When police in South Africa shot 34 striking platinum miners, the response around the world was shocking. For all the many problems plaguing the ANC and particularly President Jacob Zuma, they are not politically or morally disposed towards killing their own citizens. Mining strikes are part of the political mainstream of labour disputes in South Africa and the labour union, which most miners belong to, is an official partner of the government. This appeared to be a situation that had spiralled out of control and one that the police had failed to predict or contain effectively. It seemed a simple case of a failed police action, with embarrassing implications for the government. There was widespread expectation that the incident would result in a public apology, some soul searching, or a judicial enquiry. No one was surprised that the firebrand populist politician Julius Malema took to the stage to take whatever advantage he could of the situation. Most commentators agreed that this was a major political incident, a turning point of some kind, and perhaps the end of whatever remained of the ANC’s honeymoon. Whether it would result in recriminations against Jacob Zuma’s leadership remains to be seen.

Image courtesy of Raimond Spekking, © 2007, some rights reserved.

A few days later when the government charged the surviving 270 miners with the murder of their colleagues, it stunned and angered South Africans and led to a popular outcry. The charges were dropped within days. Many prominent political commentators have made no secret of their opinion that Jacob Zuma’s leadership is flawed and that unless the policy trajectory he represents is radically altered, the country is headed for ruin. However, the act of charging 270 striking miners with murder appears to represent a deep moral crisis which is much more serious than anyone suspected.

The legal principle called ‘common purpose’ states that all members of a group will be held accountable for any action committed by an individual member if they are deemed to have ‘actively associated’ with the criminal behaviour of the member. The principle originates in English Common Law, but it was widely used during Apartheid to prosecute anyone in the vicinity of a crime, whether they committed it or not. People were sentenced to death during apartheid for merely being part of an ‘illegal gathering’ where a crime was committed. In the new South Africa it is not a crime to take part in a strike, even an illegal one. The illegality of a strike relates purely to labour legislation and whether the company against which the strike is directed is legally obliged to engage with the union concerning the demands being made. The miners are guilty of nothing in that respect. It is possible that individuals within the group committed offences, and serious ones, but that does not seem to be an immediate concern of the ANC. That the ANC government went digging into the minutia of the law to evade responsibility for 34 deaths and were not averse to dipping into the cesspool of Apartheid-era legal principles to charge 270 people with murder is deeply disturbing.

In response to the incident, Desmond Tutu, always the country’s moral voice and always a prominent one stated “What the heck are you doing?” One may suspect stronger words to have been on the tip of his Christian tongue. In an impassioned plea at a recent gathering in Cape Town he asked, “In 2012? In a democracy? In a new South Africa? Have we forgotten so soon? Marikana felt like a nightmare, but that is what our democracy is in 2012.” Last week the former Archbishop of Cape Town was awarded a one–off $1 million prize by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation for “his lifelong commitment to speaking truth to power”.

The political fallout and the judicial process surrounding what has become known as the ‘Marikana Massacre’ is not over. The judicial commission of enquiry into the incident started sitting last week.  Despite this, there is a feeling among prominent Africans other than Desmond Tutu that the charging of these miners is nothing less than an attempt to criminalise those who threaten the hegemony of the ANC. For many years, South Africa has represented hope and freedom not just for the world at large, but especially for Africa. To cast doubt on this new, young democracy was to be seen as churlish at best.  However, there is a growing feeling that we are dealing with a ruthless and morally deficient ruling elite prepared to use any measures to stay in power. The true test will come, like it does for every government in a democracy, when the ANC faces losing an election. Will they conduct themselves in a way informed by their core historical values that are a commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law?

The response to the Marikana massacre indicates that they might take their inspiration from the inscription on Cecil Rhodes’ statue near Parliament in Cape Town. Rhodes’ finger points north and inscribed on the granite plinth are the words, “Your hinterland is there.” President Zuma needs to look no further for techniques he could use to entrench his leadership and that of the ANC. He could pick any one of the many leaders to the north of him that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has failed to grant a prize to in the last six years and copy their example. Alternatively he could end the nightmare and listen to Desmond Tutu, who has been speaking the truth to power for many of his 81 years.