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Marikana: Why bishop went to the mountain

Kwanele Sosibo

Like his initial interaction with the miners of Marikana, Bishop Johannes Seoka left the Marikana commission of inquiry as quickly as he appeared.

Commission chairperson Judge Ian Farlam and ­Anglican Bishop ­Johannes Seoka. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Perhaps the first witness intent to reveal more than he concealed after a series of amnesiac and emotionally bland police witnesses, he signalled the first real change of pace at the commission.

Seoka, despite being the chairperson of the Bench Marks Foundation, which, in the week of the Marikana shootings, released a damning report on the socioeconomic impact of mining companies plying their trade in the platinum belt, said he was moved to visit Marikana only after a journalist asked him for his thoughts on the unfolding situation.

Interpreting this to mean he should be paying closer attention to areas falling within his diocese, Seoka, also the president of the South African Council of Churches, called the council's general secretary, Mautji Pataki, and was at Marikana by noon on August 16.  

Heading straight to the main koppie, Seoka approached the miners and asked what he could do to help. The response was predictable: bring us umqashi (the employer), which, as the miners had indicated, meant ailing Lonmin chief executive Ian Farmer.

According to his estimation, Seoka spent about 30 minutes with the workers, showing them a driver's licence and exchanging numbers in a trust-building exercise.  

'Security is not negotiable'
At the mine's head office, the bishop met executive vice-president of human capital and external affairs Barnard Mokwena, Lonmin's executive manager of external affairs Abey Kgotl and employee relations senior manager Jomo Kwadi.

He said the trio refused to meet the workers, whom they labelled murderers, although at some point Mokwena indicated that there was a possibility they could – until they escorted him to the provincial police commissioner, Lieutenant General Zukiswa Mbombo. She said Seoka could negotiate whatever he wanted with management "but security is not negotiable".

Seoka told the commission that he believed that it was during this time that the instruction to move in on the miners was given "as the area suddenly became busy" and "helicopters took off in a circling way".

While driving back Seoka received a haunting phone call, with the caller asking: "Where are you, bishop? We are being killed by the police."

Although Seoka presented himself as a seasoned peacemaker and Lonmin representative Schalk Burger spent much of the cross-examination trying to make him appear to be a naive and ill-prepared interferer, both views are immaterial when considering his character as a witness.

More interesting is his relationship with the foundation and how that might have driven his approach in Marikana and the testimony he presented.

Referring to Bench Marks's Living in the Platinum Mine Fields report, released on August 14, Seoka stated that "nothing was further from the truth" than the mining companies' assertion that they were "socially responsible, respectful of communities and workers and contributing to host-community development".

Political relevance
He also said the government, represented by the police, chose to "open fire on its own people in order to protect a corporation".  

It is inconceivable that Seoka, given the scale and timing of the report, was not intimately aware of the unfolding situation at Marikana. What then was the real reason for the timing of his involvement?

Could it have been an attempt to increase the political relevance of the council of churches, an organisation fast descending into history's abyss following the cold shoulder given to it by the Zuma administration?

Or was it case of killing three birds with one stone – regaining the council's clout, furthering Bench Marks's agenda and diverting attention from the problems in his diocese, where it is said he is estranged from his deacons.

As a witness, Seoka was brazen about showing his hand with an ill-timed declaration that the police could not be trusted and arguing that the belief that umuthi made people invincible presented black people as stupid.

Although Seoka may be an important witness and able to withstand Burger's cross-examination, the danger may come from his own temperament. The weight of his testimony can only benefit from a more even-tempered approach.

He returns to the witness stand next week.


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