It wasn't only the killing of 34 miners by South African police in August that shocked the world, but also the fact that the victims' co-workers have been charged with their murder, under a draconian 'common purpose' law, first used during white minority rule. Following their arrest, there have been hundreds of complaints of police assault and abuse by the detainees. What shook everyone, especially the South Africans, was the idea that in this brave new democracy, with its high ideals and Bill of Rights, agents of the state should rely on the brutal methods and repressive legislation of the apartheid era.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been so surprising, certainly not to anyone who has read Animal Farm, George Orwell's celebrated allegory on revolutions. As most school-children know, it's the story of some farmyard animals who overthrow their tyrannical human farmer, only to discover that their leaders, the pigs, have adopted his clothes, moved into his house, and are walking around on two legs, carrying whips, protected by ferocious dogs. Not only have the new leaders assumed the lifestyle of their former master, they have also abandoned their revolutionary ideals: their founding principle that all animals are equal, has become the cynical dictum all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Orwell wasn't the first to note the outcome of power-shifts in civilization. Almost 500 years ago, the canny Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, wrote that, when men take up arms to change their ruler, expecting their situation to improve, they always find that it has worsened. 'A prince is always compelled to injure those who have made him the new ruler,' he wrote, 'subjecting them to the troops, and imposing the endless other hardships which his new conquest entails.' Rock musician Pete Townsend, put it more succinctly: 'Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss,' he wrote.
The heady rhetoric of the ending of apartheid, the uplifting messianic epic of Nelson Mandela, tended to mask what was really going on in South Africa. While most people saw it as a handover of power from a minority to a majority, what actually happened was a handover from one minority to another - a change of ruling elites. A few black South Africans have grown richer over the past few years: some have grown fabulously rich. Many will recall the legendary 'bling and debauchery' birthday party of businessman Kenny Kunene, costing more than USD 100,000, at which sushi was served on the thighs and stomachs of half-naked young ladies. The Dom Perignon, Chivas Regal, limousines, and scantily clad models, featured on that occasion, though, are very far from the lives of most black South Africans, who, under the new 'majority' regime, have remained in poverty.
Hence the miners' strike that led to the trouble at the Marikana platinum mine - an institution, incidentally, still owned by Lonrho, the London-based corporation founded in colonial times, that former British prime-minister, Edward Heath, once described as 'the unacceptable face of capitalism'. As Adam Smith told us long ago, the governments of nation-states exist, not for the common good, but to further commerce, and protect it against the justified claims of outraged citizens. Whatever the ethnicity, religion or political creed of the political elite, that will remain true while people are subject to this system.
A metaphor we use in the deep ecology movement is that civilization is a fat man surrounded by guards, sitting on a box with all the food in it. Since no-one can get to the food without going to the man on the box, he has the power of life and death over his dependents. If the people get angry enough, they can knock the man off the box, but all that happens then is that another man will sit on it. Even if he starts out with good intentions, even if one fat man may be slightly more benevolent than another, he is still sitting on the box, and the others are still dependents.
This isn't a problem peculiar to South Africa, of course. Any revolutionary front seeking to replace those already in power will inevitably fall into the same pattern as their predecessors. The way out of the cycle is not to knock the man off the box, but to get rid of the box itself. Industrial civilization is not the only way to live: there have been, and are today, societies in which human beings have direct access to food, and whose members live sustainable lives, independent of any ruling elite. That is real freedom. Until the South African government remembers that there can be no justice without equality, incidents like the Marikana massacre will continue.
Michael Asher is an author & explorer living in Lang'ata. He is a member of the deep ecology movement.