I am very mindful of one rule of life, namely that distance simplifies things. I am watching events in South Africa from across the Limpopo, and of course there is a vast distance between the great Limpopo, itself the margin or the helm for our two sister republics, and where I stand as I write this piece.
Much worse, however nearer we are to each other as neighbours, there is a vaster distance by way of our distinct histories, however comparable these may be. Of course, our cultures and languages do intersect in a variety of ways, factors that my lessen that distance. But only lessen.
So near yet so wrong
Much worse, we have seen from none other than South Africa itself how a false sense of proximity often translates to watching events of the other from the wrong end of the telescope.
At the height of our stand-off with Europe over our land reforms — specifically after the Thabo Mbeki era — and the concomitant economic challenges wrought by combined reprisal actions of embittered Britain and solidarity Europe and America, the trophy for the most warped view and interpretation of events unfolding here went to South Africa and her media.
So near yet so far. So near yet so wrong. So near yet so blind. And this triggered a whole train of baffling positions and stances that left a bitter taste in the gaping mouth of Zimbabwe.
Her brother keeper virtually became her brother’s villain’s succour, often creating ironical situations where the views of South Africa and those of Britain and Europe mutually reinforced, and often melded. That is how it looked from this side of the Limpopo.
It is very easy for Zimbabwe to slide into a similar weakness, in the process creating a perception similar to that which we had of South Africa, namely that it was using a neighbour’s troubled circumstances to create an illusion of better situation, of superior circumstances, with which to feed and satiate her own masses. Or worse, that she sought to fish in troubled waters of her neighbour, including muddying even further those already disturbed waters for more, better catch. The tragedy of Marikana is a great temptation to analysts, more so to those already incensed by South Africa’s presumptive righteousness shown in its past.
Marikana is fraught, very fraught, and can easily accommodate easy analyses, facile conclusions, or even malice. The sheer scale and circumstances of Marikana grant this tragedy unusual longevity both in itself, and metonymically as a summary of post-apartheid governance.
Marikana is disturbingly rich symbolism for post-apartheid politics. And given the sharp alignment of political forces in South Africa, given that country’s bloody history, there are very powerful forces with an interest in turning Marikana into a veritable symbol for a lasting indictment of the African National Congress.
Feeding the Eurocentric archetype
With apartheid having given us Sharpeville and Soweto, and with the liberation movements having so ably turned these into iconic, powerful symbols of the anti-apartheid movement’s campaign against white apartheid brutality, it should not be too hard to conceive of a reverse process, all of it vengefully led by the same forces that gave us Sharpeville.
I hear them gleefully telling the ANC: now it’s your turn! And those forces wield media power, which they have already begun to use frenziedly to ritualise Marikana into a damning all-time symbol of post-apartheid excesses by the very forces that liberated. While numerically Marikana is a small beer in relation to Sharpeville, today it reads incomparably dire and worse, thanks to the aggravating white media, itself a leftover of the long apartheid. Such an image neatly feeds into an already established trope of African politics: that of a liberator-turned-monster. A trope and archetype at the heart of Eurocentrism.
Exploiting the law of recency
All this must be familiar to us as Zimbabweans. White interests in South Africa are anxious to expunge Sharpeville from the South African liberation narrative, from the country’s bloody iconography. Or to overwrite it.
Or, at the very least, to lessen its incidence in daily tales of that nation. Marikana allows for all that, enables white South Africa to blackmail the ANC and the whole retinue of liberation.
Today no one in the ANC or its government dares pontificate about Sharpeville, without risking and bracing up for an instant, stunning boomerang. Or the obverse: the South African white media can now so easily skim past Sharpeville, to detour comfortably and lingeringly on the grisly details of bloody Marikana.
After all Sharpeville is now memory, a fading memory. You squint to visualise it, to reach its mistily imperfect outline. By contrast Marikana is here, is only an imperishable yesterday, and therefore an ever present now! And the law of recency in the construction of news and comment kicks in, delivering a lifelong guilty verdict on the ANC, a verdict delivered with compound interest.
Sin by kin
Soon, the forces of apartheid may not need to even pay for the lip service of guilt. Not even to balance things by making perfunctory references to Sharpeville. What for?
There is enough outrage in black South Africa over Marikana to wash away past outrages, to cleanse past ills, much worse to make an instant hero of whoever mentions Marikana in whatever context, for whatever reason, to whatever end, and with whatever colour of bawling lips.
And we know who wields a long mouth. After all the guns of apartheid were expected to shoot at Africans. At the hill of Marikana, it was the gun of freedom that shot dead, with cynical commentators adding, shooting for multinational interests. That makes the latter tragedy more execrable, makes Marikana a sin by kin, and therefore a sin beyond expiation.
Parallels with Gukurahundi
We in Zimbabwe have a story to share with South Africans. We know how the post independence disturbances in Matabeleland have become inextinguishable fodder for all manner of causes, principally those linked to ousted white interests. The disturbances play ladder to any power bid in Zimbabwe’s notoriously reducible politics.
Consistently, it had to be a David Coltart — himself an ex-Rhodesian securocrat — who had to author Breaking Silence, who had to shoulder the burden of turning those unfortunate disturbances into an abiding and ductile feature of our national politics, indeed who had to make them a legitimation instrument for white-fomented dissent by way of the MDC.
It was only proper that he became the first white MP and minister of those comeback politics, all founded on sins and misconduct of post-liberation. Today those disturbances have been transfigured into the mythic “Gukurahundi”.
Mythic not in the sense of that which never happened. We all know that lives were lost during those disturbances, lives lost on both sides of the conflict.
That is why Dabengwa, himself a player in that unfortunate phase of our short history, says apologies are due from both sides.
But mythic in the sense of that which must never die, never go away, never lose freshness or a galvanising immediacy in spite of the passage of time or the coming in of new generations. Mythic, too, in the sense of a disproportionate and unbalanced comprehension and rendering, in the sense of a tragedy appropriated by those least affected by it, whether by race or by class.
It is a bit of some sequenced blackmail, itself the motor of post-colonial history. To grasp what is about to happen, thanks to Marikana, South Africa must learn from our own experience. I doubt very much that they can ever escape a comparable fate.
Founding new evil, new morality
And the actual problem will not be Marikana, real and/or mythic. The real problem is a new and consuming indictment or criminalisation of the liberation struggle through its governing superstructure. The real problem is a new and overriding sense of disaffection with the liberation process arising as a consequence of Marikana.
The problem is the obverse: a new and underlying sense of naturalising and even forgiving the excesses of apartheid against blacks because a new outrage has happened, has been found and mythologised across scope, space and time.
The real, stiff problem of a new morality, of a new compelling judgement unrestrained by it’s awesome paradoxes, a judgement so draining and dissipative of the vital reflex of liberation, and thus so dangerously retrogressive.
There is at once a process of de-legitimation and re-legitimation. Old sins of apartheid are repaid and cleansed.
Equally, the sinners of apartheid are completely cleansed for new roles as new “defenders” of hapless blacks they killed only yesterday. From Marikana, the Coltarts, Bennetts, Kays of South African politics shall be born, ready to join hands with servile blacks to lead the assault on a liberation movement that has made a fatal mistake.
And as matters and collective morality see-saw, it shall be lost to many that in both Sharpeville and Marikana, the sufferer was one and the same: the black underdog. That in both Sharpeville and Marikana, the prevailing interest was one and the same: white capital giving shooting orders to the same State under chronological hands. In the heat of present anger, all this shall be lost, and with it, a critical lever for lifting liberation politics to a level of new dialectics for a higher synthesis.
When the dead were the luckier ones
That takes me to the bafflement which is acutely exercising me just now. Reports from South Africa seem to suggest that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in that country is about to prefer charges against 200 or so survivors of that massacre for the murder of the 34 persons killed by the police on that fateful day. Can someone tell me that this is not correct? Please! Should this turn out to be true — and my God please forbid! — the implications are very serious, indeed dire. Police shot the 34, with many of the dead bearing lethal bullet wounds picked from the back, all in mid flight. That means the police shot fleeing demonstrators, not charging ones.
Those who face this alleged action were part of that collective flight from this lethal danger. They survived that danger, or so they thought. They were the lucky ones, or so again they thought.
Today, the action which the NPA is said to be contemplating makes the dead of Marikana safer, luckier, its survivors the most unsafe, the unlucky ones.
It would amount to a double shooting, a double trauma. Much worse, politically, it is horrible provocation by a system which should be searching for its soul, while bringing anodyne, bandages and plaster to heal the wound it inflicted on the unarmed.
The art of sepsis, never the bland artifice of assaulting the bereaved and grieving, is what is needed.
And NPA action will just be that: a carelessly provocative assault that could very easily ignite South Africa, while puzzling the ANC’s allies and supporters abroad.
Fatefully, our own draft constitution proposes a similar structure to our legal system!
When the beautiful ones are not yet born
There is also another contradiction, a serious one at that. President Zuma has appointed and announced a commission of inquiry on the massacre.
I don’t like South Africa’s dependency on white judges — whether retired or serving. There is too much at stake in South Africa to make the former ruling class, at whatever branch of government, politically colourless or juridically impartial.
The days of post-apartheid are still too short, too near, to have permitted pregnancy and the birth of the beautiful ones for a new, hopeful dispensation.
By and large, South Africa is still the old country it was. Marikana inquiry is one matter where South Africa would have been better served and possibly saved by a judge from Africa or the Commonwealth to which South Africa belongs. Not one enmeshed in its troubled history which is its tormenting present.
But Zuma is the president; he has decided, hopefully on good judgement. Let’s leave that one. The real question to pose is how an, any, action by the NPA relates to the proposed inquiry.
For a start, the NPA will bring Marikana before the courts, in which case the “sub judice” principle invalidates the inquiry. Or am I missing on a finer point of law?
And of course in South Africa’s circumstances, the fastest way of discounting black South Africans as arbiters on any national matter is to take it to the white-dominated legal system.
As the Zuma painting case showed, even black attorneys, themselves better equipped to deal with white law than the masses, are reduced to tears! South Africa seems set for a two-track system of justice and truth — both tracks focusing on an outrage against blacks from a white perspective, with the black victims unable to control or repose trust in either of them.
Two tracks that clash
Lately, the NPA itself has been a creature shaped (or is it misshaped?) by buffeting winds. Recently, it was taken to court by a white interest group purporting to act on behalf of Zimbabweans claiming to have been victims of the 2007/8 election-related violence in Zimbabwe.
These white litigants sought and got a high court ruling compelling the NPA to act on any persons named in the electoral violence, should they set foot on South African soil.
South Africa’s signature to the ICC protocols became the enabler of such litigation.
To assist this action against the NPA, a white prosecutor employed by the NPA resigned ahead of the trial, and gave evidence against his former employer.
Today, the intention to prosecute Marikana’s survivors is ascribed to another white prosecutor serving in the NPA. Are we set for another challenge to the NPA should someone senior enough in the NPA decide to stop this insensitive and most provocative legal charade? Or has the NPA been sufficiently cowed down through such white legal harassment that it can now be made to do practically anything?
The Blair who gets away with it
There is a further question that begs. Tony Blair was in South Africa this week, pursuing Churchillian antics as always.
He killed millions in Iraq, well outside the remit of the UN. He killed on the strength of a lie, only to turn around when Iraq was already a burnt out case to say he was wrong and mistaken. Inquiries have been held on this matter, not to get to the bottom of this great British infamy, but to cleanse and close it. Still Blair is free, free to romp the globe, largely unmolested except by angry demonstrators soon beaten off by coercive arms of obliging states. What a remarkable contrast with Sudan’s Omar al Bashir! Anyway, Blair was in South Africa more or less the same time of Marikana.
Also in South Africa — well and kicking — are those white legal activist NGOs which purport to fight — pro-deo — whenever and wherever human rights are trampled upon.
White legal groups who are so alert as to remind the South African government and its NPA of their international obligations under the Rome Statutes! Why was there no action to force the NPA to arrest and bring before the courts of South Africa this one warrior of latter-day empire, this genocidal killer called Tony Blair?
Why no white prosecutorial activism within the NPA? Uu-uh, black man, you are truly on your own. I wish South Africa well.