I was only a child in the 1980’s. By the time I reached my teens, South Africa was closing the book on Apartheid and getting ready for a new start as a free, democratic nation.
But growing up in Soweto at the height of PW Botha’s State of Emergency, I saw things that I’ll never forget. I have memories of Casspirs on the streets, of rolls of razor wire, of teargas, of men in uniforms sent into townships to make sure that nothing threatened the status quo of the Apartheid government.
And these men in their uniforms had the freedom to be as brutal as they wanted because two things were missing: moral conviction to do the right thing and accountability. They could – and literally did – get away with murder because no one would hold them responsible for anything they did “in the line of duty”.
You see, these police officers were were tasked to uphold an illegitimate regime. They were there to do the bidding of a government that didn’t even pretend to care about the lives of poor, black people. Brutality was the only language they spoke, and afterwards there would be no questions, no investigations, no consequences and no remorse.
They were violent, trigger-happy and terrifying, and they were very effective at shutting down dissent.
But then the 80’s came to an end and everything changed. Nelson Mandela was released, political parties were unbanned and former enemies sat down to plan our democracy and write our new Constitution. That evil, illegitimate regime, with its uniformed bullies and killers, was replaced by a democratically-elected government. A government that, we believed, cared for all its people.
But last Sunday I attended a memorial service on the third anniversary of an event that shattered the illusion of a caring, empathetic government.
What happened on 16 August 2012 at Marikana does not belong in our hard-won democracy. It is the stuff of Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha, and not of a government that fought to liberate people from violent oppression.
Altogether 44 men were killed at Marikana. These weren’t dangerous criminals, as our president would later have us believe. They were just ordinary South Africans – brothers, sons, fathers, friends and boyfriends – who worked under conditions that many of us can barely imagine. All they were seeking was a living wage. And on 16 August 2012 they just wanted to be heard, by their employer and by their government.
Instead, they were gunned down in what turned out to be the single most lethal use of force by South African police since the Sharpville massacre of 21 March 1960. And when they died in the smoke and dust and confusion that afternoon, it wasn’t just those men who lost their lives. Children lost their fathers. Women lost their husbands and sons. Families lost their providers.
In any society in the world, this would be a horrific tragedy. But here in South Africa, with our incredible recovery from our brutal past, these killings by the police defy all words. It is just unthinkable that this could have happened on the watch of our post-apartheid government less than two decades into our democracy.
But if you still had any doubt about our government’s complicity in Marikana, then their callous and indifferent response to the killings made it crystal clear where they stood.
When it comes to the actions of the police, the buck must always stop with the Police Minister and the National Police Commissioner. It is inconceivable that either of them could carry on in their jobs in the wake of a police massacre of this scale. The very first thing the president should have done is to remove then Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and National Commissioner Riah Phiyega from their positions.
Instead, he turned to his favourite play in his crisis management playbook – the commission of inquiry. Deliberately intended to spread the blame so wide and so thin that no one but a handful of low-ranking officials end up carrying the can, these commissions are the ultimate cop-out for an accountability-free government. (Just look where the Seriti Commission into the Arms Deal got us).
Anyone who thought that a portion of the responsibility would ultimately rest with Deputy President (and then Lonmin director) Cyril Ramaphosa, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa or Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu is naïve. And yet, the Farlam Commission Report made recommendations on which our president should have acted.
This is what he should have done immediately, and should still do without delay:
- Fire National Commissioner Riah Phiyega – it is clear she knew what was happening when the police ordered more ammunition and mortuary vans. She must be held to account.
- Fire Minister Nathi Mthethwa – he may no longer be our Police Minister, but it is unthinkable that he can still serve in the cabinet of a democratically-elected government after Marikana happened on his watch.
- Ensure that the victims’ families are financially compensated for their loss. The DA will continue to fight in Parliament for the adoption of a Special Appropriation Bill to serve as a framework for the fair compensation of the dependents.
In addition, we need a clear and focused economic plan for our mining sector, which must go hand-in-hand with the rejuvenation of our mining towns. Three years and many promises about improvements later, Marikana still looks exactly the same.
We also cannot hope to prevent another Marikana without talking about the contribution of the unions to the situation. The DA upholds the rights of the employed and we support the role of the unions, but this can’t be at the expense of the unemployed. For the sake of job preservation and job creation, it is imperative that we introduce reforms to the Labour Relations Act that will democratise the strike procedure and compel unions to take accountability for their actions.
But even these steps alone are not enough. The real problem lies at the very top.
Two months ago, when addressing students at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria, President Zuma made his feelings on Marikana clear when he justified the killings. And, perhaps more ominously, he then threatened to use even more Apartheid-era police violence against people expressing their dissatisfaction with the rate of social transformation and service delivery.
If the government of our precious democracy is in the hands of a man who not only refuses to hold anyone to account for the brutal killing of dozens of citizens at the hands of the police, but then also threatens to do so again, then we have been sold out. Then we have ended up with a president who is no different to the infamous leaders of our dark and terrible past.
So while Riah Phiyega and Nathi Mthethwa must be fired right away, it is ultimately the man who appoints them, protects them and covers up for them who must go. He should not be our president. South Africa does not deserve him.