Marikana a reminder that black lives must matter

S'thembiso Msomi Without the Gang
People gather in Marikana on the 6th anniversary of the massacre. / THULANI MBELE
People gather in Marikana on the 6th anniversary of the massacre. / THULANI MBELE

Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?

This is the provocative title of Mumia Abu-Jamal's latest book focusing on the history of state-sponsored violence against African-Americans and other minorities in the US.

The author has been in prison since 1981, after he was shot and beaten by cops in Philadelphia. He was accused of killing a policeman, a charge he continues to deny, and was sentenced to death. That he is still alive is thanks partly to an international solidarity campaign against his conviction and sentence.

In prison he has written many books, mainly on injustice and racism against black people in "the land of the free". This collection of essays is no different.

What does Abu-Jamal's latest book have to do with us down here on the southern tip of Africa, you may ask.

Well, a lot. Especially when you consider the past and present experiences of the majority of black folks in both countries. Granted, there are huge differences too. One major one being the fact that while African-Americans are a political minority in the US, black people constitute the vast majority in SA. That comes with real political power.

The question posed by the title of the book is as relevant in a free South Africa today as it is in the US that, not so long ago, had Barack Obama as its first black president.

Yesterday marked the sixth anniversary of the Marikana massacre. A total of 34 striking Lonmin workers were shot dead by the police on August 16 2012. Close to 80 workers were injured.

Prior to the massacre, 10 people - including non-striking workers and two policemen - were brutally murdered by some of those participating in the unprotected strike. Six years later nobody has been convicted for any of the 44 deaths, not the police officers who opened fire, not their seniors who gave the order to shoot, not the vigilante groups among the strikers.

Sure there would be financial compensation from the state for the 34 families who lost their loved ones. But unless the justice system acts against those responsible for the 44 deaths, the question will remain relevant.

Modern South Africa has a long history of employing violence against black people, especially in pursuit of profits. This is especially true of the mining industry.

After generations of being exploited and paid wages far lower than those of their white counterparts, black mineworkers downed tools in 1946 on August 12. The mine owners and state responded through police terror. Official figures put the number who died at nine and the injuries at about 1300.

With the arrival of democracy in 1994, we all believed that this kind of reaction by both the state and big business was now a thing of the past. But Marikana forcefully brought home the reality that it takes more than the laws and constitution to change a society. The handling of the entire dispute exposed that even in a democratic SA we have not really accepted that black lives, regardless of their social class, do matter.

The mining industry and state should be talking about ensuring a complete break with the history of violence against its workers. This extends to the deaths of those working underground.

Perhaps if this sector, once the backbone of the economy, goes through this change, the rest of South Africa would follow suit. And then someday, we would be able to say in answer to Abu-Jamal's question: Yes, in a free and democratic South Africa, black lives have and continue to matter.

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