The criminalisation of labour movements in present-day South Africa – reverberations of 17th century conflicts in Western Europe?

In the issue of September 19, 2014, The Guardian Weekly published an alarming analysis of workers’ action in South Africa’s most important mining region. Two years ago, miners on strike were shot dead by police forces, and both company representatives and leading ANC politicians have failed to respond to the bout of violence with justice and compassion.

The close interrelation of South Africa’s economic elite and political leadership does not seem to have improved since the end of apartheid. And the narratives used to justify low wages, social exclusion and state violence have become even more complex and misleading. The criminalisation of labour movements includes accusations of “irresponsibility” and homicide against employee representatives, but also resorts to allegations of sedition against “local witch doctors”. In this respect, the South African government’s version of events strongly resembles early-modern charges against rioters and reformers, especially those voiced in the Upper Austrian Peasant War of 1626. As Malte Griesse has shown in his recent research, the alleged use of magic to make protesting groups invincible and account for their resistibility played a perpetual part in the commemoration of the uprising.

It is a fact that venturous Protestantism mingled with Catholic folklore and even paganism in the peasants’ rituals and self-representation, but it is hard to trace individual practices back. More importantly, though, authorities welcomed the idea of the peasants’ superstituousness in order to de-politicize the peasant uprising in later years. A series of twenty-five oil paintings against a band of sorcerers might be directly related to the abatement of the 1626 rebellion, denouncing peasant violence altogether.

The aim to deflect public attention from serious social issues and put protest down to drug abuse and mass hysteria is equally prevalent today. In contrast to 17th century Upper Austria, however, South Africa has to rely on active democratic participation. And on the long run, the policy of criminalisation will severely endanger the constitution because “the ballot box no longer offered much hope of asserting self-worth”.

ANC as a party who promised liberty to everyone are facing an unprecedented crisis, and even though their leading politicians still profit from a system of inequality and exploitation, they are already about to take the bread out of their own mouths. If more and more people feel that freedom was nothing but an empty promise, the country may well be on the verge of civil war once again.

Read the full article online at After the massacre: life in South Africa’s platinum mining belt (The Guardian World News).


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