Thursday, September 6, 2012

Have faith in ourselves and in our future

IT WASN’T a great moment for the South African Communist Party (SACP). In 1922, under pressure from declining gold prices, mine owners tried to deracialise job categories to reduce costs by hiring cheaper black workers. This act of grubby capitalism and high morality led to one of the most violent miners’ strike in South African history, of which there have been plenty.
White miners, led by the SACP under the slogan, "Workers of the world fight and unite for a white South Africa", began three months of civil insurrection. The mainly English-speaking communists were inspired by a form of violent Bolshevism, and organised themselves into "strike commandos". They began to engage in violent threats against "scabs", as labour movements do.
The prime minister at the time, Jan Smuts, at first tried to take a nonaligned position, saying if there was a strike, the "government would draw a ring round both parties, do its best to maintain law and order, and let the two parties fight it out". His "unaligned" position was typical of his legalistic, eminently "proper" way of conducting government business. He was presumably also influenced by the desire to retain the political support of the miners, on the one hand, but maintain the enormous income generated for the state by the mines on the other.
As it happened, events overtook him. The workers interpreted this neutral position as support for the mine owners, since he wasn’t putting pressure on mine owners to enforce the colour bar. The result was mayhem; on March 7, the entire reef went on strike and there was blatant sabotage and vandalism. Railway lines were blown up and telephone lines cut. Black miners were arbitrarily attacked because of fears of a black backlash. On March 10, Smuts declared martial law.
Also typical of Smuts, once he decided to go to war, was that he was absolutely ruthless. He used tanks, artillery and air support. The Benoni strikers’ position was machine-gunned from the air and the mine hall was bombed, says the NewHistory website. On March 17, the trade unions called off the strike.
It was never clear how many miners were killed, but what we do know is that it must have been a lot, since the death toll on the other side was very high: 72 soldiers and policemen. In total, 81 civilians were killed and 650 people were injured. The courts were jammed after the strike: 853 people were tried on various charges, 46 of them on murder charges. Eighteen were sentenced to death but the public outcry that followed was such that 14 were reprieved, NewHistory records.
This all happened a century ago, yet some of the basic parameters remain. The first is the truism that SA’s history is demarcated by its geology. The mines, deep and expensive, struggled then as they do now. The link between mining and politics is strong, too. Smuts lost the 1924 election, as the strike had radicalised the population along racial lines. It hardened attitudes and provided the first inklings of the creation of apartheid a few decades later.
But I suspect it did something else too. It created what might be called the default South African narrative: pessimism streaked with nihilism, the country forever on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Writing in the wake of Marikana, the Financial Times’s former South African correspondent, Alec Russell, really captured it perfectly: "One of the lazier syndromes in the international media of recent years has been the way that every political, social or economic drama of the post-apartheid era, from the rise of the firebrand Julius Malema to the fluctuations of the rand, has been presented abroad as an existential crisis. So, the sort of conflict of interest that in, say, India or Brazil is seen as irksome but not disastrous, is in the South African context routinely depicted as a step on the road to Zimbabwe."
The problem is that it’s not just the international media, it is South Africans themselves. Not everything, not even Marikana, is a step on the road to inevitable calamity. It is time to develop a faith, not only in ourselves but in our future. It is time for South Africans to wipe away the tears, clean up the mess, and stop crying the beloved country.
• Cohen is contributing editor.