THE events that have unfolded in what has popularly become known as the "Marikana massacre" have left the wider South African public, and indeed the global public, shocked, outraged and looking for answers. At the moment the media are permeated with experts, politicians and others scrambling to provide some kind of explanation for what has occurred.
It is almost as if the Marikana incident is the first of its kind in South Africa. Yet historically there have been various examples of similar events, with the same role players and the same rituals playing themselves out over and over.
We can think of Sharpeville, the Soweto riots, even the service delivery protests that have become commonplace and the violent public service strike of 2010, to name a few. What sense can we make of these recurring incidences of violent protests and strikes?
On the surface it would appear that strike and protest violence is the consequence of the irrational and chaotic actions of the strikers. However, below the surface there is an inherent rationality underpinning the use of violence.
Violence in strikes and protests is not unrelated to a specific context. Violence is, in fact, ritualistic, an endemic facet of what can be called "strike or protest culture" in South Africa.
Strikes and protests in the South African context can be referred to as having a culture of their own because they conform to a particular expected way of "doing" strikes and protests that often includes the use of violence. Violence seems to be especially significant because it is imbued with symbolic value.
The influence of the apartheid past, or more specifically the resistance culture of the past, has been inherited by what could be described as the present generation of "struggle heroes", often embodied by the strikers or protesters. For them, violence is more than simple destruction, intimidation or harming others.
It symbolises a justifiable expression of dissatisfaction towards those in power. This justification of violence is ironically encouraged by the symbolic commemoration of events such as the Sharpeville massacre and the 1976 Soweto riots.
The violence of protesters during those events was, and is, regarded as justified in their struggle against an illegitimate regime. Those who committed acts of violence similar to what is seen today are regarded as heroes of the liberation struggle.
For these reasons, contemporary strikers and protesters use the same kind of violence as an expression of dissatisfaction. Violence is part of an inherent value system that has been inherited from the past.
The continued commemoration of historically significant events, whether rightly or wrongly, reinforces the role of violence in resistance culture.
Finally, the representation of the police adds a further dynamic to this context. As was the case in the past, where the media portrayed the police as the brutal enforcers of the apartheid state, the same images of the police recur again and again during media reports of clashes between strikers and the police.
The police have the most difficult task of developing alternative approaches to dealing with strike and protest violence. The Marikana saga, as well as the Andries Tatane death, have become yet more examples of symbolic events that represent the police as "the enemy", and it remains to be seen to what extent the police will ever be able to escape this image.
The problem that the ANC government faces is that the very tactics that ANC struggle heroes used in the past to destabilise and undermine an unjust regime is now being used against it.
It created a resistance culture of violent strikes and protests, and will therefore find it increasingly difficult to contain it, especially since in the eyes of many it itself has now become something of an illegitimate regime.
TS Petrus, senior lecturer: anthropology, NMMU