The 34 miners killed by the police earlier this month in a wildcat strike at a Marikana platinum mine, in northern South Africa, were immediately engaged as bit players in various morality tales. Marikana reminded some of the 1960 police massacre at Sharpeville; suggested to others that poverty and division had survived apartheid; or foretold a sharp confrontation between capital and labor. To many, it either predicted or confirmed the political and moral disintegration of the ruling party, the African National Congress.
I hesitated in choosing among these fables because a writer’s single item of professional knowledge is that a story is a speculation about the world, composed under the sign of luck rather than of law or reason. Good stories, like bad stories, have a way of escaping the facts.
If the international press framed Marikana as a tale about deprivation and inequality, it missed the specific dynamics of a strike in a country ruled by former unionists, Socialists and Communists.
At Marikana the radicalized strikers broke with the National Union of Mineworkers, a credible but more temperate union aligned with the government, and went on to kill two policemen and two guards in the first days of the strike. Three thousand men, many of them tough rock-drill operators, they were all too ready for confrontation, armed with magic potions, spears, machetes and a revolver taken from a downed policeman. Indeed there were some voices in South Africa who, having managed to find nothing positive in two decades of democracy, for the first time defended the actions of the government faced with mob violence. I didn’t wish to agree; by convention writers don’t side with repression. Yet I wondered with what intent and foresight the miners had appeared as an army.
There are wise audiences who nevertheless see Marikana in moral black and white, stung by the devastating use of police power in defense of an imperial mining corporation based in London, Lonmin, and its almost unreconstructed layers of white management. One friend recalled a Lonmin executive whose obligatory Rolex watch and Mercedes typified the heedless gaudiness of money in such a divided country.
Yet this story is interrupted by the figure of Cyril Ramaphosa — probably the best president we will never have. As a leader of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, he courted death and detention and was a great organizer of the working classes. But outmaneuvered by Thabo Mbeki in the ’90s, the former unionist chose business over politics, became a rand billionaire and joined the Lonmin board as part of South Africa’s black economic empowerment program.
While economic empowerment is as important as the vote, it creates anomalies when applied to individuals. Mr. Ramaphosa has acquired a billionaire’s unusual habits. In his spare time he breeds exotic animals, black and white impala alongside the aptly named golden wildebeest. His investment group pledged two million rand ($240,000) to funeral expenses at Marikana. It was not enough to forestall the criticism from Julius Malema, the portly, improbable, ill-disciplined but shrewdly articulate radical recently expelled from the ruling party. Mr. Malema argued that the miners had died to protect Mr. Ramaphosa’s investments, and he made hay of the tycoon’s recent offer of more than $2 million for a single oversize buffalo cow.
Perhaps that wasn’t fair. But luxuries like the buffalo cow, Mercedes-Benz and Rolex watch suggest the possibility, perhaps not unfamiliar to Americans, that workers’ violence endangers the country less than the unreal ways in which the superrich take pleasure and show power. The 1994 settlement between Afrikaners and African nationalists treated the hopes of the poor and excluded as a problem to be managed. It went far, maybe too far, in turning Socialists and unionists into capitalists. In such an unequal society, social justice is not an ideal but the purest form of pragmatism.
For me, as for many Capetonians, Marikana is on the other side of the country. But it is an occasion for broader anxieties. Nearby townships have long been alight with stonings and protests, vigilante murder and the death by burning tire that we call — in a phrase that no longer registers as a figure of speech — the necklace. This violence has no political name, no obvious moral, and may yet pass. But it is a sign that the country has jettisoned its principles of fellowship and equality too rapidly and at far too low a price.
In any case, a mine is a difficult place to learn or teach a principle. As a schoolboy I went down a coal shaft as a guest of the Chamber of Mines, which wanted to encourage children to become mining engineers. For an hour we plummeted into dark heat and noise, passages of shivering wooden pillars, rock ceilings sloping almost to the floor that wept hot water. We passed men bent over their clanging and clattering drills who could not even stand up straight where they worked. To go in and come out of such a place, each day of a short life, was, I suspected, placing too much strain on the human heart. One could do it only if one didn’t know that, in 2011, three Lonmin executives earned the same as the combined salaries of 3,600 rock-drill operators.
In the years since 1994, South Africans chose money, and faith in the growth of gross domestic product, as our country’s story line. It is a strange twist to the narrative that many of the northern mines, despite good platinum prices, are almost unprofitable.
Imraan Coovadia teaches creative writing at the University of Cape Town and is the author, most recently, of the novel The Institute for Taxi Poetry.