South African miners returned to a rocky outcrop outside the town of Marikana today to commemorate the 34 of their striking colleagues killed by police on the same day last year. But the event was overshadowed by bitter squabbles between rival unions and political parties.
Thousands of workers from the UK-listed Lonmin mine where the incident took place attended the rally, along with their families and friends from other mines.
They sang songs, were led in prayer by church leaders, and listened to speeches analyzing the events of Aug. 16, 2012, when armed police opened fire on a crowd that was refusing to disperse from where it had gathered on a hill near the platinum-digging operation.
Notable in their absence were officials from the government and the ruling African National Congress party who pulled out last minute, saying the dynamics of the event had been taken over by political rivals.
As a result, a row of seats set aside for ministers remained empty. The seats were positioned next to the families of those killed in a tent erected on the scrub-land next to the mine.
The ANC is allied to the National Union of Mineworkers, a labor body that was recently ousted as the lead negotiator for Lonmin’s workers. Replacing them is the more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which now represents 70 percent of them.
In an angry statement, the ANC’s spokesperson for the North West Province, in which Marikana falls, said it would participate only in an event jointly planned by the families of the miners, Lonmin, and all trade unions.
“The ANC finds it immoral and totally unacceptable that such a traumatic incident could be turned into a political playground by some political parties who seek to enhance their political ambitions and interests,” Kenny Morolong said.
The sea of ANC colors that is normally visible at public rallies was replaced by green AMCU t-shirts bearing defiant messages decrying oppression and corruption.
The ANC's head spokesman later apologized for the "callous" and "extremely unfortunate" remarks of his provincial counterpart, Mr. Morolong. "The ANC respects the right of anyone to organize and participate in any gathering that seeks to soothe and heal the wounds that were caused by the Marikana tragedy," Jackson Mthembu said.
Joseph Mathunjwa, AMCU’s president, said it was a “setback” that the NUM and ANC had boycotted the event. “It could have been an opportunity to advocate for peace and stability,” he said.
Xola, a 38-year-old miner, said only AMCU represented his interests in what he said was a continuing battle by miners against their multinational employers for higher wages.
"Marikana," as the massacre one year ago is now simply known, arrived as part of a larger rise in violent strikes and clashes between citizens and police across the country. Many voices in South Africa's poorer quarters spoke of a growing rage at the slow pace of change in their lives, 20 years after the birth of democracy. The rhetoric accompanies a concern about greater unrest down the road.
Police commanders on the ground last Aug. 16 claimed their officers had been in imminent danger of attack from workers armed with machetes, spears, and pistols when they opened fire at Marikana, which is located about 100 miles from Johannesburg.
“I voted the ANC since I was old enough to vote, but never again,” he said.
Asked whether he would have liked to see government ministers in attendance, his 37-year-old colleague responded: “We don’t care. They do nothing for us.”
Instead, politicians rivaling the ANC took to the stage to decry their failures.
Bantu Holomisa, the United Democratic Movement leader, said: "They will have been ashamed because they have done none of the promises they made last year. Nothing has changed since last year."
Julius Malema, the expelled former leader of the ANC’s youth wing who has advocated black nationalism and formed his own group, the Economic Freedom Fighters, called his former ANC partners “cowards” for refusing to face the miners.
“They are cowards because they are scared of the might and power of workers in Marikana, who in any way were going to reject them and will reject them in all platforms they have,” he said.
Lonmin and the government have announced a series of initiatives to improve the squalid living conditions endured by most miners, but the refrain that nothing has changed was widespread.
Modike Rabothata, an employee of the nearby AngloAmerican mine, said he was still paid just R7,000 ($700) a month after tax, adding, “it’s not a living wage.”
“These companies say they are holding up our economy, but for whose benefit?” he asked. “I can’t get a house, I’m working just so I can feed my family. Who is the economy benefiting? Other people, not us.”
Rosie, a housewife from the Eastern Cape who moved with her five children to be closer to her miner husband, said they had a bleak future. “There’s a junior public school for them here but for high school, they have to travel very far and it’s hard to afford the cost,” she said.
Harold Maloka, a spokesman for the interministerial committee convened by President Jacob Zuma to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy, confirmed that neither the deputy president who heads the committee, nor any of the 10 ministers who work on it, attended the event, since they “were not invited.”
He rejected the suggestion the government was “removing itself” from Marikana, adding that its plans to help mining communities would take longer than one year to bear fruit.
“The IMC was in that area two weeks ago, and government will continue to help the people of Marikana,” he said. “The process of healing does not just happen over one day.”