By Takura Zhangazha
When I read in the South African media that the South African Police Services (SAPS) had informed the Farlam Commission of Enquiry that prior to the tragic shooting of the Marikana mineworkers , the strikers thought they were invincible, I was at a loss for words.
While the officer quoted in the reports also mentions the use of ‘muthi’ in other activities such as ‘cash in transit’ heists, my immediate reaction was one of shock at the meaning of the disclosure. That so many could have had religious belief in their invincibility at the same time and in the same place was shocking to say the least.
But then my reaction shifted from shock to that of historical recognition as to how we have all invariably found ourselves dealing with matters relating to oppression or a socio-economic injustice in ways and means that have appeared, in their aftermath of their occurrence, to have been irrational.
Hence it was reported that the striking miners believed that with the help of the supernatural or alternatively, with the assistance of African traditional healers and medicines they would be able to defy the bullets, let alone physical control by the police.
It is what in general contemporary social media and cultural parlance has been referred to as a ‘throwback moment’, tragic as it has been.
I thought of the Maji Maji and the Mau Mau rebellions of the early and mid 20th century anti-colonial struggles in Tanzania and Kenya respectively (at least ritualistically).
The statement by SAPS on assumptions of invincibility by the striking miners cannot however escape our collective scrutiny. Because a number of colleagues have been correctly closely following the Marikana tragedy, not for want of being more South African than the South Africans, but more in remembrance of our collective and shared history as a region, I am inclined to add my two cents to the debate.
Whatever our varied thoughts on the matter, it stands to argument that the belief in infallibility by the strikers remains important to our collective remembrance of those that tragically passed away.
It invoked memories of the Tanzanian and Kenyan rebellions in three particular respects. First that there was an assumption that whatever the seemingly forlorn nature of the struggle for freedom, the then emergent nationalists were waging, it was done on a religious optimism of supernaturally aided victory. Secondly, that historically, there was the eventual defeat of that same said religious premise by modernity (then also known as the maxim gun).
Thirdly, that in any event while the odds were to be stacked against them, there was no doubt that their cause was just and therefore they have left a lasting legacy, even in tragedy.
Where we fast forward to Marikana, the differences might be quantitatively more than the similarities but the symbolisms cannot escape attention. But the three characteristics of the Maji Maji and the Mau Mau resistance campaigns, namely, religion/ritual as a key ingredient in anticipation of victory, eventual physical defeat of the same by modernity and the leaving of a social and economic justice legacy can also be found in attendance with the Marikana tragedy.
The mixture of religion and resistance has generally been a characteristic of struggles for social and economic justice on our continent. It is however surprising that it would now appear to have had such a prominent role in the prelude to what was essentially a mineworkers strike for better wages and working conditions in 21st century independent South Africa.
It however points to a number of critical issues that must be considered across the African continent. Key among them is the possibility that for whatever our claims to independence and even economic empowerment, the structural fundamentals of exploitation of African labour (migrant and domestic) remain intact. Particularly from the standpoint of the majority poor.
The edifice of contemporary African industrialization remains viewed as it was during the anti colonial struggles that are given as historical examples in this article. This view reflects an attitude that there remains, especially after failed negotiations, no other way out but direct resistance to the system, with a religious and ritualistic understanding of the possibility of death, hence the need to immunize oneself against it.
What contemporary academics have referred to as the ‘underbelly’ unfortunately still exists in relation to how the same said subalterns perceive or live out their placement in contemporary African societies. There is a consistent ‘them and us’ approach that is akin to that of colonialism, except that in this case, the ‘them’ might share the same skin colour as the ‘us’. An end effect of which is an exploitative system which has been exacerbated by our contemporary governments across the continent.
And it does not just end with the mines such as the one in Marikana. It has spread its tentacles across the subcontinent with the rise of what renowned anthropologists, Comarroff and Commaroff have referred to as ‘millennial capitalism’ where religion, capital, neoliberalism and superstition/gambling produce an alienating concoction for the majority poor. And even then, because of the sheer numbers that believe in that which is scientifically illogical together with the seeming impossibility of arriving at a better future rationally, such a system creates false realities.
Except in the case of the Marikana strikers. Their religious and ritualistic assumptions of invincibility in the face of state sponsored violence, may be incorrectly labeled by some as ridiculous or borderline demonstration of ‘simplistic nativeness’.
The truth of the matter is that if we take the examples of the Maji Maji or the Mau Mau, even in defeat, Marikana’s miners have sowed the mustard seed (to borrow from the Gospels). Not for a continuation of violence, but for the democratic arrival at a socially and economically just society. And it all begins with us saying never again shall a Marikana happen, not out of tokenism, or race replacement political economies. But instead for the reasons of addressing the continuing systematic and fundamental causes exploitation of the people.