Today I am crying for
Africa…crying for a love lost.
Crying for the rainbow nation I once believed in.
Crying for the shared future I no longer want to be a part of.
I wrote these words well before the tragic events of a few weeks ago – the police killing of 34 striking miners at Marikana (and injuring of another 78). I am appalled, although not at all surprised by the events that played out there last week. What I am far more surprised about is the reactions of many of my fellow South Africans – or in fact the LACK of reaction by most.
I am embarrassed to be a South African sometimes… and never more so than to have heard more discussion in the past weeks about the return of that ridiculous melodrama, ‘Dallas’ (ironically about the so-called glamour of people in the mining industry – yes, those very high up in the food chain)… than about the tragic events (and the terrible conditions that have pushed workers into embracing such violence) in our own local mining industry.
‘What’s so wrong about the police opening fire on a bunch of violent hooligans?’ People seem to be saying, or implying by their complete lack of outrage over the tragic incident. Conversely, it is assumed that expressing outrage over the massacre (yes, I am calling it that, as that is what it was - despite most politicians and local media balking at the word) is a sort of soft-headed support of violent people getting away with murder, literally.
So before I go any further, let me state explicitly that this is NOT what I am saying. But in a so-called democracy, there are many other ways for a government and police force to deal with violence and law-breaking, without resorting to killing the very people they are there to supposedly protect.
What’s wrong with shooting a bunch of protesting miners, when they had been violent and even apparently committed murder (two policemen were killed in the preceding week)? SO MUCH. So many levels of wrong... I will list and explain as briefly as I can – in this post, I will discuss the most obvious level first: DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES.
[In my next few posts I will dig a bit deeper… looking at human rights discourse, exploitation and structural violence, our violent culture, and the complacency of those of us who should be speaking up for others whose voices are too often ignored (politically and economically)]
1. Trigger happy policemen make for a very scary country to live in.
People seem only too happy to overlook the fact that all 34 victims were surely not responsible for the murder of the 2 policemen in the preceding violent clashes. AND even though many of the strikers brandished weapons and chanted threatening slogans, this does not decisively prove that they intended commit murder. Anyway ‘intention’ is not generally thought of as good enough reason to be convicted for a crime (over-the-top terrorism legislation aside – but that’s another conversation entirely).
Now, I suspect the lack of outrage or concern expressed over trigger-happy policemen may be due to the assumption that this would never be a problem for ‘decent’, law-abiding citizens like ‘us’. Think again. Imagine living in a country where a policeman felt entitled to shoot you, simply because he didn’t like the look of you, or suspected you had been involved in something illegal, or you looked particularly angry and dangerous that day… or you where even just in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught in the cross-fire between police and ‘suspects’? Oh, oops, I think we already live in that country!
Here two fundamental concepts are fighting for space in my next paragraph – ‘the right to a fair trial’, and the ‘social contract’. Where to begin, oh where to begin – centuries of political and philosophical thought have led to some basic building blocks for ‘civilised’ societies – and this horrible abuse of authority and power by police (and the government which is ultimately responsible for them) violates quite a few of these foundational principles.
The ‘social contract’ is the theoretical starting point for any government: we citizens relinquish our individual rights to protect ourselves to the ‘state’ - which promises to act on our behalf and protect us. In this manner we are supposed to ensure a ‘civilised’ society, where people do not run around shooting each other in anger or endless revenge cycles.
Furthermore, most legal systems the world over are based on the simple principle of presuming that people are ‘innocent until proven guilty’. I shouldn’t need to point out how ‘the right to a fair trial’ or ‘presumed innocence’ is trampled on when police think they can simply shoot the ‘suspects’ instead of handing them over to the legal system to run its course.
Shooting people on the spot means police also take on the roles of judge, jury and executioner, which flies in the face of the basic democratic principle of ‘the separation of powers’. The legislative, judicial and executive powers in a democratic country are intentionally separated, to ensure that none of them become too powerful. This is one of the many ‘checks and balances’ of so-called democracies, which are aimed at avoiding all the power being concentrated in one person or group (like a tyranny or oligarchy).
It’s easy to imagine how without these democratic principles in place, there would be much more corruption and nepotism, persecution of minority groups and so on… Of course we know there is so much corruption in the world today, that these ‘checks and balances’ are about as powerful as we citizens who seem to have no real say in the actual running of our countries, beyond casting our votes – choosing between a bunch of people we don’t trust anyway…
But the principles of a healthy, functioning democracy are more important now than ever – they are the closest thing to a ‘moral compass’ our culture has left (in a secular world where people no longer share the same spiritual or religious beliefs to guide society).
So I am amazed at the apparent lack of understanding shown in recent weeks by South Africans – the very grounds of our so-called ‘democracy’ are being threatened, people!! I studied Political Science, so I may be slightly ‘ahead of the pack’ here, but really, these are the very basics of democracy and politics, and should be known to all. These are OUR rights and freedoms being trampled on!! As Martin Luther King Jnr so rightly said: ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.
Yes, the police were defending themselves, and needed to take action in the first place against the violent and perhaps unlawful actions of the miners (though I wonder what is unlawful about a strike action – I don’t have all the facts, so can’t comment for sure). However, there are other very effective strategies and tools for doing so – for example, water cannon and teargas. These methods, although quite horrible, at least sufficiently incapacitate people to then place them under arrest – which is a far more tolerable approach for police in a so-called democracy (if used only in these extreme circumstances of course, not against unarmed people as is often the case).
It’s all very well to say the police are ill-equipped and poorly trained (although this is true), and try to paint the whole event as some completely unforeseen/ unintended tragedy… But you have to be a complete idiot not to have foreseen this. Anyway, the government is still ultimately responsible and accountable for the police and their actions - whether through gross incompetence, or ever-scarier levels of corruption (clearly there is now some degree to which they are carrying out the wishes of the transnational mining interests).
I mean, no matter what anyone says happened on that day, all I keep thinking is: who in their right mind sends a police force into a highly volatile situation like this with live ammo in the first place? Unless intentionally of course, wanting people killed… ahh, the plot thickens…