Since coming to South Africa, strikes and riots (toitoi in the village) have been an ever present reality. I know of about a dozen PCVs from my cohort alone that have been misplaced temporarily or permanently. One had villagers burn down the school, and others have struggled against burning tires, barricades, bribery, and school shutdowns. My village has been safe, only because they spent the previous two years rioting and striking. Almost all of these cases are because the villagers want a tar road, which mine is now getting. But strikes have happened numerous times at the national level or in large cities because of the stagnant economy, staggering unemployment rate, corruption, poverty, or lack of “service delivery”…South Africans are very unhappy with the state of the nation, and with the government. For a good reason too.
Last week’s strike and massacre at the Marikana/Lonmin platinum mine in Rustenburg brought some of the problems South Africa faces to the international stage. Sadly, it cost more than 40 lives and brought memories of Apartheid and the Sharpeville Massacre to the forefront of the nation’s mind. It broke my heart to see footage of the “rainbow nation” opening fire on miners who work incredibly hard for a tiny paycheck. I’ve driven by mines, possibly even the Marikana mine. Surrounding the mines are endless shantytowns, tin piled on sticks that serve as houses. I’ve seen the level of poverty and the hardships mining families face. And I know that miners consider themselves lucky because they actually have a job. I can only imagine the terror that followed the massacre, and the fear that must have been tangible in the Marikana shantytown. Who didn’t come home? Which families suddenly lost the only income they had? How will the mining community recover from this? What did the South African policemen feel when the ruthlessly shot down their fellow South Africans?
Yes, I know the situation was dangerous, and I know that the strikers were armed and had chopped two policemen to death previously. But I also know what role the police service played during Apartheid, and the Marikana massacre paralleled that far too eerily. This country has been through so much in the last 18 years, and now is being forced to realize that massacres can happen in democratic societies too, and that a black man can open fire on a crowd of black men. The once racial divide has now become an economic divide.
I once asked another PCV why there were so many strikes and riots. She told me it is the only way the black community knows how to fight back. It worked during Apartheid, and was the only thing that worked consistently. And it works now-come to my village and see the tar road they are building as evidence. It is the only way black South Africans can be heard. They STILL receive a subpar education, almost twenty years after Bantu education was banished. They still struggle to escape the cycle of poverty, in a nation with a crippling unemployment and poverty rate. Riots and strikes are a way South Africans can unify and make change, and I know we haven’t yet seen the end of the mining strikes. Thirty-four men gave their lives for the cause, and even today, more are willing to do so.
If you could only see how mining families live, you would understand why they are willing to die for higher wages. Heck, they literally put their lives on the line every day when they show up to work, taking on the most dangerous jobs and willing to deal with lifelong health effects, for a pittance.
South Africa has found an intimate place in my heart, and what hurts the country hurts me. This massacre will leave a lasting legacy on this nation, and scar which will endure. It was the worst incidence of police violence since the end of Apartheid. It brought up horrible memories for most of South Africa. The striking miners had turned and were fleeing, yet the police continued to shoot, just like in the Sharpeville Massacre. Something’s just not right with that.