South Africa’s ANC government has pulled out from a memorial ceremony marking the first anniversary of the nation’s bloodiest post-apartheid labour violence.
President Jacob Zuma’s government had planned a unifying day of prayer and reflection yesterday to commemorate the killings by police last year of 34 striking platinum workers at Marikana mine. It was the deadliest incident of its kind since the 1994 end of white-minority rule.
Just hours before the planned commemoration went ahead at the mine north-east of Johannesburg, a spokeswoman said no-one from Mr Zuma’s government would be attending. The move has drawn attention to the dominant party’s loss of support among many mine workers.
More than a dozen seats for cabinet ministers on the main stage remained empty throughout the commemorations.
Mr Zuma, who faces an election next year, has come under fire from critics over the clumsy handling of what has come to be known as the “Marikana massacre”, including questions over alleged police brutality.
The Marikana killings involved 60 deaths during a wave of illegal strikes and labour violence in the country’s mines that started in 2012 and spilled over into this year.
The violence helped trigger credit downgrades for Africa’s biggest economy and dented the government’s image. The ANC said it had decided not to participate in the memorial because the event was being organised by a Marikana support group, which includes the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
An ANC spokesman said: “We are not participating in this activity. People are taking advantage of a tragedy for their own political benefit.”
The labour union ally of Mr Zuma’s ANC, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has been displaced by the more hardline AMCU as the dominant union among miners in the area, said it was also staying away, for safety reasons.
A NUM spokesman said: “It’s important that we commemorate those who lost their lives, but it is not necessary that we go and commemorate only to lose more lives. The possibility of losing further lives is great,”
The more radical AMCU accuses the ANC government and its NUM union allies of siding with mining bosses over the interests of workers fighting for better pay and conditions.
The two unions have been involved in a deadly battle to swell membership among South Africa’s mineworkers, accusing each other of being behind killings over the past few months.
At Marikana, thousands of people, many of them wearing green AMCU T-shirts, gathered on and around the rocky outcrop dubbed the “hill of horror” where the strikers were killed last year in police gunfire.
Marikana worker Paulos Mpahlela, 60, expressed anger at the government and ANC’s decision to stay away.
He said: “We are hurt, the government should be here. They should have taken the trouble to come and be here because they’re the leaders.”
Cape Town-based political analyst Nic Borain said the decision by the government to stay away highlights the alienation of many of South Africa’s poorest workers from the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s liberation movement which has dominated South Africa since the end of apartheid.
The ANC is still expected to win elections easily next year, but suffers from accusations that it has become the party of the rich and powerful.
Mr Borain said: “What it shows is that the ANC, the NUM and the government have lost their legitimacy.”