Naming a Massacre

Marikana: A People’s History

Julian Brown

On 16 August 2012, members of the South African Police killed 34 striking miners and injured several hundred more at a platinum mine in Marikana, in South Africa’s North-West Province. 

In the immediate aftermath of these deaths, the country’s President adopted a careful phrase to describe what had happened, saying only that it was a “tragic event”. His studied neutrality was carried on into the official title of the Commission of Inquiry set up shortly afterwards to investigate “the tragic incident at or near the area commonly known as the Marikana mine…” 

Others, however, were quick to assign different labels to it. Both the Minister of Police and the National Commissioner of the Police Services insisted that it had been a “clash” provoked by “armed and hardcore criminals who murder police”, and that the police had acted in “self-defense”. They sought to characterise the deaths as somehow both accidental and inevitable – the product of the miners’ recklessness and bloodthirstiness, rather than the police’s actions. 

In the first days of the Commission of Inquiry, the legal representative of the police reiterated this characterisation. He paused in his opening address to condemn “the speed with which commentators have characterised and labelled as a massacre the actions that circumstances imposed on individual police officers faced with danger to their lives and who fired many shots in the reasonable belief that this was an answer to the imminent danger they were in…” 

He explained that the word ‘massacre’ “brought with it the connotations, completely unfounded… of the events at Marikana as a wilful, brutal campaign on the part of the South African Police Service.” This characterisation, he said, should be rejected outright in favour of one founded on the idea that “some of the protestors intended [to cause] a blood bath.” 

A decade later, the approach of the police to the deaths at Marikana has been comprehensively debunked. As my book, Marikana: A People’s History demonstrates, there can be no question that it was a massacre, that the police were at the very least prepared for the possibility of murdering scores of striking miners, and that not one policeman faced any real danger to his life on the day itself. There is no evidence to suggest that any of the miners sought to provoke a “blood bath” – while there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that many of them were in fact hunted down and killed by the police while they were either sheltering or trying to surrender. 

But the dispute over how to characterise the event – and, in particular, over the consequences of characterising it as a ‘massacre’ – remains important, and can be applied to a far wider context. 

One way of thinking about this is to consider the recent ways in which the term has been used. 

In the past year, there have been mass deaths in Sudan, in Mali, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, incidents in which dozens to hundreds of people were killed in one brief period, often at one physical site. These deaths are often of civilians, and are often caused by members of the state police, the army, or para-military groups.  They have been regularly characterised as massacres. They are defined by the disproportion between the deadliness of state violence and the ineffectiveness of popular resistance; they are explained as part of a broader wave of repressive politics and conflict on the African continent and in these territories in particular.  

But there have also been mass deaths in the United State of America, in Israel, and in Palestine. Mass shootings in the USA are very rarely described as ‘massacres’, but are rather treated as individual tragedies that occur outside of the political realm. It hardly need saying that the characterisation of the mass deaths in the conflict that is still occurring in Gaza remains enormously controversial, with many seeking to apply the label of massacre only to the deaths of Israel citizens at the hands of militants associated with Hamas on 7 October 2023 – and rejecting the use of the term for the deaths as a result of mass bombing in Gaza ever since. 

If there is anything that the massacre at Marikana makes clear, it is that to name a ‘massacre’ is to do more than to count the numbers of the dead. It is – as the representatives of the police at the Commission knew – to make a historical and political judgment about the causes of their deaths. It is to emphasise the disproportionate resources of violence possessed by those using them, and it is to emphasise the relative weakness of those who die resisting the use of that power.  

The deaths of the miners at Marikana – and of many others in the world – are indeed tragic, as the South African President said. But to acknowledge this should not be the end of analysis. It can only be the beginning. The next step must be to make a claim about the context and causes of their deaths – a claim that obscured by the apparently neutral and respectful language of ‘tragedy’, and highlighted by the choice to identify these deaths as having been ‘massacres’. 


9781847013736, paperback,
February 2024
James Currey
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JULIAN BROWN is Associate Professor of Political Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. He is author of The Road to Soweto: Resistance and the Uprising of 16 June 1976 (2016) and Marikana: A People’s History (2022). He holds a Senior Visiting Research Fellowship at the Max Planck Center, Sciences Po, Paris