I’ve been puzzled and not a little disturbed by the lack of empathy on South African social media with the horrific events at Marikana, where 34 protesting miners were killed by police on August 16th. Yes, someone has posted a few links here, a few comments there, but given the magnitude of this event, and what it means for the country I would have expected a wave of slogans, a mass of altered profile pictures and so forth expressing collective grief and outrage. Not so. With few exceptions (this is one), I think there was more activity in solidarity with Pussy Riot than with the Lonmin miners. There was more of a social media flurry over claims that retail chain Woolworths refuses to hire white staff. In fact a recent Google search analysis (definitely reflecting how white social media are) on South African advertising site Marklives had the top three searches from South Africa as: the death of actor Michael Clarke Duncan (he did play very large, monosyllabic black men who don’t say much), followed by the fake racism at Woolworths and then the weather.

A friend suggests that the relative silence on Marikana is because there is a lot of confusion on who the good guys and bad guys are. Really? Yes, it seems protesters had killed two policemen and two security guards in the days leading up to the massacre (though the context is murky, and the death toll prior to August 16th included three protesters and two other men).  Yes, some video footage shows the miners aggressively confronting the police. Nevertheless, a police response that results in 34 deaths and many more injuries is hugely disproportionate. At the very least, it indicates dismal police training and preparedness for dealing with such situations.

But then came carefully researched reports (here and here) by South African journalist Greg Marinovich, positing that even though some miners had died in the confrontation with police, police had subsequently hunted down and killed at least 14 men in cold blood. Marinovich’s own investigation and observation was backed up by research conducted by University of Johannesburg sociologists Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope and Peter Alexander. There were other reports that some of the miners had been shot in the back — while fleeing. If this was not enough, police arrested 259 of the miners and charged them, not with the death of the two policemen, but with the murder of their own protesting colleagues. An outrage and an absurdity as pointed out by University of Cape Town constitutional law professor and prolific blogger Pierre de Vos. (The charges were subsequently withdrawn.)

Subsequent interviews by other media outlets seem to corroborate Marinovich’s allegations.

And yet despite all this, despite many articles pointing out the terrible conditions under which the miners work, and the gaping inequalities and disparities behind their protest, there seems to be inertia — huge reluctance among the public to fault the police and express any kind of outrage — or even sympathy for the miners. First came denial: an article in The Star that appeared shortly after Marinovich’s first article appeared was headlined “Journalist’s Account of Shooting Questioned”. The entire article was based on the comments of a single security analyst who rejected Marinovich’s allegations simply because he couldn’t bring himself to believe the police would behave in such a manner. Another article by Philip de Wet (who previously blogged at The Daily Maverick where Marinovich’s articles were published) asserted that it is simply impossible to ever know what really happened. Which is, as Marinovich has pointed out (in a must read interview), just ‘bullshit’.

So what’s going on? Partly, it’s to do with people’s tendency to believe and react to images over text. The majority of readers commenting on these stories insist on trusting television news footage of the moment over painstaking forensic investigation. But it also has to do with the way most media have covered and continue to cover the strike. This was pointed out by academic Julie Reid, also in the Daily Maverick. Her piece also argues that the day-to-day event-based coverage has also helped obscure a very worrying much larger trend of police violence against citizens. Beyond a lack of investigation and intelligent mining of the data, I have not come across any article that has attempted to get into the lives of the miners, show them to us as individuals, and help us genuinely understand their daily struggles. Much (if not everything) of what has been written lately glosses over miners’ past, dreams, desires, frustrations, etc. Short: their lives. The failure to give attention to those details made it impossible to imagine what it would mean to live a miner’s life, which has allowed the debate to be sucked into a very ordinary South African debate — a spiral of numbers, acronyms, figures, maps and politicking that works as a cover to say: we haven’t got a clue. This opinion piece in City Press (a major Sunday newspaper) by novelist and former university administrator Njabulo Ndebele is one of the few texts out there that at least hints at some sort of identification/empathy with the miners. (This weekend, City Press, also finally published short profiles of all the victims of the police massacre at Marikana — on the website you can read it in five parts: here, here, here, here and here — basic piece of journalism we urged on our Facebook page right after the massacre just happened.)

There have been few reports putting hard questions to the mine owners.

Some newspapers have published the dubious claims of analysts (like the discredited Mike Schussler) that the Marikana miners — who live in a squatter camp next to the mine — are paid too much anyway.

But it’s about more than just the media.

The ANC leadership and its allies in the trade union movement and the Communist Party seem at a loss how to respond, either characterizing the miners as dupes of party rivals of President Jacob Zuma (Julius Malema slots into that role) or as irrational (an interpretation the media dutifully reports). The Democratic Alliance, the second largest political party in parliament, is hardly on the side of the black poor; in the first statement by a DA politician right after the massacre, the party’s parliamentary leader, Lindy Mazibuko (the most senior black leader in the otherwise white DA) said that the massacre presented an opportunity for the ANC to finally deal with the unions. (This is the kind of sentiment which also underpins coverage and editorial comment in the country’s “leading” broadsheet, Business Day).

Many South Africans don’t seem to care at all whether or not these allegations against the police are true. They express sentiments similar to those aired by the new police commissioner, Riyah Phiyega, that the police should not be sorry for the 34 deaths, as “the safety of the public is non-negotiable”. Apparently working class miners, striking for a decent wage and safe working conditions don’t count as ‘the public’. The trouble is, if we are to believe Julie Reid’s well-substantiated argument that police violence is widespread and increasing, this definition of ‘the public’ seems to be getting ever narrower. Will we take notice only when we find ourselves suddenly outside the circle?

* Sean Jacobs and Tom Devriendt contributed to this post.