We sometimes forget that police are only human, same as the rest of us. One of my older relatives happens to have been friends with a guy who was a cop stationed at Sharpeville back in March 1960, and it's illuminating to get an insider's perspective of what happened there. In short, the 20 cops there were completely shitting themselves, with up to 19,000 angry people only one flimsy wire fence away from them. They were all terrified, but the officer in charge insisted that they weren't allowed to withdraw indoors and had to guard the fence in some sort of ridiculous show of force. It was almost inevitable that one of them would panic, and panicky people with guns are a shit combination. The rest is now standard high school history.
Of course, understanding the cops' fear and panic does not justify the violence that came from it. The protesters were justifiably angry and justifiably unwilling to tolerate the presence of a police force that served primarily to oppress them, but even if their demands had been nonsense, if they'd arrived in their thousands and angrily shouted that all plus signs should sound more pepper, it would still have been wrong to open fire on them. This is because the core function of the police should be to protect the general populace. Maintaining and enforcing a narrow definition of "order", like well-armed nannies, is only any good if continued disorder is clearly against the public interest. When people rise up in a great mass, then they've chosen disorder for a reason, and that reason needs to be dealt with maturely, not shot at until it goes away. It's easy, in hindsight, to see why the villainous apartheid government had no interest in mature engagement; they weren't interested in serving the general populace.
(Out of interest, this cop who was my relative's friend apparently quit the police immediately after the Sharpeville massacre and became a nervous wreck of a car mechanic instead, still only in his early 20s. He was only human, after all.)
52 years later, and we have another, fairly different massacre by the police at the Marikana mine. Not all the facts are in yet, but it's different in a few obvious ways. First, the cops there weren't nearly as badly outnumbered, with something close to even numbers of cops and striking miners. Modern cops are also much better equipped, with body armour and a variety of non-lethal devices. Second, this wasn't a sudden one-day event, but had been building up over at least a week. This meant the cops had much more time to prepare a response and diffuse the situation peacefully, but also seems to have given them more time to get scared, jumpy, paranoid. This is because, third, the miners here hadn't been quite as peaceful as the residents of Sharpeville, with several incidents of violence and murder, plus lots of posturing with sticks and other cheap melee weapons. I can't condone that. But I also can't accept that 3,000 people all murdered only 6, or even that most of them would have, given the chance. They are all human, after all.
Fourth, media coverage was better this week, and the massacre itself was well documented. I don't feel like linking to the videos here, because it's just horrible to watch. If you feel you need to see it first-hand, it should be easy enough to find on various news sites. In summary, a group of (I'd estimate) 50-100 miners came rushing down the small hill where they'd been camped towards the police and, with about 100m between the two groups, the cops opened up with a barrage of live rounds, several using R5 rifles, directly into the group of miners. It's clear from the video that, with the speed at which it all happened and all the dust that was quickly kicked up, nobody could effectively aim at any specific targets, and with the sheer number of bullets flying, most of those miners were hit and at least 34 are now dead and 78 injured.
Again, not all the facts are clear yet, but there are a few possibilities. As far as the miners are concerned, it's possible they were genuinely attacking, somehow deluded into thinking that a long history of missile weapons trumping melee weapons in headlong charges wouldn't apply to them. It's also possible that they thought they could just scare the cops off without having to fight. Both would be stupid decisions with the full benefit of hindsight, but it is possible that they felt cornered and desperate enough to be stupid, since the police had earlier openly threatened that they'd not tolerate the miners' presence any longer. And it's possible they were just going to put on an angry song and dance for the news cameras, symbolically undermining the police presence. I don't know which of those is true, or even if it was something else entirely. And if I, with the benefit of multiple replays from multiple angles while sitting in the comfort and safety of my own home, can't even begin to guess, then I can't see how the cops could have known any better in the few seconds they had to react. I doubt they would all have been thinking the same thing, and there may have been similar ambiguity among the miners about why they were coming down the hill.
But similarly, it's hard to be sure what the cops were thinking. Some blasted away like mad, while some didn't seem to fire at all, standing in place stunned or ducking for cover. If there were any warning shots fired by the police, they were drowned out by the lethal ones. After a while, someone started calling for a ceasefire, which not all the cops were quick to adhere to. There was reportedly a total of 2 or 3 minutes of major gunfire, so there must have been more shooting beyond the footage I've seen. And I'm also told, though haven't seen it myself, that there's footage of one cop vomiting, possibly from the stress or the shock or the gory aftermath. There's a lot of unknowns in that, but it seems clear enough that the cops were surprised and not well coordinated or disciplined enough.
I would like to suggest what I feel is a likely course of events: The miners rushed down the hill. The surprised cops shat themselves and opened fire in panic. Over 30 people died. That is all.
There's been a lot of talk about who fired the first shot. It's not clear in the footage I've seen. I'm not sure it matters in the big picture. The vast majority of miners clearly didn't have guns, hadn't had guns all week, which means any shots from their side, whether accidental or posturing or intended to harm, would have come from a small minority and the reaction against them should have been equally limited. Opening fire indiscriminately on the whole crowd was guaranteed to kill innocent people. Similarly, there are claims that grenades were thrown at the police, but nothing explodes noticeably on the videos, and even if a dud was lobbed, it couldn't have been lobbed by all 50+ of the miners. More likely, I'd guess someone threw rocks. And if the miners definitely didn't shoot first (or perhaps at all), then the police simply shot first and thought later.
Absolutely none of that is behaviour I'm willing to tolerate from my police service.
I can understand the fear those cops must have felt, but it doesn't excuse a blind-panic massacre. At worst, those responsible should be charged with murder, and at best, they should be sacked (if they don't break down and quit first, like my relative's friend). They clearly can't do the job properly.
This is not to say the violent strikers are forgiven. They allegely killed 6 people directly and thus bear at least some responsibility for the deaths and injuries of many times as many more, whether they sparked the massacre on Thursday or merely swayed the situation towards it. This minority really needs to face the courts, and the rest of the miners should seriously consider turning their violent colleagues in, partly to earn public trust and partly because it's the right thing to do. And while I can understand their need to show some symbolic strength by talking big and carrying those sticks and knives around with them, it further depletes the public perception that they're the victims getting fucked over, and it gives the bad seeds the impression that their violence is widely accepted, which it shouldn't be. But I don't think either of those steps are likely to be taken now; they're too full of fear, anger and testosterone.
At the same time, I do sympathise with the majority of striking miners who refrained from violence. They earn no more than R4,000 (US$500) a month, which is not a proper living wage, especially for what is undeniably hard and dangerous work. I make about the same - though working far fewer hours and in relatively luxurious surroundings; I have a chair and a window with a nice view of trees - and I can't live independently on that (I'm lucky enough to have parents willing and able to help me out; this is rightfully their internet I'm writing on). If I had even one dependent to pay for, as many of the miners (many humans in general) do, it'd be a total joke of a salary. The miners' demand for a real salary, <sarcasm>to make as much as those terribly overpaid professions like teaching and firefighting</sarcasm>, is perfectly fair, especially when you consider that Lonmin, their employer, had a net income of US$321 million last year. They had 27,800 employees. My accounting is rusty, but isn't that over US$11,000 net income per employee, or more than 11 times the increase the miners were asking for? So the money is definitely there. Where does it go? You could look at Lonmin's CEO, Ian Farmer, who pulled close to US$2 million from Lonmin in one year, or over 300 times as much as the miners who do almost all the real work in this mining company. I wouldn't put all the blame for the workers' shit salaries on Farmer alone, though. That wouldn't be fair, I just picked the CEO first as an obvious example of a big boss. There's a whole bunch of those overpaid shitheads to pick from.
A lot of people on all sides have done horrible things here. But I think the greatest part of my fury is reserved for the senior ranks of the SAPS and the government officials above them. I may not be an expert on policing, but I do happen to know a thing or three about conflict resolution, and the SAPS has shown no interest in applying or participating in anything more than bullying people into "order". And I don't just mean this week at Marikana. Heavy-handed "shoot to kill" policing has been actively encouraged and there's been a big push to re-militarise the SAPS away from the civilising changes of the late '90s, coming down from the highest levels of government. As public protests (mainly over service delivery, which I've been meaning to write about in detail for months now) have become more frequent, so have the stories of police employed to do little more than suppress the protests, sometimes crudely and dangerously, occasionally lethally, not to mention the almost routine police corruption at all levels, from junior cops harrassing random pedestrians for bribes to the most senior police officials pocketing huge kickbacks. I sometimes feel the whole rotten institution should be disbanded and rebuilt from scratch with all new people, chosen for different traits (e.g. not being cowboys) and trained in a different direction, but there are other factors that need fixing first, or that'd just rot too.
My point is the senior police should either be broadly trained and competent enough themselves to think of something smarter than "threaten the angry crowd of thousands who've been saying they're willing to die for their cause," or they should at least have the resources and humility to bring in someone who can have those super-challenging creative thoughts for them. I could do it if pressed, but I'm really far from being the most highly-qualified conflict resolution expert. Why wasn't someone far smarter than me put in charge there?
This may have degenerated into a bit of a ramble, but I'm pissed off. It's bad enough that people suffer and get killed, but to see it defended on the news as 'necessary' and 'legal' and in any way acceptable is infuriating. To return to the top, though, we sometimes forget that we're all human, we all fuck up. I can put myself in the miners' shoes, I can put myself in the cops' shoes, I can see how they might have done horrible things without trying to be horrible. I struggle more to sympathise with the Lonmin executives and SA government and SAPS officials who caused the whole fuck-up in the first place, and I think that difference is interesting and important. The conflict on the ground was something very real and tangible; we can all imagine being shit-scared or desperate, we all know how irrational these base emotions can make us. But I can't imagine coldly making my fortune by ripping off thousands of other people or giving orders to crush the people I'm paid to care about. I'm not a perfectly nice guy, I'm also only human, but perhaps those sorts of things are not among my normal range of evils. I hope they're not.
Fuck it all. Let's at least learn the right lessons from all this.
(EDIT: For late readers looking for a more up-to-date picture of what happened, I've found this to be an interesting read.)