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History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce

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That “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” is so often quoted it is a cliché. That Karl Marx said it during his long sojourn among the working class in the British Museum library does not make it less valid.

This is particularly so when contemplating the longest strike in South African mining history. The parallels between 2014 and 1960 are extraordinary. Older members of the ANC, and some of the eggheads in the SA Communist Party, might remember what happened in 1960 in Pondoland.

The prime movers of the platinum miners’ outburst against the authorities – which is what the strike has become – were rock drillers from Pondoland, a part of the country, where in 1960, the most intransigent opponents of the government were to be found. It ended in tragedy.

Today, that same intransigence is evident. The farcical part is that there is an ANC government in power – a party that, in 1960, was a firm supporter of the Pondoland uprising.

In 1960 Pondo farmers, who did not like the new measures relating to overgrazing, soil erosion and stock limitation, sparked anti-government protests.

Their anger became overtly political only later, when it merged with ANC’s fight against restoring the tribal system on ethnic lines and a demand for representation in central government.

The attempts by Julius Malema and his cohorts to slide in behind the platinum strike may appear as farce now but, who knows, perhaps history is repeating itself.

Back in 1960, the regime reacted violently to the challenge to its authority. Two aircraft and a helicopter dropped teargas and smoke bombs on a crowd, and at Ngquza Kopje the police killed 11 people. Revenge killings followed.

Compare this to Marikana, when disobedience was met by a violent reaction by authority particularly when the miners later retired to a nearby koppie.

Fifty years ago, the rebels also retreated to a defensive position, on the Ngquza Kopje. As the revolt developed it adopted the name Intaba (meaning mountain) and organised themselves at gatherings on mountain ridges, much like the Marikana strikers.

The next part of the tragedy/farce comparison between 1960 and today is that in both instances a commission of inquiry was set up. Bantu Administration officials set up the first one. Naturally, it was seen as biased and its findings were rejected. However, later inquests found that using sten guns was excessive and reckless, and some of the dead had been shot in the back of the head.

Last year, the Farlam Commission was appointed, this time with a retired judge in charge. It at times has veered towards the second half of Marx’s observation. Will it, too, be rejected?

It was several years before Pondoland opposition ceased. At the time of writing, the strike in the platinum belt was continuing into its fifth month.

One wonders if the new ANC, now shorn of its older members, can see these comparisons. Those students of Marx among their ranks might.

* Govan Mbeki. The Peasants’ Revolt Chapter 9.

* Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.


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