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Massacre in South Africa: Police Defend Killing of 34 Striking Workers at Platinum Mine

StoryAugust 21, 2012
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South African police shot dead 34 striking workers at platinum mine last week, setting off a wave of protests. In what has been described as “South Africa’s first post-apartheid massacre,” the miners were killed after demanding more pay and walking off the job at the Marikana mine, the world’s third largest producer of platinum. South Africa’s national police chief Riah Phiyega is drawing public outrage for defending her officers. She said, “It was the right thing to do” though “we are sorry that lives were lost.” For more, we’re joined by Gavin Capps, a member of the group “Land Reform and Democracy in South Africa” at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to what some are calling “South Africa’s first post-apartheid massacre.” Police shot dead 34 striking workers at the South African mine last week, setting off a wave of protests. The victims were killed more than a week after walking off the job at the Marikana platinum mine in a call for higher pay. Police say they shot after workers armed with machetes ignored calls to disperse. On Monday, 259 miners appeared in a court in Pretoria to face charges ranging from murder to public violence. However, the workers’ union says the police committed a massacre.

One of the mourners told a reporter from South Africa’s City Press newspaper what she believed happened.

MOURNER: [translated] I came to Lonmin to look for a job. I didn’t like what happened, that the police came here to kill people, while they were fighting for their rights. The miners were not rioting. It’s the police who started firing, but they keep saying they were shot at first. The miners were seated on a hill, not at the stadium, not at the mine. They were seated peacefully when the police approached. All the miners want is a wage increase.

AMY GOODMAN: The Marikana mine is owned by Lonmin, which is the world’s third largest producer of platinum. After the shooting, the reopened mine is reportedly laying idle, since fewer than a third of the workers have turned up. Lonmin announced a deadline for striking miners to return to work or face dismissal. The company has insisted the shooting was a result of an illegal strike that, it says, got out of hand. This is Lonmin’s chief financial officer, Simon Scott.

SIMON SCOTT: What happened was that an illegal strike took place. Employees chose to not to come to work. And then that very quickly escalated into an issue of public violence, which was beyond our control and one that needed the intervention of the South African Police Services.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, South Africa’s national police chief Riah Phiyega is drawing public outrage for defending her officers. She said, quote, “It was the right thing to do” though “we are sorry that lives were lost.”

As tensions escalate, South African President Jacob Zuma announced a week of national mourning, as well as the formation of a commission of inquiry. A separate independent inquiry into the shootings will reportedly also be launched by a group called Justice Now for the Marikana Strikers and Communities.

The shooting marked the worst mass killing in South Africa since the end of apartheid. The head of South Africa’s Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union said it evoked memories of the Sharpville massacre of 1960.

JOSEPH MATHUNJWA: I thought the history that I read about Sharpville massacre was a history. I never thought that in 2012 we will experience the same massacre under the democratic-elected government by ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the mines, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream in London by Gavin Capps, chair in Land Reform and Democracy in South Africa at the University of Cape Town.

Gavin Capps, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what took place?

GAVIN CAPPS: OK, indeed. But first of all, just a small correction: I’m not the chair. I’m a member of that chair.

What happened? Well, I think really we have to start from the big picture of what’s been happening with the platinum mining industry in South Africa and its place within the South African and indeed the global economy. Eighty-eight percent of the world’s platinum resources are concentrated within South Africa, and South Africa accounts for around 70 percent of global platinum production. Now, historically, this was a mining industry which was pretty small. As most people will know, the South African mining economy was dominated by the giant gold-mining industry and the diamond industry and, after that, coal. However, gold mining has been in long-term decline. And the problem for the platinum producers always was, there was never enough demand for their metal.

However, this began to change from the late 1990s, where demand massively increased. And one of the factors which led to that increase was, ironically, the use of platinum in catalytic converters to lower exhaust emissions in cars, particularly as a result of environmental legislation in the West. Suddenly, the value of platinum began to rise. Suddenly, there was a scramble to get the mineral out of the ground. And suddenly, there was a massive, massive expansion of platinum-mining activity within South Africa. And that expansion of mining activity with South Africa has coincided with the advent of democracy since 1994. And where this new mining is taking place is within predominantly rural areas, predominantly, on the one hand, within the North West province, where the Lonmin mine is located, and also, as well, within Limpopo province. And this rapid expansion has brought with it all kinds of social problems. It has led to land loss. It has led to the destruction of the environment. It has led to the displacement of local rural communities. And it has led to absolutely hideous exploitation of the workers working underground, digging the metal out of the ground. And I think, really, that’s where we need to start from.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the worker conditions in the mines?

GAVIN CAPPS: Sure. The conditions of the mines are, for mine workers, generally pretty appalling. It’s certainly true that they have improved since the dark days of apartheid. There are less mine deaths, for example, now. But they’ve only improved because of the struggles of mine workers themselves and of the strength of organized labor. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most dangerous and deadly industries in the world. The average life expectancy of a mine worker is very, very low. This is due in large part to dangerous conditions underground, where there are many, many injuries, if not less fatalities, but still many, many serious injuries, and also, as well, because of the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS throughout mining communities, which is a reflection of the extremely poor social conditions under which mine workers are living.

So, what you would find around a mine like Lonmin are enormous shanty towns, shanty towns which are made of small corrugated iron shacks in which mine workers are now living and where there are no proper services—there’s no water, there’s no electricity—where there is desperate and appalling poverty, because, of course, it’s not just the people who are employed in the mines who are there, but it’s also the desperate work seekers who have come across South—from across South Africa and, indeed, southern Africa, drawn towards one of the few mining industries which has been expanding. So there is a huge concentration of social problems around these mines. It is an extremely explosive situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera is reporting safety remains a major concern for the mine workers who return to work. Apparently, intimidation, threats of violence have kept many more away. I wanted to turn to Lonmin’s chief financial officer again, Simon Scott, who says people should return to work as soon as the situation gets under control.

SIMON SCOTT: With regard to our own employees, we have asked them to return to work. We’ve—you know, we understand that the situation is one where perhaps there is intimidation taking place. But as soon as that is—comes under control and as soon as the South African Police Services, you know, affect the situation so that the people aren’t intimidated, they should return to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Who owns this mine? And what about the South African government’s involvement here?

GAVIN CAPPS: OK. Well, first of all, I’d just like to comment on Simon Scott. This, I think, represents, really—it encapsulates the callousness of the mine bosses in South Africa. Thirty-four people were massacred last week by the police. Another 10 have died in violence around that strike in the week leading up to that. That is 44 mine workers dead and up to 80 mine workers injured, and there may be more joining the dead. It’s a tense and explosive situation. People are mourning. They’re in shock. They have been victims of a massacre. This is not the time to be threatening people with losing their jobs if they don’t return to work.

And indeed, just to update you, the mine workers have stayed away. They’ve stayed strong. And as a result of this and increasing political embarrassment of the government, pressure has now been put on Lonmin to step down and not face non-returning mine workers with the sack. But the fact that they’re even prepared to do that at all, under such circumstances, I think tells a much bigger story.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Gavin Capps, for being with us, a professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

That does it for our show. Tune in next week, the next two weeks, for our two weeks of expanded two-hour daily coverage from the Republican and Democratic conventions called “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency.”

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