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Estelle Nagel Headshot

Dancing While Rome Burns: Why South Africa Has Not Had Its Revolution Yet

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When I was watching the violent scenes unfold at the Lonmin Marikana mine in the North West Province of South Africa a few months ago, I felt a disturbing sense of déjà vu that I simply couldn't place. It took a while to realize what it reminded me of: sitting in front of the television with my father, at the age of nine, watching the news coverage leading up to and during the Boipatong massacre. The images were eerily similar. Men licking the blades of their spears and dancing. Bodies. Defiant singing. Police with assault rifles. Dust. Petrol bombs hurtling through the air. In other words, chaos.

At the age of nine, I did not know or frankly care about Boipatong. Like most children growing up in politically turbulent societies, I accepted the incident as normal. Black people were often angry, and police shot at them. That is just how things were... out there. Because the violence did not occur on my doorstep (aside from occasional bomb threats at the school and the time our field trip was delayed by inner-city protesters who did little more than bang on the sides of our bus) I can't say that I was remotely disturbed by it. It simply did not affect me. In many ways, I felt as though I was living in an entirely different country.

Twenty years later, my view has changed -- but sometimes it seems as though little else has. Children still regard this as normal, black people are still angry, and sadly -- the police are still shooting at them.

The mining industry in this country has been rife with conflict since its inception, the anger palpable. Every now and again the frustration boils over to the surface like steam escaping from a pressure cooker. We'd hear that three people were died at Impala mine during protests, another three at Aquarius. We very seldom ask why.

But standing on the dusty kopje where 44 people were gunned down, including two police officers who had been hacked to death with machetes, one has an advantageous view of the Wonderkop informal settlement and its surrounding shantytowns where many of the victims' widows are still living. The houses are mostly self-made affairs, constructed out of corrugated iron sheeting, road signs and rubble. The few government reconstruction and development homes are already falling apart -- burst pipes are spewing raw sewage into the water supply. Meanwhile, litter dots the streets like flowers -- the forensics team ran out of the plastic cones used for marking evidence, and resorted to using Styrofoam coffee cups. They are still there, blown against the fences.

In contrast to these slumping shacks, the Lonmin Marikana plant is a grey, breathing colossus, towering eerily above the township where the bulk of its employees spend their time when they are above ground. As the world's third largest platinum producer, its CEO currently earns in one year what the average worker would take home after spending 400 years on the job.

Although the 44 deaths are shocking, it seems like a fraction when compared to the 128 legal mineworkers who died due to unsafe mining conditions in 2010, or the 309 in 1999. Others are being maimed, or suffering from industrial diseases. Silicosis, sometimes called miner's asthma, is rife. These often are the breadwinners for entire clans eking out an existence on eroded farmlands in the former "native homelands." These conditions are comparatively common; very few platinum mines have attained the living standards set in the Mining Charter.

One company was found with a hostel block accommodating 166 employees, who were sharing four toilets and four showers among them.

Faced with meager wages and poor conditions, the Marikana miners walked away from their posts in defiance of their union, the laws, their employers, laying bare profoundly deep cracks in a society that has been free from apartheid for 18 years, yet still faced with gross income inequality and poor infrastructure. Their demands included a wage increase from R4,000 ($480) to R12,500 ($1,500) a month, greater safety provisions in the mines, and entitlement to overtime.

Details are sketchy about why and how the protest turned violent. Some journalists at the scene reportedly have footage of the mineworkers firing first, others point fingers at the police for sporting automatic weapons -- and no one is clear how many died as a result of friendly fire. Several handguns were recovered amongst the bodies.

Yet some critics lay the blame solely at the feet of the South African president, whom had ordered police to bring the Lonmin strike under control.

Affectively dubbed "the People's President", there was time when Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma was the poster boy for the African Renaissance (a phrase ironically coined by his arch-rival and predecessor Thabo Mbeki). Whereas Mbeki was seen as stiff, over-educated, Westernized, a "coconut" (black on the outside, white inside), Zuma played his Zulu roots to his advantage. On one side of the scale, he was a participant in traditional rituals, a practicing bigamist, a notorious womanizer; on the other he was a soft-spoken diplomat.

As controversial political analyst, Max du Preez, once put it, "You'll see Zuma at a fancy dinner in a suit one day, and the next, he's drinking beer out of paint tins with the people. The difference is that Mbeki would not have drunk from the paint tin."

As a young man, he had become a member of the militant wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and subsequently spent 10 years in prison. Thereafter he had been exiled, returning to the country in 1990, when the ban on the ANC was lifted.

The crowd who met him at Marikana would not have appreciated the fact that his father had been a police officer.

After his father's death, his mother became the breadwinner. For a time, they lived in the black "homelands", where they lived off the land. Zuma worked as a cattle herd. Some time later, they moved to a township, where his mother cleaned houses, and he attempted to work at odd jobs. Unlike the regal Mbeki, who boasts a Masters economics degree from the University of Sussex, he can't boast about his education.

It seems that with Zuma, there are always two extremes, two sides of the same coin. The socialist who receives support from South African Communist Party, who advocates for the redistribution of wealth, who curries favor with trade unions and the capitalist who assures foreign investors that the mines will not be nationalized and that their assets will be well-protected under his governance.

Arriving at Marikana, his well-dressed entourage remained close at hand with umbrellas and bottled water to shade the president as he prepared to address the crowd . Even though much of his campaign has depended on his Zulu roots, he favors dark suits and power ties rather than traditional garb. One of the workers emptied a packet of spent bullet casings on the ground, which the president crouched down to examine.

"People can't just die, and it's unacceptable that many people can just die like this. I'm yet to meet the unions because I wanted to hear you first, but it does not mean when you can't agree on issues, then people must die," he reasoned. When speaking, he has a way of clenching his fingertips together and moving his hand through the air like a conductor waving an invisible baton, he halts and stretches each phrase to reiterate that he is deathly serious. Gesturing at the bags bursting at the seams with the remnants of live ammunition, he affirmed, "I can see these [bullet casings] and have heard from you."

It did little to endear the president to the mineworkers, whom were critical of Zuma's late appearance -- likely due to a inflammatory campaign by disgruntled former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

Arriving at the scene several days prior, Malema blatantly accused the president of killing the striking workers to protect the mine interests of national executive committee member Cyril Ramaphosa -- a view shared by protest leader Xolani Nzuza. "Malema came here first, when the person we voted for failed to come," he said, referring repeatedly to "your [Zuma's] police officers who shot and killed us" and the "government has agreed that we [must] die".

Facing the hostile crowd, who had been fed-up, hungry, shot at, and arrested in scores, there was little else he could do. What can you say to the men and women who faced the tragedy, and painstakingly picked up bullet casings? What can you do in response?

Sadly, he chose to dance.

Despite his proposed week of mourning, he left the miners and danced (on camera) at a ANC centenary event. The event made little mention of the tragedy -- as though he had simply put it out of his mind. Later, Zuma's critics were quick to point out that he took more time to speak to the Lonmin executives than to the miners who had been affected.

On television, Malema could be seen addressing the crowds. "Our government," he said, "has become a pig that eats its own children."

On the streets, Academics and Wits University students took part in a march to protest against the social inequalities they blamed for tragedies like Marikana. "This is what we did in 1948, 1949, 1950 when we protested against the apartheid laws," apartheid struggle veteran George Bizos told journalists. "I never thought it would ever be necessary to take part in a march again." He was crying.

Black people are often angry, and police often shoot at them.

One of my favorite authors once described South Africa as being an outwardly paradise, undergoing an inner hell. Growing up as white, Afrikaans and secure, being fed propaganda bout the security of the economy, the competence of its leaders and the freedom of its people, while the majority of the country suffered in fear and poverty, I can attest that this is true.

But it seems to me as though the government is wearing the same obstinate blinders we did years ago: choosing to believe their own publicity, ignoring the obvious fact that life for the poor has not -- in the years after apartheid -- improved.

They have perfected what the previous presidents had done so well under apartheid -- the ability to distance oneself from the suffering, impoverished outside in order to craft a separate reality of opulence, roomy mansions, and pomp. In a country ruled by its supposed liberators, we should not be experiencing déjà vu. We should not be repeating mistakes that we have supposedly righted. And above all else, we should not live apart, in safe self-made havens, from our fellow human beings.

It is no less than dancing while Rome burns.