South Africa Mine Shooting Hints At Deep Divisions

Memorial services are being held for miners shot dead recently by police at a South African mine. The violent images were compared to the darkest days of apartheid. Guest host Viviana Hurtado speaks with prominent Johannesburg radio host John Robbie to gauge the mood in the country.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

Now let's turn to South Africa. Memorial services are being held today for the 44 people killed in clashes at a platinum mine near Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We will ask the reader of the Old Testament to come forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

HURTADO: Thirty-four of those people were striking miners shot dead by police. Authorities say they fired in self-defense, but the images are reminding many of the apartheid era, when politics and violence were intertwined. They've also sparked a debate questioning South Africa's very identity. Now reports of strikes at two other mines are adding to fears that the unrest is spreading.

We wanted to gauge the mood in the country, so we've called on a prominent radio host. John Robbie is with Talk Radio 702 in Johannesburg. Welcome to the program.

JOHN ROBBIE: Nice talking to you, Viviana. Hello.

HURTADO: How significant do you feel this event was for South Africa?

ROBBIE: It's shocking and there's a mood of huge disappointment. There's a mood of anger here. You know, we've had problems in the last couple of years, but you know, a couple of years ago we were celebrating a very successful World Soccer Cup and we have these wonderful stories by the hundreds, but something like this has taken everybody, I think, by surprise, and yeah, it's shocking.

HURTADO: You've been covering the story extensively on your show. What are you hearing from people?

ROBBIE: I'm hearing a mixture of views - shock, anger - a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of confusion. And thankfully, the president has called for a judicial inquiry with powers of subpoena and hopefully we'll get to the bottom of it. But there's still a lot of tension around. There's a mixture of poverty. There's a mixture of union battles. There's a mixture of political opportunism. There's all sorts of things going on, including traditional cultural beliefs.

I'm sure you're aware that these miners, many of whom are very, very traditional people, were given muti, which is medicine, by witch doctors and told that bullets wouldn't hurt them and, you know, it's no use you and me laughing at this. For many people, they take it seriously. So it's a mix of things and it needs to be dealt with very carefully.

HURTADO: You recently had the executive vice president of mining at Lonmin, Mark Munroe, on your show and he had this to say when you asked him what went wrong that day.

MARK MUNROE: I think there are complexities that we probably don't fully understand involving South African society in general, that do contribute to this. However, on the ground, I mean, you've got people not coming to work and you've got violence at a very high level.

HURTADO: I think, John, you were alluding to that when you were talking about all of the things that were contributing to the mood. Can you explain what some of those complexities are?

ROBBIE: Well, I mean there's all sorts of issues. We have a society where there's a huge gap between rich and poor. We've a poverty rate, an unemployment rate of something officially like 25 percent, but probably that's up to 40 percent. But here we have people who are earning - it might seem pathetic by Western - if I can put it that way - standards - but we're talking about people who are earning a good wage by South African standards.

There are thousands of people who would give anything to get in their position and yet there have been problems. There have been negotiations. There's a very, very strong unionist tradition in South Africa, particularly amongst the mining sector. There's one - the National Union of Mine Workers are particularly strong.

Here we have a new union which has arisen which is far more militant and they embarked on an illegal strike. There are processes. The illegal strike, far from being dealt with, ended up escalating into a situation of almost battle, you know, warfare, open warfare. And then you had people getting shot. Thankfully, since that interview we had, the mine seems to have backed down and at least there is some dialogue between this new union and management. The churches are involved. Everybody is involved in talking about it, but it's a very, very tense situation at this stage and we wait day to day to see what happens.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. We're following up on the fatal shooting of 34 miners by police in South Africa with Johannesburg radio host John Robbie.

And I wanted to ask you if you can talk a little bit more, John, about what the political fallout is.

ROBBIE: Well, the political fallout is that, as with all politicians, everybody is trying to score political points. We have a very fiery youth league guy, very controversial guy called Julius Malema, who basically was booted out by the ANC. He's also being investigated for corruption, but he does have - he's filled that space of militancy. Immediately, although he's out in the cold, he was there talking to these miners, these miners who are very, very angry, also grieving their dead. He's the only person who was allowed to go into their gathered masses to speak to them, and of course he's playing that air to the hilt.

You have the government, for which this is a terrible blow, because obviously on their watch we have police shooting down 34 people and the scene's going around the world. You have opposition who are pointing fingers at government. In the background you also have a National Union of Mine Workers who many see as being too close to President Zuma. Others would see them as doing a very, very good job, as moving to the future.

So there's this whole maelstrom going on of political intrigue. And, as you might know, we have the elective conference of the African National Congress, the ruling party, happening in December. So everything gets politicized. Behind the scenes there are splits. There are people looking for positions, those votes. It really is a perfect storm of political intrigue and yet we have this violence, so it has to be dealt with.

HURTADO: And the mining incident isn't the only example of violence. There have been violent protests for better government services in Cape Town. A black farm worker has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a white supremacist leader because of an apparent pay dispute. Why do you think protests for regular things like wages and services are manifesting in such violence?

ROBBIE: You've put your finger on one of the worst problems in South Africa - I mean, let me go back to the World Cup two years ago. It was sensational being here. It was the sort of country that Nelson Mandela and all sane people dreamt of, where everybody was friendly. Crime levels dropped down. The problem is, somewhere along the line - and we don't just see it in political or protest politics. We see it in road rage. We see it in domestic violence. We see it in crime levels. For some reason, incidents, things that happen in other countries as a matter of course end up with violence in this country, and it's a major, major issue.

I spoke to the minister in the presidency, Mac Maharaj, recently, and again, he put his analysis on it. He said that I don't think the brutality of apartheid, the brutality of young people in particular who are now adults - it's never adequately been dealt with. And as I say, the fluid nature of politics at the moment and the fact that there's a lot of loud shouting in politics, there's a lot more noise than substance many, many times.

You and I and other people might laugh it off as political robustness or the political game, but a lot of people are manipulated or take it very, very seriously and we've seen this violence come through. Calling for some sort of investigation - I mean I was one of the people on my radio station who recognized this, that there's a level of violence that creeps into South African society that is something - there's something sinister about it.

And the government called for a massive two-year investigation into that and they did an investigation, but I mean that report seems to be actually gathering dust. Nothing really has been done about it. There's all these things rushing around at the moment, but for every bad story, for every incident like that, there are hundreds of great stories. There are people getting education like they've never had before. We're qualifying doctors. We're qualifying engineers. We've got a massive infrastructure program, which is putting people back to work. We've had the square kilometer array, which is this massive - the world's biggest telescope, which is going to be built in Southern Africa - 75 percent of it, which is, you know, a massive development for the country.

We've got, on one level, this country which is doing brilliantly well, which is - no question about it. We've delivered elections free and fair. We have the best constitution in the world. Every day there are wonderful things happening, but I cannot deny it and it pains me to say it - that there is a level of violence that creeps into this society and I think this is one of the manifestations of it.

HURTADO: John Robbie is the host of "The John Robbie Show" on Talk Radio 702. He joined us from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. John, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROBBIE: Thank you.

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