Political Discourse, Nation-Building, and the Marikana Strike

Meghan Tinsley, University of Manchester

In August 2012, the police massacre of thirty-four workers during a strike in Marikana, South Africa highlighted the interconnectedness of political power, state violence, and capitalism. The episode evoked the memory of Sharpeville, leading many to question whether the plight of the most marginalised had improved in the post-apartheid era. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, the National Union of Miners denied any association with the striking workers, the ANC government labeled them as "criminals", and police arrested survivors for the "murder" of their comrades. Media outlets repeated police accounts of the massacre uncritically. Yet despite the absence of institutional support, public sympathy coalesced around the striking miners, and in the ensuing months, a wave of cross-sectoral militant strikes spread across South Africa. Taking as its starting point the unlikely success of the Marikana strike, this paper asks how the state attempted to restore its moral authority amidst a leaderless, grassroots social movement. I conduct a critical political discourse analysis of President Jacob Zuma's references to Marikana between 16 August 2012, when the massacre took place, and 25 June 2015, when he released the Farlam Commission's final report. I argue, drawing from critical realism, that the power of Zuma's discourse lies not in the text itself, but in the speaker’s intentions, the audiences’ interpretations, and the public’s responses. This framing reveals the systems of domination underlying all discourse, such that varied, malleable concepts produce visible, violent social structures. I find that Zuma, faced with comparisons to the apartheid regime, sought to represent the ANC government as both the voice of the oppressed and an impartial mediator between competing narratives. Ultimately, his conciliatory approach failed to address the strikers' grievances; this created a vacuum in political discourse that was filled by anti-capitalist, anti-state violence voices from below.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 19. Culture & the Politics of Nationhood