Marikana widows carry candles at an event commemorating the killing of 34 Lonmin mine workers. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Marikana widows carry candles at an event commemorating the killing of 34 Lonmin mine workers in August. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s no-show at Marikana on Wednesday was a missed opportunity — and a demonstration of how conflation of the party and the government can go wrong.

The visit, during which he was expected to hand over houses to members of the community, was announced by the African National Congress (ANC) via a media statement on Monday.

But Mr Zuma failed to arrive after concerns emerged over his security.

A statement from the Presidency said Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu would hand over the houses on his behalf. The ANC then referred queries on the reasons for the no-show to the Presidency, even though it was the party that initially announced the handover.

All in all, it was a badly managed public relations exercise, but at the centre of it is an area left scarred by the massacre in 2012 in which 34 mine workers were killed by the police. This was preceded by labour unrest in which 10 people were killed. Despite the work of the Farlam commission of inquiry, the memory of the tragedy lingers and a visit by Mr Zuma would have presented a perfect opportunity for dialogue with the community.

A day earlier, ANC leaders visited the Letlhabile township outside Brits, while others were in Tlokwe.

Last year, Letlhabile was rocked by protests over water, while Tlokwe got entangled in internal ANC rivalry that culminated in the setting aside of by-election results by the Constitutional Court late last year.

The mismanagement of a visit by the party president to a sensitive area such as Marikana was odd. The reaction to ANC leaders in Letlhabile was instructive, for instance.

While the community faces serious challenges in terms of delivery, they responded well to the party leadership’s message, even though it did not touch on issues of delivery.

There seemed to be a sense of inclusion and hope, and despite the 38°C heat, the party was celebrated rather than received with hostility.

The visit was instructive in that it showed how the party continues to command the support of a majority of South Africans, even those who protest against it.

It is strange, then, that a handful of disgruntled Marikana residents could be considered a large enough security threat to the president that he felt he had to withdraw from the event.

It marks a stark shift for a leader of the ANC, a party that in the past seldom shied away from so-called "no-go areas".

In Gauteng, residents — who saw red when then premier Nomvula Mokonyane described their votes as "dirty" — responded well when the party and alliance in the province returned to talk to them, resulting in the party still receiving the majority of the vote in the 2014 polls.

A similar scenario has been playing out in Thembelihle, where protests were regular and furious, but have since abated due to consistent dialogue with the community.

There are countless examples — even one-time finance minister Des van Rooyen returned to the community in which his home was burned down for prayer after his fleeting appointment.

It is strange then that the government or the ANC, or both, did not use the opportunity this week to begin talking to the people of Marikana and its surrounding areas.

It could have been a way to begin the healing process and set aside the hostility towards the party that has fermented in the aftermath of August 2012. Stranger still that the nonappearance is in an election year.

In the absence of a cogent explanation — there has been nothing official — we are left to speculate that there is an indifference about the views and feelings of the Marikana community that can only serve to isolate its residents further.

• Marrian is political editor