Dozens died when police at the Marikana mine, 90km west of Pretoria, opened fire on striking platinum miners one year ago this week. It was the worst such massacre in the country since Sharpeville in 1960, when 69 black demonstrators protesting against the hated pass laws were slaughtered.
The difference, of course, is that in 1960 South Africa was still ruled by white supremacists presiding over the loathsome apartheid system, and Sharpeville became a garish symbol of the cruelty of white rule. Few imagined that the dismantling of apartheid would lead smoothly to the establishment of a society in which all races enjoyed full equality. But it is now 23 years since Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison, 21 years since his historic handshake with then-president FW de Klerk, and 19 since the African National Congress came to power. The uncomfortable fact is that very little has been done since then to remove even the most grotesque of South Africa’s inequalities.
Instead, the ANC’s apparatchiks have built themselves a reputation for corruption to rival the privileged political class anywhere else on the continent. President Jacob Zuma lives in a luxurious compound in his native KwaZulu-Natal which is alleged to have cost the public purse $27m, supposedly for security upgrades. Against this depressing backdrop, the slaughter of the impoverished Marikana mineworkers, protesting against atrocious pay and conditions, risks becoming just as telling a symbol of institutional rot as Sharpeville was of institutionalised racism. After his most recent lung infection, the old and frail Mr Mandela is clinging to life; and his political legacy of justice and equality looks in no better shape.
To reassure both South Africans and the outside world that this massacre was a horrible anomaly, Mr Zuma should have made it his urgent priority to produce a clear and vigorous response. It was the government’s duty to ensure that those guilty of unlawful killings were tried and punished without delay, and that the grievances of the miners were addressed.
But one year on, none of this has been forthcoming. The judicial inquiry set up to investigate is snarled in endless wrangling over lawyers’ costs and other issues, and now risks losing all credibility. Instead of a robust forum, working efficiently to get to the bottom of what happened and publish recommendations to prevent a recurrence, it has become a noisy, confused talking shop. Meanwhile nobody is stepping up to take even a fraction of the responsibility for the violence – neither the police, nor the government, nor the trade unions. Worse, as the inquiry meanders on, with any trial put off until it is completed, those wounded and bereaved in the massacre are deprived of the hope of justice. The killers of Sharpeville suffered no serious punishment. Their counterparts at Marikana look set to be equally fortunate.
When South Africa’s first black government came to power, its softly-softly approach to political and economic reform – resisting the traditional temptation of newly independent African states to nationalise key industries, for example – was hailed in the West as a prudent way to guarantee the nation’s continued prosperity. Superficially, it worked, producing steady, if not spectacular, economic growth and a degree of political stability rare on the continent.
The cost of keeping things the same, however, is that much that should have been thrown out has survived. The worst and most glaring is the fact that South Africa remains, as it was under apartheid, one of the most unequal societies in the world. That has to change. And with Mr Mandela ailing, and his stabilising presence no longer certain, the need is more urgent than ever.