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Lonmin Marikana Mine Crisis: South Africa’s Wake-up Call

Although South Africa’s infamous apartheid regime ended 18 years ago, the country still faces recurrent painful backlash resulting from 46 years of forced racial segregation and white rule over African land. During apartheid, each person had to carry an identity card at all times that specified their race as defined by government officials. Dutch and British colonists completely took over control of the government and crammed the native South Africans into slums called townships. In 1994, the apartheid regime was finally overthrown and the country was left in the gentle but capable hands of Nelson Mandela. Sadly though, South Africa is still plagued by 46 years of turmoil, anger and pain. Most recently, miners in the Lonmin Marikana platinum mine went on strike armed with spears and machetes demanding higher wages and better conditions. However, as so often happens in South Africa, this somewhat harmless protest quickly turned deadly. 3,000 policemen surrounded the miners and were directed by their police commissioner to “shoot to kill”- and kill they did. By the end of day, 34 protesters lay dead and at least seventy-eight had been injured in the clash with police. The police claimed to have fired in self-defense and as a result, 270 of the protesters were arrested and have been in jail since the incident took place in early August.
On a surface level, the deaths were simply the result of a union strike gone violent. However, on a deeper level, the incident speaks to festering wounds left over from the detrimental apartheid years. South Africa is still very much haunted by it’s appalling past, despite how hard its citizens have tried to build the country back up.

I was in Johannesburg two years ago and can say from personal experience that racial tension still hangs heavy in the dry South African air. Johannesburg specifically is classified by barbed wire fences, high walls and armed guards around every corner. Each shopping mall, restaurant and hotel is across the street from acre upon acre of squatter land. Every South African who I spoke with impressed upon me that the country was safe and happy- no lingering effects of its past regime. Many seemed to be in denial of not only the country’s recent past but also racial and social issues of the present. Despite the relentlessly positive claims, what I saw was a country very much in transition. Many South Africans referenced certain rich neighborhoods and the newly built world cup stadium as proof of South Africa’s growth. Yet the innumerable safety measures and gaping wealth gap told a different story: one of a country that desperately wanted to forget its past, even if it meant turning a blind eye to its present. Sure, there are luxurious, wealthy areas that mirror the hollywood hills but there is a level of poverty unheard of in the United States.

Eighteen years of restoration cannot make up for 46 years of violent white minority rule. South African commentators have compared this most recent tragedy to Sharpeville – when the police open fired into a crowd in 1960 – leading to the start of the armed struggle against apartheid. This incident serves as a harsh reminder to South Africans and the rest of the world alike that the country still has a lot of work to do before apartheid can truly be put to rest. Most importantly, the incident brought to light divisions over worker’s rights in the country as a whole and the growing gulf between government and ordinary people who want higher wages and better conditions. Releasing the jailed miners and resuming union talks about higher wages are steps in the right direction but sooner or later the country must deal with the deeper issues at work. For more information check out BBC’s Africa section or search South African mines on the BBC website. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world/africa/.

 

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