On 16 August, 34 workers were killed and at least 78 injured after police opened fire on striking miners at the Lonmin-owned platinum Marikana mine in South Africa. Over the years, South Africans have witnessed several instances of confrontation between police forces and striking workers. However, this bloody episode in Marikana exceeds anything seen before in the last two decades and has been deemed “the worst incident of state violence since the apartheid era”.
The day after the shootings, President Zuma announced the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the circumstances of the killings. Amnesty International called for a judicial oversight of the investigation. Human Rights Watch stressed out that the commission should look at the “background and underlying events leading to the violence (…) including the deaths of police at the hands of miners”. As observed by Bonita Meyersfeld, Jackie Dugard and Nikki Naylor, three leading South African human rights advocates, “underlying the question of police conduct, there is a deeper issue”.
The deaths are a symptom of the wider problem of inequality in South Africa. Marikana has highlighted the contradictions of our country. We have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, yet inequality is rising, creating the widest gap worldwide between rich and poor.
According to news sources (here and here), South Africa has the largest mineral reserves in the world. South Africa is estimated to hold 88% of the world platinum reserves and accounts for 75% of global supply. The platinum output grew by 67% between 1994 and 2009. Mining accounts for nearly 20% of GDP, and the industry directly employs about 500,000 people, and another half a million indirectly. Yet, workers generally do not benefit from this booming economic sector. Unemployment is rampant and miners’ salaries remain very low.
Due to its constitutional and jurisprudential commitment, South Africa is now considered a case in point of the justiciability of economic and social rights (see a selection of case law here). South Africa in the apartheid-era was characterized by social inequality and widespread poverty fundamentally among the black community. As noted by Justice Sachs, the old South Africa had “great experience in constitutionalising inequality” (Constitutional Court of South Africa, Prinsloo v. Van der Linde and Another, Judgment of 18 April 1997, para. 20). The goal of the post-apartheid 1996 South African Constitution was to radically transform this situation. In the words of Justice Krieger,
The South African Constitution is primarily and emphatically an egalitarian constitution. The supreme laws of comparable constitutional states may underscore other principles and rights. But in the light of our own particular history, and our vision for the future, a constitution was written with equality at its centre. Equality is our Constitution’s focus and organising principle. The importance of equality rights in the Constitution, and the role of the right to equality in our emerging democracy, must both be understood in order to analyse properly whether a violation of the right has occurred. (Constitutional Court of South Africa, President of the Republic of South Africa and Another v. Hugo, Judgment of 18 April 1997, para. 74.)
However, some scholars remain dubious about the transformative potential of human rights narrative to alleviate poverty and tackle economic inequality (see Marius Pieterse’s article in Human Rights Quarterly in 2007). The neoliberal economic policies endorsed by the ANC in power since the fall of apartheid, the growing rate of inequality and unemployment, and the unacceptable level of poverty for a middle-income country like South Africa, raise the legitimate question of who is to blame for the killings last week apart from the ones who pulled the trigger.
In their responses to the announcement of the creation of the commission of inquiry, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch fall short with regard to the socioeconomic context of poverty and inequality in the country. The truth is that HRW at least mentions that “the tragedy raises issues about the general conditions of workers and their rights and why the normal channels for dispute resolution have not been effective in addressing workers’ rights and wage issues”. Much deeper social and economic analysis is needed. Taking economic, social and cultural rights seriously requires addressing the socioeconomic context of violence, and international human rights organisations must accept the challenge of leading the way.
Photo: Women protest at the scene where 34 people died after police opened fire on striking mineworkers in Marikana © -/AFP/GettyImages