Last Friday marked the one-year anniversary of South Africa’s Marikana Massacre—an August 16 shooting in which police opened fire on a group of miners on strike, killing 34 and wounding 78.
South African media subsequently deemed the shooting the most lethal use of force by security forces against civilians since the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960.
Thousands gathered in Marikana on Friday to commemorate the miners killed, among them however, were not members of the African National Congress or the South African Communist Party, the president or his cabinet members.
Over a dozen seats designated for government officials remained conspicuously empty, perched on the main stage as symbols of enduring bitterness between the government and the workers union, according to Max du Preez, a South African author and documentary filmmaker.
More than six of every 10 voters had voted for the African National Congress loyally since 1994, du Preez wrote, chasing promises of “freedom, dignity and fairness to the former oppressed,” referring to the South African apartheid.
“And now these very same leaders show the dead, their families, the wounded and the traumatised of Marikana a thick middle finger by refusing to attend the national commemoration of this tragedy?” he added.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union organized the event. But on Thursday, Kenny Morolong, spokesperson for the ANC in North West province, issued a statement saying the party would not participate because the memorial was "organised by an illegitimate team called 'Marikana support group'‚ a group which the ANC does not recognise."
The association, however, reportedly made it clear that government representatives would not only be welcome but would have 20 seats reserved on stage.
Lonmin—the mining company that owns the Marikana mine—and the association had also announced two days prior to the memorial an agreement, which recognized the trade union as holding majority representation at the company. Still, President Jacob Zuma and his members of his office opted out of participating.
“Zuma’s office and representatives of his ministers in charge of mining and police could have negotiated a way in which their attendance would be dignified and safe,” du Preez said. “The most hated man at the mine, Lonmin chief executive Ben Magara, did attend and speak, and he was listened to and not attacked.”
Rather than joining the local community on Friday, politicians instead chose to meet on the Wednesday prior, when they announced a plan to “bring stability to the mining sector.”
In the meeting in Johannesburg involving police, trade unions, mining companies and government officials, Zuma vowed to make mining conditions safer.
“We must pray for the families of all who lost their lives in Marikana, before and after the 16th of August. We must all resolve to do everything possible to prevent a repeat of similar incidents," President Zuma said.
Paulos Mpahlela, a member of the community who attended the anniversary memorial, was upset by the absence, expressing the sadness many are said to have felt.
"We are hurt, the government should be here," Mpahlela told Reuters. "They should have taken the trouble to come and be here because they're the leaders."
Julius Malema, the former president of the African National Congress Youth League who was expelled last year, did join, and “was treated as a hero.”
A majority of the workers killed on August 16, 2012 were “migrant workers”—a term du Preez rejected as an “ugly colonialist and apartheid practice of taking workers from their homes and families to work on the mines and in the industries in the cities.”
The miners were striking for better living and working conditions, and higher wages.