South African police killed 34 striking mineworkers in 2012. Did anyone learn anything?

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has finally gone public with the 600-page report of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the police killing of 34 striking mineworkers at Marikana, North West Province, on Aug. 16, 2012. The report is comprehensive and generally even-handed. Many hope it will contribute to a change in the way labor disputes in South Africa will be handled in the future. On the latter point, however, I am less certain.

The three main culprits in the report—the police, the unions and the Lonmin mining company—come in for fairly equal criticism. Police resorted to excessive and uncontrolled force that resulted in the massacre of the mine workers. Though the strikers were armed, aggressive and did not abandon their weapons and disperse when called upon, the police fired upon them with assault rifles on full automatic. Though one might argue current and prior provocation by the striking workers—there had been violent clashes in the days before the 16th—the police response was excessive and deadly. The tactic of encircling the strikers to disperse them nonviolently was an ill-conceived contribution to the chaos.

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Similarly the strikers, as the Farlam Commission (the investigation was led by a retired judge, Ian Farlam) notes, acted without discipline. In a manner all too common in South African strikes, the strikers were armed, destroyed property, and some even killed a few company security officials in the days before the massacre. Though the leader of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union had—to his credit—tried to defuse the situation, there was a general failure of leadership, exacerbated by A.M.C.U.’s bitter rivalry with the National Union of Mineworkers over who exercised leadership at Marikana.

Lonmin was also criticized for not doing its best to address the strikers’ concerns. Proper avenues for negotiation were not sufficiently explored. By insisting that nonstrikers should come to work, Lonmin failed to consider their safety in an environment where, as often happens in South African labor disputes, intimidation of those going to work could be presumed.

Significantly, Farlam exonerated a number of government ministers—notably Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (who allegedly holds shares in Lonmin)—of direct responsibility. This is controversial. During both the Marikana crisis and the inquiry, the involvement of government officials, often to end the strike apparently in Lonmin’s favor, was noted.

What ethical lessons can be learned from Marikana? First, South Africans need to rethink how police action during strikes and protests is conducted. Applying “justified use of force” principles, it is clear that police need retraining, not only in containment and crowd-dispersal strategies but in managing situations of provocation. At the very least the firing of weapons on full automatic must be prohibited in almost all circumstances.

Second, laws against carrying weapons, violence, destruction of property and intimidation of non-strikers must be firmly enforced, and unions should sign onto a commitment to abide by these rules or face criminal proceedings. Though Catholic social teaching embraces the right to organize, negotiate and strike, it has never endorsed criminal behavior during job actions.

Third, businesses must be held to the principle of negotiation and dialogue during labor disputes. This is particularly pertinent in a society where wealth gaps between workers and management are so acute. While Catholic social teaching supports the rights of capital and private property, this has never been to the exclusion of the duty to negotiate with workers. And certainly not in cases of extreme inequality.

I suspect the Farlam Report will satisfy few in South Africa. My sense, however, is that with notable exceptions, it is as good a report on the massacre as we are likely to get. Decades from now historians may see it as an all too accurate reflection of South Africa’s turbulent present, typified by poverty, inequality and the rapid escalation of social disputes into violence. Unless these questions are properly addressed, the future will be a lot like the present—just intensified.

Will this report be recounted someday as the turning point at which South African society, in the spirit of “never again,” developed a new consensus about labor and more broadly about trying to create a less unequal society? I’d like to think so, but my historian’s sense suggests otherwise.

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