and Lonmin management, it also became increasingly clear that the legacy of Marikana, the imprint of the violence and the brutal role of the police would outlive the strike itself. Furthermore, a group of social scientists is calling for the killings to be probed, so that justice – whatever course may need to take – can be meted out. 

As the country continues to grapple with what happened in Marikana on August 16, and the miners’ parlous living conditions that those killings forced into the open, many continue to question why the rest of the country was blind to the brewing discontent in the mines, why nobody predicted it and why government was aloof to it.

Few could have predicted the scale of the violence and the absolute show of force by the state. But even as the shock wears off, the sheer force of will of the miners, and their readiness to bite the bullet until their demands are met, continues to amaze people.

Elias Pholosi, a sales executive from Johannesburg who frequently visits relatives in Marikana, told Daily Maverick that as far back as a year ago, he could sense trouble brewing in the small mining town. “When you are driving around there, you see all these squatter camps. Coming up, you see corrugated iron, you see the world-class platinum mines… and when miners put the television on, they see the value of what they are mining – I felt that something would [certainly] happen one day,” he said. “Here is an area that there is a lot of money from the mines. Why doesn’t the company contribute to the infrastructure of the place? It is basic logic that you would want your workers to sleep well so they can perform well at work. Why don’t they improve their life?”

Pholosi’s sense of Marikana is informed by his 12-year old granddaughter and her family, who live on the periphery of Lonmin’s smelting plant. He speaks of the impact of the strike on their daily life, the disruption to the family’s business and his granddaughter’s battle to attend school in Rustenburg as tensions in the community peaked last month. But if Pholosi, as an everyman, could see the unrest brewing in the aftermath of the first killings, one can surely expect a more complex analysis from social scientists.

“As social scientists, we also respond to what has happened in a particular way,” reads a statement released by a group of South Africa’s respected social scientists. The group, which is not formally affiliated but chose to release a collective statement, includes Professor Freek Cronje, president of the South African Sociological Association; Professor Michael Burawoy, president of the International Sociological Association; Professor Adam Habib, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg; Professor Peter Alexander of the University of Johannesburg, who first alerted the country to the killing fields of Small Koppie; and Professor Ari Sitas of the University of Cape Town.

“Through our research and teaching, we aim to contribute to an examination of social structures, social processes and social context, making sense of these historically and with awareness that they have political significance,” the statement reads. “Our research aims to reveal phenomena that are hidden, rather than rely on reports of what is immediately visible.

“As social scientists, we have a normative concern with defending truth, justice and democracy,” it continues.

The statement is an invocation to understand what actually happened in Marikana that robbed people of their lives, but it also expresses a position: one that seeks redress for the victims and their families.

“We recognise that [Marikana] is a turning point in South African history,” Peter Alexander explains.

“It’s an event that has captured everything that has been slowly sizzling beneath the surface of the country,” Ari Sitas agrees.

For Alexander, it is crucial that discussions of Marikana are steered towards understanding the underlying conditions of workers and recognising as well that those conditions are not unique to Marikana, or the platinum belt. “We think it’s important to develop discussion of the continued legacy of the Apartheid past as revealed in Marikana,” he says. “It has revealed that a lot has been done, but a lot has not been done; and we need that to inform people’s understanding of what happened.”

Sitas explains Marikana, the massacre and the shadow it has cast over South Africa as the ultimate demonstration of South Africa’s contradictions. “It captured the tensions of the country, tensions without solutions, tensions that were not supposed to have occurred considering our constitution and our labour relations framework.

“We were not supposed to shoot striking people,” Sitas says.

The statement, Alexander explains, is an acceptance of responsibility from social scientists to overlook the investigations and the ensuing debates – with the potential to learn something valuable from the analysis for future reference. But, he warns, social scientists are not a solution in themselves. “It doesn’t mean we have all the answers,” he says.

“As civil society we need to push for the truth,” Sitas adds. “It is shocking, and these kind of shocks need to be addressed. What we need is to put the brakes on what is going on.” DM