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15 Aug 2022

Striking Pain: Memory, trauma and restitution a decade after the Marikana massacre

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

The afternoon of 16 August 2022 marks a decade since the Marikana massacre of 2012. On this fateful day, 34 mine workers involved in a wildcat strike were shot and killed by police at Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, Rustenburg, in the North West province. Against this backdrop, Ben Roberts, Steven Gordon, Jarè Struwig and Samela Mtyingizane explore levels of public awareness of the events of Marikana and examine some of the underlying factors.

To explore the patterns of collective memory in the country after nearly three decades of democracy, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) designed and fielded a module of questions in the recently completed annual round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS, 2021). Consisting of 2,996 respondents older than 15, the survey suggests that basic public awareness of the Marikana massacre – like other key historical events – is lower than anticipated.

How aware are we of the Marikana massacre?

The SASAS 2021 collective memory module included an item on awareness of the Marikana massacre. Specifically, survey respondents were asked ‘how familiar are you with the following historical events? Marikana massacre 2012’. In response, 17% indicated that they were unaware of this historical event, while a further 41% said they had heard of it but knew very little about it (Fig 1). Only 40% reported knowing enough about Marikana to be able to explain it to a friend.

This suggests that awareness and knowledge of the Marikana massacre remains relatively low among the South African public.

This relatively circumscribed knowledge of a key recent event in South African history is likely to surprise many. To gain a sense of this finding in relative perspective, in Figure 2 we compare the findings on knowledge of the Marikana massacre to the FeesMustFall Movement (2015/16), the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and the Sharpeville massacre (1960). The results show that awareness of the Marikana massacre was very similar in character to the FeesMustFall Movement, with 16% having heard of the latter, 41% displaying limited knowledge, and 40% no awareness. Familiarity of the 1976 Soweto youth uprising was marginally lower, and significantly lower in the case of the Sharpeville massacre. In all four instances, the share who were confident they would be able to describe the historical events to someone else ranged only between 26% and 40%. This suggests that awareness is likely to be event-specific, influenced by the relative recency of the events, and that the level of knowledge remains generally quite shallow. These findings confirm those from the 2021 round of surveying.

Skewed memory

Appreciable inequalities in the level of awareness of the Marikana massacre underlie this national picture (Table 1). Beginning with demographic attributes, women were slightly less knowledgeable than men. Age differences were non-linear in character, with low knowledge among youth (especially 16–19-year-olds), rising to a high among those aged 35–49, and declining again among older age groups (especially those 65+ years).

Table 1: Awareness of Marikana massacre by gender, age, education and geographic location and informational access (row percentages)

Have not heard of itHeard of it, but know little about itKnow enough to describe it to a friend(Refused)Total
South African average1741402100
Age group 
Education level 
Primary / no formal schooling2449243100
Incomplete secondary2141361100
Matric or equivalent1439433100
Geographic location 
Urban metropolitan area1538444100
Urban non-metropolitan1743391100
Informational access     
Television in home1541422100
No television2543275100
Internet access1538452100
No internet access2247282100
Source: HSRC South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), Round 18 (2021)

A strong class gradient informs knowledge of the Marikana massacre with rural and, particularly, less educated adults displaying significantly lower awareness of the Sharpeville massacre. Informational access also has a bearing, with those with a television at home or internet access displaying higher knowledge levels than those without.

Looking across all these attributes, more than a fifth of youth (16–19 years) and students, those with less than a matric-level education, Coloured and Indians, rural residents, and those living in North West, Northern Cape, Free State and Eastern Cape provinces report not having heard of the Marikana massacre. The most surprising finding here is the relatively low awareness among those in North West province – this raises the question of whether this may partly reflect an attempt to actively forget or suppress traumatic memories associated with the August 2012 events in Marikana. An alternative explanation is that this historic event is not represented enough in media accessible to this community.

A desire to remember?

The survey found that individual beliefs about the past and its relevance for the present also had a strong influence on awareness of the Marikana massacre (Figure 3).

Firstly, the extent to which people express interest in ‘the history and cultures of South Africa’ was found to be a significant factor. Those who were very interested in local history and culture were nearly four times more likely to be able to describe the Marikana massacre than those not at all interested (55% compared to 14%).

The survey found that individual beliefs about the past and its relevance for the present also had a strong influence on awareness of the Marikana massacre (Figure 3).

A similar pattern was found based on the degree to which South Africans recognised the importance of the past for the present. Those that believed that historical events were very important for people living in South Africa today were two-and-a-half times more likely to confidently explain the events of Marikana relative to those believing that such events are unimportant (55% versus 22%).

Finally, those supporting the view that ‘we should forget the past, move on and stop talking about apartheid’ were less knowledgeable of the Marikana massacre (37% able to explain event) than those challenging this viewpoint (52%). Given the importance of such beliefs, it is encouraging that many South Africans recognise the importance of the past for the present. Overall, 71% were interested in South African history and culture (38% very, 33% somewhat), while 78% answered that historical events such as the Marikana massacre were very or somewhat important for people today (47% very, 32% somewhat). More ambiguously, 45% agreed that we should forget the past and move on, while 31% disagreed and 24% were neutral or uncertain.

Never, never and never again: Commemoration, accountability and justice

The tenth anniversary of the Marikana massacre raises many lingering and uncomfortable questions. These include issues of accountability and culpability for the killings, the nature of corporate power and state violence in democratic South Africa, and ultimately of social justice, restitution and healing. It also casts focus on the living conditions of mineworkers and mining communities, the plight and insurgency of vulnerable and marginalised citizens more generally, and on the policy, programmatic and labour market responses to this social need. It invokes questions about the narrative representations and meanings of Marikana, the kind of society we want, and the role of ubuntu in promoting an ethic of compassion, dignity, humaneness and restorative justice.

How do we ensure that we commemorate and address the trauma and victimisation of the Marikana massacre, in the face of survey evidence of limited awareness of the event? Putting in place active processes to preserve the memory and lessons of Marikana for present and future generations will require active consultation and debate.

A failure to remember and adopt reparative measures will, as William Gumede has argued, pose the societal risk of ‘many more Marikanas’. As former public protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela stated in a 2020 Marikana memorial lecture, “Marikana happened because we forgot to remember. We forgot to remember our ugly, unjust past and the legacy it left us … We forgot to heal and we focused on renewal. A renewal without a foundation can’t work.”

Dr Ben Roberts is Acting Strategic Lead, Research Director and SASAS Coordinator in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division at the HSRC. Dr Steven Gordon is a Senior Research Specialist, Jarè Struwig a Chief Research Manager, and Samela Mtyingizane a doctoral researcher in the DCES research division of the HSRC.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)