S. Africa miner killings 'shocking, but apartheid comparisons exaggerated'

Screen grab from the news site African Globe.
 
South Africans are still reeling from the news that police killed 34 striking miners on Thursday. Brutal footage of the incident, which shows police shooting dozens of live rounds at the protesters, has prompted many comparisons to apartheid-era violence. We asked several of our Observers in South Africa for their reactions.
 
Police claimed on Friday they were acting in self-defence when they opened fire on strikers at Lonmin platinum mine, located near the city of Marikana. Miners had been on strike for the past week, demanding that their wages be tripled. On Thursday, hundreds of miners had gathered near the mine, some of them armed with machetes and other home-made weapons. When the police tried to disperse them, a group splintered off and charged. That’s when the shooting began.
 
On top of the 34 strikers killed, 78 were injured. Over the past week, 10 people had already died in conflicts between the two main unions representing Lonmin miners.
 
"I always thought that the Sharpeville massacre was history and it would never happen again. [Editor’s note: Police shot and killed 69 protesters in the township of Sharpeville on March 21, 1960. This date is now commemorated with a national holiday.] What we experienced yesterday under the democratic government was similar to Sharpeville,” said Joseph Mathunjwa, head of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, told French news agency AFP.
 
The ruling ANC party, as well as a broad spectrum of political parties, have deplored the bloodshed. Mineral mining is a thorny political issue in South Africa, where many feel this vast wealth is unequally distributed.

'The police felt threatened and they were being attacked, very much unlike the apartheid years where police used deadly force against peaceful protesters'

Bennie Visser is a radio journalist in Port Elizabeth.
 
Despite being a journalist and often reporting on death, to see footage of someone actually dying, after he was running moments before, was still quite disturbing. While police were armed, one should note that many of the protesters were also armed with pangas (machetes), knobkieries (sticks with knobs on one end, capable of delivering a fatal blow) and firearms. And since two policemen and two mine security officials were killed in the days leading up to yesterday’s massacre, the police were clearly on edge. On the other hand, one wonders if rubber bullets would not have sufficed.
 
I think this violence was the result of the larger socio-economic issues in our country. We are nearly two decades into our new, true democracy, but the vast majority of people still face daily battles for things others take for granted. By this I mean financial survival, even for those with jobs, let alone the millions who are looking for work. However, while protests, sometimes coupled with violence and property damage, are by no means uncommon in South Africa, we are – mercifully – no longer accustomed to seeing the level of violence we saw yesterday.
 
While the incident reminds people of apartheid violence because it features the authorities on one side and the “angry masses” on the other, the root causes are vastly different. One thought that occurred to me was “a black man’s life is still worthless”. However, from many accounts, the police felt threatened and they were being attacked, very much unlike the apartheid years where police used deadly force against peaceful protesters.

'The police, instead of trying to mediate, acted like they were the company’s security guards'

MA Mohammed is a businessman based in Johannesburg.
 
Disadvantaged people in South Africa have long clamoured for an equal share of the country’s wealth. Most of the mines are controlled by people who have been historically advantaged; the country’s mineral wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few. Miners, however, are increasingly aware of their rights, in terms of pay and working conditions, and so of course this is leading to greater conflict.
 
While what we saw yesterday was shocking, it was in no way comparable to apartheid-era violence. That would be greatly exaggerated. Today, South Africa is generally a stable country. This incident should be seen for what it is: simply a conflict between employers and employees that was very poorly handled. The police, unfortunately, instead of trying to mediate, acted like they were the company’s security guards.
 
I hope and pray that what we saw yesterday will ignite a national crisis in which mine workers will try to take the law into their own hands. Politicians should be very wary of this, for this could bring our beautiful economy to its knees.

'People need to realise that there are now democratic channels through which they can voice their grievances'

Sipho January is a community developer in Cape Town.
 
At first, I was shocked that our police could be this brutal. But as more information emerged – in particular, that the miners were armed – I realised that they were faced with a dangerous situation. It was either them or the strikers, so they had to protect themselves with deadly force. I think that as people hear more about the circumstances, most will come to this conclusion.
 
Unfortunately, apartheid taught our people how to send a message through violence and destruction. Back in the day, that seemed like the only way to get heard. But people today do not all realise that there are now democratic channels through which they can voice their grievances. The government and other public figures need to do something to educate people about this. This is something that takes time, and we need to start now.
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