by Jon Soske, History Matters
In July 1981, 1,700 workers at the Penge asbestos mine in the Northwestern Transvaal struck after a bitter, two year struggle for recognition by the Black Allied Mine and Construction Workers Union. After four days, the mine owners fired all of the workers, who then responded by occupying the living compounds attached to the mine. The company brought in scabs and petitioned the South African supreme court to evict the mineworkers: since the strike was technically illegal, the company claimed that the workers had quit their jobs, and therefore had no right to remain in its quarters. Predictably, the Pretoria court ruled in the mine owner’s favor; the company offered to reemploy 1,000 of the striking workers at reduced wages. The strikers refused. Given the absence of ventilation and other basic safety measures, most of the workers faced a slow and excruciating death from silicosis if they returned to work. One trade unionist later explained: “We don’t envisage a situation where we would choose to die in order to earn very little. We’d rather starve than sell our lives.”
I thought of this 31-year-old statement when reading Joseph Mathunjwa’s description of begging the Lomnin mineworkers to abandon their occupation a few days before 34 miners were killed by police gunfire. “I pleaded with them,” the Mail & Guardianquotes, “I said leave this place, they’re going to kill you.” Government press conferences, mining executives, and newspaper articles have now spent several days wringing hands over the “senseless” and “regrettable” and “preventable” loss of life, counseling that we should await the cataloguing of facts before rushing to judgment. Witness the new politics of grief. In the aftermath of state violence, it has become routine for those in power to greet such events with somber invocation of “tragedy” and sympathy for the families of the dead—rather than, of course, solidarity with the assassinated. Counterfeit mourning serves to deflect the demands for justice and accountability, as if a miners strike and police repression were natural disasters or vengeful acts of some incomprehensible god. It attempts to rob these deaths of any political meaning.