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We've Seen Violence Like the Massacre at Marikana Before

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Tim Knight writes the media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada. He's spent ten years working as a journalist in Africa.

Sixteen years after freedom and the end of the evil that was apartheid, South African police massacred 34 striking black miners at a place called Marikana.

Pictures on TV and in our newspapers show them chasing demonstrators, firing into the crowd, standing over the dead like hunters counting their kill.

South Africa's Police chief makes the usual excuse. The police were simply protecting themselves.

Every report about this massacre at Marikana mentions that just 52 years earlier, on March 21, 1960, other South African police fired into another crowd of protesters. And when that shooting ended, 69 black people protesting apartheid lay dead on the bloody ground, many shot in the back while running away. Among them, eight women and 10 children.

That place was called Sharpeville.

The police chief at the time explained that the police were protecting themselves.

Everyone knew that Sharpeville was the beginning of the end. That this one obscene atrocity would lead to a race war. That the huge black majority would rise and slaughter whites in their beds. The only thing we didn't know was when this would happen.

Right after Sharpeville, South Africa's white rulers panicked, banned the two biggest anti-apartheid groups, the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan African Congress. Each of them in turn announced the end of passive resistance to the fascist government, and picked up the gun.

A Xhosa lawyer named Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela headed the ANC's military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

Sharpeville was so important, so significant, in the struggle for freedom that 36 years later President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela signed a new South African Constitution into law there.

And March 21, the day of Sharpeville, is still commemorated as Human Rights Day in South Africa.

Bearing Witness -- I was a young reporter on the Sunday Express in Johannesburg when Sharpeville exploded. Along with a white photographer, I was assigned to cover the mass funeral to be held for most of the dead.

The government, of course, wanted no public record of the funeral. No journalists. So police cordoned off the entire area with barbed wire, armoured cars and armed officers stationed every few yards.

South African police were not only notoriously corrupt and brutal, they were also poorly trained and badly led by white officers. So the photographer and I were able to use my ANC contacts to help us slip through police lines.

The open graves cut out of the red clay stretched as far as the eye could see. Next to each grave a coffin. And surrounding us, an enormous crowed of black mourners, weeping, singing hymns, chanting black power slogans.

We were the only whites in this very black, very angry world.

The mourners had every reason to turn on us. Take revenge for the sheer, bloody, racist brutality of Sharpeville. They could have beaten us. Killed us. No-one would ever have known who slashed with the panga or smashed with the knobkerrie.

Instead, they welcomed us as guests with a generosity, a kindness, that was very African. And our story about the Sharpeville funeral helped -- in its own very small way -- to bring down the evil that was apartheid.

The Past Could Be Prologue -- What happened at Marikana last week was the worst South African police violence since Sharpeville. And just as predictable.

Sixteen years after apartheid, 16 years after Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela took power in a new, multiracial South Africa, some things have hardly changed.

Real unemployment still runs somewhere around 50 per cent. Millions of people still live in slums without electricity and running water. Education for blacks is still lousy. Violence is endemic. Black corruption has joined white corruption to dance the same old familiar danse macabre.

Can Marikana be the child of Sharpeville? The President of the South African Council of Churches, Bishop Jo Seoka, talks sadly of greedy politicians and employers while warning:

"The workers have told me this is just the beginning of things to come." And there could be "conflict, with the poor rising up against the rich."

I give the last word to Jay Naidoo. He is the former South African Minister of Communications, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and present chair of GAIN a foundation fighting world malnutrition.

"There is growing ferment in our land. The people in our townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered the fruits that they see a tiny elite enjoying. Our leaders across the spectrum are not talking to our people, they are not working with them systematically to solve their problems, in providing the hope that one day, even in their children's lives, things will be better.

"All they see is the obscenity of shocking wealth and the chasm of inequality growing."

Cry the beloved country, indeed.

CORRECTION: The original article stated that the Sharpeville police massacre was in 1994. It occurred in 1960.