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Miners' killing highlights South Africa's ancient problem of violence

BY VERNON DAVIDSON Executive editor - publications davidsonv@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, September 13, 2012    

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THE massacre of 34 miners on strike by South African police last month has highlighted that country's nagging problem of violence with which political leaders will have to grapple for a long time, a senior American diplomat has argued.

Dr Raymond Brown, the new United States deputy chief of mission to Jamaica, is more than qualified to speak on the tragedy, having served in Lesotho, a nation landlocked by South Africa, as deputy chief of mission from 1997-2000 and having visited South Africa every year since 2000.

Asked to comment on the police killings during an interview with print journalists at the US Embassy in Kingston last week, Dr Brown prefaced his response with the statement that he is not accredited to South Africa.

However, he described the killings that triggered international condemnation, as terrible and an act that cannot be validated.

"I think it was a terrible thing," said Dr Brown. "It has, unfortunately, happened many times in South Africa — not this level, much smaller levels, not this many people dying in one incident, but cumulatively it's more."

Dr Brown, whose obvious knowledge of world affairs allows him to answer questions with historical context, pointed out that in 1994 when apartheid ended in South Arica, the country faced the challenge of creating a system that diverged from the decades of white minority rule.

"In 1994, the economy was designed for 20 per cent of the population and the vast majority of the population were not even recognised as citizens," he said. "The challenge of building and growing an economy to accommodate all the citizens of South Africa is a multi-generational challenge, but of course, people want things now, and it's very difficult for governance, with their limited budgets and the vicissitudes of the national economy, to be able to accommodate them."

He said that just like in Jamaica and much of the British colonial world, the origins of the political parties in South Africa are associated with trade union movements.

Dr Brown said that a coalition comprising the Congress of South African Trade Unions — the major trade union federation — along with the communist party and the African National Congress (ANC) forms the Government of South Africa, therefore trade union issues in the interest of workers are at the commanding heights of the economy.

"South Africa unfortunately has a tradition where violence and politics are associated ... trade union demonstrations, before 1994 and after 1994 have tended to be violent. You saw the images of the miners, some of them actually had weapons," Dr Brown said in reference to television footage of the killings.

However, he pointed out that most of the machetes and other objects the miners had are, under South African law, described as cultural implements.

"But they use these weapons, and so you have this conflict in a passionate situation where people are demonstrating for their own self-interest, and the responsibility of law enforcement to maintain a certain level of acknowledgement of the law and relative peace," said Dr Brown.

He recalled that in the weeks leading up to the police killings, there were violent and deadly clashes between rival trade unions.

"It was an intra trade union struggle over primacy of these mines," the diplomat said. "This got out of hand. I'm sympathetic on one level to the challenges faced by the South African police in this matter, but no one can support or validate... 20 seconds of gunfire, with R5s. No one can support that. Of course, it put the ANC in a crisis."

This, he said, is another of the challenges South Africa is facing as the propensity for violence the is ancient, pre-dating the Independence period by a significant degree.

"They have a structural problem that is going to be very hard for them to solve; they have a passionate level of politics, a significant association with violence that is historical, and the politicians of South Africa are going to have to grapple with this for a very long time," Dr Brown said.

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