On 16 August 2012, the South African Police Services (SAPS) shot and killed 34 striking mineworkers at Marikana, near Rustenburg. The world watched in horror as images of the police shooting semi-automatic live rounds at the strikers were broadcast across international television stations – an unprecedented attack on civilians among democratic states.
The violence did not end in the hail of bullets. Strikers who were rounded up after the police killings were arrested and allegedly tortured. Two hundred and seventy strikers were charged with murder under the highly criticised criminal law doctrine of “common purpose”, charges that have subsequently been provisionally withdrawn. Responding to the severity of the situation, President Jacob Zuma announced the appointment of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, commonly referred to as the Marikana Commission, into the events surrounding the 16 August killings, as well as the deaths of 10 people (two police officers, two security guards and six workers) in the preceding days. The terms of reference for the Marikana Commission were gazetted on 13 September, marking the beginning of the Commission’s work. The Marikana Commission is arguably the most important judicial commission since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Public hearings began in October 2012, and the Commission is aiming to present its final report in July 2013.
Marikana, as it has come to be known, is a defining moment in South Africa’s post-apartheid history. However, it is far from an isolated incident of protest that ends in violence. Indeed, as analysed below, protest, whether involving striking workers or local communities, is becoming an endemic feature of South Africa’s socio-political landscape. A January 2013 briefing document from Municipal IQ, a web-based data and intelligence service that monitors all of South Africa’s 283 municipalities, shows that service delivery protests in 2012 accounted for 30 percent of protests recorded since 2004. The second and third quarters of 2012 recorded more protests than any other quarter since 2004. According to Municipal IQ, “…protests remain a consistent and worrying social phenomenon in many South African communities. Vigorous work to address inequality, unemployment and poverty, as well as lagging service delivery remains crucial as the ultimate solution to address the trend.”
Civil society organisations (CSOs) must actively take up this challenge if they are to remain relevant. However, to date, it is questionable whether CSOs have adequately responded to the current socio-economic and political landscape. Indeed, civil society was arguably found wanting at the time of the Marikana massacre, uncomfortable or unable to deal with the kind of traditional human rights violations that many hoped they had left behind in 1994. This deficit was particularly apparent in the failure of CSOs working on legal issues to provide direct assistance to those arrested by the police following the protest, and victims of other forms of repression that followed in the aftermath of the killings and arrests.
Defining local protest
As described above, local protests have gained momentum over the past couple of years, becoming increasingly visible during 2012. Increasingly, South Africa is experiencing a movement of local protest amounting to a rebellion of the poor, which has been widespread and intense, reaching insurrectionary proportions in some cases judging by the levels of aggression and spread of the protests. As witnessed in Marikana – and also in Ficksburg in April 2011, when protester Andries Tatane was shot dead by the police – civilian protest is increasingly being met with lethal police force. Yet, despite South Africa reportedly experiencing the highest number of protests in the world, there has not been much systemic analysis of local protests, nor has there yet been a coordinated response from civil society to deal with the repercussions.
During 2009, in the wake of a fresh round of locally-organised protests in urban areas, a debate waged in the South African mainstream media about the nature of the protests. Commentators such as Steven Friedman cautioned against the crude reduction that the protesters are demanding ‘service delivery’ – for Friedman, protesters are demanding a more complex inclusion into all aspects of the socio-political and economic order. Similarly, as members of the national shack dwellers’ social movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, have stated:
“Waiting for ‘delivery’ will not liberate us from our life sentence. Sometimes ‘delivery’ does not come. When ‘delivery’ does come it often makes things worse by forcing us into government shacks that are worse than the shacks that we have built ourselves and which are in human dumping grounds far outside of the cities. ‘Delivery’ can be a way of formalising our exclusion from society.”
However, while there is clearly a need to utilise a wider lens with which to view the protests, it is inescapable that protesters have framed their actions in terms of material demands, whether for better basic services, houses or jobs. In short, it is likely that the protests are about both socio-political and economic exclusion. As argued by Richard Pithouse, the protests are best understood as being about “the material benefits of full social inclusion … as well as the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organisations”. In the words of Abahlali baseMjondolo:
“But we have not only been sentenced to permanent physical exclusion from society and its cities, schools, electricity, refuse removal and sewerage systems. Our life sentence has also removed us from the discussions that take place in society;”
“In as much as you [the government] need to deliver services, you cannot do that without engagement, or direct engagement… [I]f people were engaged and consulted about development, then people become a vital tool in their own development and such developments will also be owned at a community level, you know?”