A LITTLE OF THAT HUMAN TOUCH: Journalists look at the process, reporters at the event; we need more journalists writes Michael Schmidt, Op-ed, The Star, 30 August 2012
In all the angst and soul-searching wrought by the Marikana Massacre – despite some jaded commentators trying to reduce it to a mere “incident” – the description of the clash that has been most noticeably absent is “class war”.
We South Africans are so accustomed to the almost ritualistic dance of burning tyres and toyi-toyiing crowds, then the arrival of an armoured phalanx of police, then an inevitable escalation through megaphoned warnings, to rubber bullets, to live ammunition and, sometimes, corpses, that we can’t see the class war for the teargas. In much the same way as most journalists refused to talk of insurrection in the late 1980s in preference to the depoliticised term “unrest,” so in the democratic era, we talk of “protest” and not class war.
Poloko Tau’s commendable on-day reportage in The Star on the killing by police of his contact among the striking rock-drillers, the strike leader that he only knew as “the man in the green blanket” immediately emphasised for me how rare it is to have our journalists even bother to build such contacts in stricken communities, before the smoke rises on the horizon.
Cardboard-cutout renditions of extremely complex conflicts cuts both ways. Who after all recalls that in the 1976 Soweto Massacre, the leader of the police contingent Theunis “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel lost his right eye to a bottle in the fray, which might have precipitated the shooting; or that student leader Tsietsi Mashinini was himself stoned by the students for demanding that they back down? It is telling that we do not know the actual sequence and detail of one of our most hallowed sufferings in more accurate detail. Likewise, in the polarised narrative over Marikana, the details of the police deaths are either totally ignored by those backing the strikers, or upheld as a justification for slaughter by those backing the police.
Most journalists were rooting the origins of the massacre in the strikers taking to their Wonderkop redoubt barely a week before the bloodshed. But I recall noting that there was “trouble at t’ mill” down at Lonmin at least a year ago, and I had a gut feeling back then that it would all end in tears, though few journalists kept their finger on the pulse in the intervening months. In fact I worry that most of our journalists (those who analyse conflict as process) have been supplanted by reporters (those who simply report on conflict as isolated events). For one thing, I have seen little reportage over recent years of the surreptitious remilitarisation of our police – civilianised at great cost in the wake of apartheid.
Myself and Canadian photographer David Buzzard were the only two journalists on the scene of the Christmas Day Massacre at Shobashobane on the South Coast in 1995 when 19 ANC-aligned villagers were butchered by an Inkatha impi; and I was the only journalist who returned a decade later to report on the aftermath. I employ a process I call “forensic meditation” in returning to the scene of a massacre; walking the paths of the killers to their termini, re-interviewing victims and perpetrators, reconstructing the details and teasing out discrepancies. My forensic meditation on Shobashobane in 2005 resulted in a partial confession from former IFP warlord Sipho Ncobo, by then serving as mayor of the area. I have been 2km down the Implats platinum mine, on the stopes where rock-drillers sweat in 55°C heat, the air thick with the bite of ammonia. I’ve yet to see our journalists walking the paths of the rock-drillers they are reporting on.
Scott Peterson was one of few journalists in Rwanda during the “100 Nights” Genocide back in 1994. What he produced out of an incredibly complex tale was not just harrowing eyewitness reportage of the infernal interahamwe bloodletting, and went far beyond reporting on the Genocide as process not event, but resulted, in his book Me Against My Brother, in one of the best structural analyses of how the slaughter was rooted in the convergence between the interests of Agathe Habyarimana’s Akazu (Little House) inner circle and their extremist Zero Network, of the meddling French post-colonial state, and of the Rwandese Catholic hierarchy. In other words, structural analyses of the interests served by massacre penned by journalists are far too rare.
It was left to Leonard Gentle, director of the International Labour Research and Information Group, to write that “The drill workers at Lonmin… were Xhosa-speaking and brought from the Eastern Cape into an area where most people speak another language, Tswana. This was a conscious move by the company to heighten exploitation in the mines. Add to this the toxic mix heavily armed mine security, barbed-wire enclosures, and substandard informal housing—and a picture of institutionalised violence emerges.”
A decade after the Genocide, I sat at a fancy restaurant overlooking the velvety hills of Kigali at night, drinking with the top military brass of the Rwandese Patriotic Front. One salient thing struck me about them: having forcibly ended the Genocide when France and the United Nations proved unwilling, they believed with a frightening certitude that they were on the side of the angels regardless of what they did – something I encounter in the ANC elite regarding their role in ending apartheid; that they are incapable of doing wrong, or at least that all they do is sanctified in the blood of their martyrs. This sense of semi-divine mission, combined with the ethnic divisions and institutionalised violence of which Gentle speaks, in support of mining multinationals, not only replicates apartheid logic but is a dangerously volatile mix.
In July last year, I had the privilege to interview one of the world’s most intriguing guerrilla fighters. As a youth, Octavio Alberola plotted the invasion of Cuba with Fidel Castro, and became a member of Defensa Interior, the Spanish exile anarchist underground council tasked in the 1960s with assassinating Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Today he has become deeply involved with breaking what in Spain is called the “Pact of Silence”: the unspoken backroom deal whereby Spanish society remained mute about the abuses in the aftermath of the Spanish Revolution when Francoist forces are believed to have killed some 200,000 people. It is only in recent years that mass graves have been uncovered and Alberola is driving a campaign to have the ersatz “criminal” sentences of those massacred expunged so their remaining widows can be pensioned.
I have come to believe that there is a similar “Pact of Silence” in Southern Africa – all the more potent, as in Spain for it being unspoken. And there is no case that more glaringly demonstrates this than that of the Operation Dual Massacre that is almost unknown – despite it being apartheid South Africa’s biggest war-crime. It was accepted as true during the failed Dr Wouter Basson prosecution that between 1979 and 1987, some 200 captured members of the South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) were drugged, flown in a Cessna from an airstrip at Etosha Pan, naked and bound, to a location about 100 nautical miles off the Skeleton Coast, where they were dumped into the ocean from an altitude of about 3,6km. A lawyer friend of mine who worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions told me he believes the reason SWAPO has not gone after the known death-flight perpetrators is that SWAPO has atrocities of its own that it fears would be brought to light if it pursues this (and in fact a Dutch human rights group has attempted to bring charges before the International Criminal Court). The implication is that perpetrators on the apartheid and liberation movement sides of the line are colluding in suppressing the truth.
But somewhere out there are 200 families wanting to know that happened to their sons and daughters. Some day the dam will break – but those families are unlikely to ever have any bones to bury. In contrast, this May, the bones of Alberto “Pocho” Mechoso, the long-lost brother of another interviewee of mine, Juan Carlos Mechoso, a former guerrilla with Uruguayan resistance movement Revolutionary Popular Organisation – 33 (OPR-33), were found in a drum on the seabed off Argentina where he had been kidnapped, tortured and “disappeared” during the Dirty War in 1976. There were seven other drums of human remains alongside his. The only reason the Mechoso family can finally find closure after 36 years of agony is that Argentina has a proactive prosecutorial authority that has undone secrecy pacts and those they protect with impunity.
Western and African heads of state last week hailed as a great leader the dead Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi whose forces in 2005 murdered 193 pro-democratic protestors, injured 800 more, and jailed 40,000. To my mind, only elite-class interest can explain this cynical, deliberate act of forgetting. Our journalists need to explore the class function of our police – who are themselves poorly-paid and work in atrocious conditions – in support of the elite’s structural interests. And those interests are terrifyingly inhuman: during the Xenophobic Pogroms of 2008, the inactivity of the police for the first week of the killings made it seem as if the elite was curious to see how far such a fire could burn before they were forced to put it out; after all, divisive ethnic violence has proven a ready fall-back for regimes in crisis in Africa. Divide-and-rule remains the rule for minorities – and elites are always minorities.