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South Africa: from Sharpeville to Marikana

MORE than 50 years after the event, the very name Sharpeville still remains inextricably associated with the mass murder perpetrated in that Transvaal township on March 21 1960.

The official inquiry into the massacre – in which 69 died and 180 were injured – laid the blame on rookie constables opening fire on an unarmed crowd protesting against the pass laws, without the say so of their superiors.

Indeed, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements had his own ideas as to where moral responsibility should be placed: ‘The native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration,’ he argued in his statement. ‘For them to gather means violence.’

But the rest of the world was quick to grasp that what happened spoke volumes about the character of the society South Africa had become.

Rapidly the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution making the link between the killings and the institutionalised system of racial discrimination and segregation that constituted apartheid.

Hendrik Verwoerd declared a state of emergency, under which 18,000 people were detained. Both the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress were banned, a measure that led both of them to launch military wings.

The following year, South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth, after it made respect for racial equality an ostensible condition of membership.

Of course South Africa looks very different from the way it appeared in the days when my generation of activists regularly used to risk getting nicked by staging sit-down protests outside the London embassy.

The downfall of the system that elevated racism to the organising principle of a continent’s most economically advanced state was – for the entirety of the left – one of the highlights 1990s. Unlike the other major events shaping world politics in this period, our joy was unconstrained. It simply had to be a good thing.

Yet the transition to black majority rule seemed to invalidate the basic socialist argument that state racism was intrinsic to South African capitalism, and indeed, that the one could not exist without the other.

This wasn’t a popular position at the time. Inside the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the South African Communist Party’s ‘stages theory’ line was pretty much the orthodoxy.

An ANC-led popular front government would bring about democratic capitalism first and then democratic socialism later, we were told. Arguing for anything more radical was simply infantile ultraleftism.

And yes, the ‘BEE policy’ – Black Economic Empowerment – has indeed forced white-owned companies to sell substantial stakes to an emerging black bourgeoisie. A layer of the black population enjoys luxury lifestyle trappings once the exclusive preserve of wealthy whites.

But there has been little by way of trickle-down to the townships. Despite often healthy rates of growth in GDP, severe poverty has doubled in recent years, and millions continue to survive on less than 50p a day.

Yesterday we saw the outcome of this trajectory when police again opened fire on a crowd of black people, this time strikers at a Lonmin-owned platinum mine in Marikana. In less than a minute, 34 lost their lives and twice as many again were wounded.

The key difference with Sharpeville is that this time the police were black, as is the head of state charged with handling the crisis that will no doubt ensue.

The key similarity is that it once again highlights the way the country functions. State racism remains at the heart of South African capitalism, no matter whose finger is officially on the trigger. That many of the exploiters and oppressors now have black faces matters little.

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