CAPE TOWN — The Aug. 16 massacre at South Africa's Lonmin's Marikana mine, in which police shot dead 34 illegally striking miners and wounded 78 others, has annihilated whatever remained of the illusion of Africa's largest economy as a harmonious, post-apartheid state.
Lonmin is the world's third-largest platinum producer, and employs 28,000 workers at its Marikana mine, in the country's North West Province. The miners live either in informal settlements on the outskirts of the mine or in overcrowded hostels, reportedly earning a pitiful $541 a month. The violence began on Aug. 10, when 3,000 rock-drill operators, after demanding that their salaries be increased to around $1,500, downed their tools and picked up traditional weapons such as machetes and clubs known as knobkerries.
The inability of either side to compromise quickly turned an issue of welfare into one of warfare. Ten people were killed in the week before the massacre -- including security guards and miners who resisted joining the splinter trade union that is alleged to have encouraged the strike. The miners hacked to death two policemen and mutilated their corpses. Miners also discovered the body of a miner believed to have informed on his union; his head was split open, and he had been crucified: The Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that the corpse was "left on display the whole day as a warning to non-strikers."
What happened next remains unclear. The standoff took place on a hill, with police and miners facing each other. Seconds before the shooting began, the policemen appeared to be stepping backward, while the miners advanced, several hurling what were either grenades or petrol bombs. Footage from Al Jazeera reveals a miner aiming what appears to be a handgun at police, and what sounds like a shot fired from the miners' side of the hill. Two minutes later, 34 miners were dead.
A week later, the country is still reeling. The Marikana massacre, recalling apartheid-era violence and portending potentially devastating conflict, is South Africa's "Back to the Future" moment. It reminds an already fragile nation that it lacks responsible leadership, basic public services like safety and security, and, too often, rule of law. The country remains one of the most violent in the world, with 43 murders reported every day. Many remember the apartheid-era police, who saw black people as inhuman and therefore eradicable, and see this inhumanity echoed in the actions of today's police force.
For many South Africans, Marikana reminded them of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when the apartheid police killed 69 black people who were peacefully protesting against a government that was systematically denying them their rights. Sharpeville was the day that peace died, quite literally, as the massacre encouraged the country's largest liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), to replace pacifist activism with violent resistance. Sharpeville mobilized international support against the South African government's racist policies, and -- though it took decades of increasingly aggressive sanctions -- was the beginning of the end of apartheid, which finally fell in 1994.
Marikana and Sharpeville are similar in their scale and sense of awful spectacle, in their brutality, lack of accountability, and use of excessive, authoritarian force. But unlike in Sharpeville, the Marikana miners were striking violently, not peacefully. And the narrative of Sharpeville -- a racist minority against a vibrant majority, oppressor against oppressed, black against white, right against wrong -- was altogether more coherent. The Marikana crisis is more confused.