South Africa: Marikana

'Platinum' by Jack Shenker and photographer Jason Larkin.

On 16 August 2012, sixty-nine seconds of video footage raced across laptops, television screens and mobile phones around the world. The footage, shot from a single camera, showed armed South African police officers at the bottom of a hill opening fire on a group of men running down towards them. The men were striking mineworkers, and by the end of the day thirty-four of them would be dead. Amid clouds of dust raked up by the bullets, an explanation for what happened swiftly emerged. These miners were violent extremists, responsible for the deaths of several members of the security forces as well as many of their fellow workers in the preceding few days. Their strike was illegal, and opposed even by their own trade union, and it was dragging South Africa’s economy into the mire. High on drugs and persuaded by a local witchdoctor that they were invincible to ammunition, several of the miners had charged recklessly towards police lines, brandishing traditional weapons. In fear for their lives, officers had no choice but to gun them down.

This explanation gained credibility as it was repeated, again and again, by police commanders, by business leaders, by government ministers and by many journalists. "You had a situation where workers were armed to the teeth, and they were killing their colleagues," explained South Africa’s national police commissioner, who later congratulated her officers for displaying "the best of responsible policing" during the tragedy. "Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilize maximum force to defend themselves."

We now know that almost every aspect of that explanation was a lie. If you shift the camera and view the same events from a different angle, a totally contrasting story emerges: one in which the miners did not charge at the police, but were instead deliberately herded towards them; one in which the police did not shoot reluctantly in self-defense, but rather pursued unarmed, fleeing workers and executed them at close range; one in which the tragedy of Marikana was not really a tragedy at all, but a deliberate massacre borne out of a toxic collusion between international corporations and the state.

Writing about another famous miners’ strike more than half a century ago, the late anti-apartheid activist Ruth First claimed it was "one of those great historic incidents that, in a flash of illumination, educates a nation, reveals what has been hidden, and destroys lies and illusions." What happened at Marikana has forced many in South Africa and beyond that country’s borders to ask themselves what other establishment narratives might have been assembled out of lies and illusions, and about the lenses we all use to make sense of the relationships between power, money and exploited labor forces. The answers aren’t always comfortable. South Africa’s story—of a "rainbow nation" that successfully liberated itself from the shackles of apartheid—has been an inspiration to people in every corner of the planet. But if you shift the camera angle very slightly, what does liberation really look like?

Book available to download here. The text is also available in Xhosa.