Why Lonmin? taking a step back

August 18, 2012

A number of Lonmin posts have made it into my drafts. But I struggle to press the “publish” button.

I’ve spent some time re-reading parts of my dissertation handed in earlier this year, which focused on public responses to violence (or rather, to a very specific subset of this genre), and it stops my from pressing that “publish” button even more.

There is no shortage of attempts at finding the “true perpetrators” of this horrific event. Unions. SAPD. Sriking miners. Mining bosses. However, there is a sense in which it is just too easy to find a scapegoat. The comparisons to Sharpeville, although undoubtedly problematic, is a reminder that we have to take a broad historic view in interpreting the event. The London-listed company, an employer responding to the death of its employees from thousands of miles away, a reminder that this horrific local event cannot be disconnected from a global interpretation.

When writing on this last year, two aspects which I (following others more knowledgeable) considered key to understanding violent crime  (and for the moment I’ll refrain from commenting on which part of the event should be considered as “crime”, and simply insist that we focus on violence in general) in South Africa was the culture of violence established over decades, a culture tied specifically to the mining industry in South Africa, and the effect of economic inequality on violence. I summarized it in the following words:

Although final answers to why South Africa has such a high level of violent crime is difficult, no coherent explanation can be given without recognising that it is not a post-apartheid phenomenon. We have to connect it to a long history of violence in South Africa. South Africa has been exceptionally violent throughout its history of colonialism and apartheid. Extensive (often foreign) military power was utilised in the control of indigenous groups and the use of the police as an excessively violent force during apartheid is well documented. Urban violence connected to gang culture can be seen from the late 19th century around mining cities (particularly Johannesburg), with pass laws, migrant labour and the criminalisation of black labourers creating a constant flow trough prisons, many times the place where a violent culture was strengthened rather than defused, contributing to a culture of urban violence. Although developing later and to a smaller extent than in Johannesburg, a gang culture and a growing culture of violence also developed in other mining towns along with migrant labour and the cycling of African and Coloured males through prisons. […]

The history of colonialism and apartheid further affects the continuing problem of violence and crime through the peculiar levels of economic inequality in South Africa. It has been recognised internationally that economic inequality (rather than merely poverty) leads to higher levels of violence and crime. While this might at times be attributed to the fact that crime is a more effective road to generating income than the legal route of participating in the economic sphere, or at times the only possible option available to someone, this does not provide a sufficient explanation, since much of the violence and crime in South Africa do not lead to any economic gains. Rather, the psychosocial effects on the excluded individual and group, such as feelings of exclusion, resentment and anger, can sometimes translate into violence.

(p64-65)

This is not sufficient, but sets the tone against which I would want to start thinking through the events of the past week.

This event must result in a thorough analysis of violence in South Africa, both historically and geographically broad, forcing us to go beyond finding a scapegoat to crucify. Our scapegoats tend to merely continue the stereotypical analysis which reflect the South African public discourse, with the choice of blaming unions or police or striking miners or multi-national companies seldom coming as a surprise.

Yes, many moments around Marikana contributed to this horrific event, many small signals found in the bodily movements of strikers and police, many split-second decisions. But the event was in the making for decades. It is an event resulting more from decisions made slowly, at times when its implications might not have been clear, and decisions made unconsciously, the implications of which we have to take note of in hindsight. While police, lawyers and courts will slowly work through the event in the months and years to come, and while this is indeed necessary, the ethical challenge facing us lies in insisting that such a focused analysis cannot provide us with a way forward. We have to take on the broader challenge of transforming the South African culture of violence and exclusionary economic systems (or whatever the other insights is that we come to when doing our analysis as broad and as deep as possible) which provide the background against which specific incidents erupts.

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3 Responses to “Why Lonmin? taking a step back”

  1. Steve Says:

    It is easy to ignore things when there are not overt instances of public violence. And then when violence breaks out, it is easy to talk as if violence is the problem and concentrate on the violence, and thus miss the real problem, the underlying problem.

  2. Tom Smith Says:

    Thanks for this helpful response Cobus, i am trying to think how to engage people tomorrow in the Sunday liturgy within this context.Lamentation offers itself as a first language after which the analysis can come.

  3. Frans Redelinghuys Says:

    Spot on Cobus. I particularly enjoyed the wider historical perspective. We are seriously in need of deeply critical and wide ranging debate on the issue of violence. Thanks


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