Telling the real story behind the shocking killings on the koppie of Lonmin's Marikana mine was never going to be easy, writes Kwanele Sosibo.
In the media, it was a time for assumptions. A radio news report on the morning of August 14 said about 500 heavily armed miners, believed to be Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) members, were convening close to a mountain and refusing to speak to journalists.
At a press conference at Lonmin’s offices later that day, Barnard Mokwena, the company’s vice-president of human capital and external affairs, told journalists that the death toll stood at nine and “someone must account for the nine lives before we talk to them [the strikers] or we’ll be legitimising criminal activity”.
Speaking after Lonmin management, National Union of Mine-workers (NUM) general secretary Frans Baleni said Minister of Safety and Security Nathi Mthethwa had reassured him serious steps would be taken. He added that Lonmin had decided to offer a raise of up to R750 a month for different categories of drillers. “These people,” he said, referring to Amcu, “went to mobilise [rock drill operators] and said we’ll get you R12 500.”
For the unions, the blame game was in full swing. Amcu held a separate press conference on the East Rand in which they blamed the violence on sinister forces emerging from the NUM’s “reclaim Lonmin” campaign.
Leaving Lonmin’s offices for the Nkanini informal settlement, we parked our cars on its southwestern edge and carefully inched towards the koppie. It was just after 1pm and the crowd, readying for an address by its leaders, had swelled to thousands.
Palpable trepidation among journalists
The violent strike had been going on for five days by the time we arrived on August 14. The body count was climbing. It was not only workers who were falling – two security guards had been set alight on Sunday and two police officers had been killed on Monday. There was palpable trepidation in the eyes of every journalist as we moved closer to the crowd.
We got word that we should remove caps and jewellery, switch off our phones and keep our female colleagues away. The reason for this was not openly disclosed, but the empty PVC tubs and a portable bath made it obvious that a ritual of some kind was in progress. We made contact with the seemingly autonomous leadership, who allowed their side of the story to be told, but only through handpicked commentators.
The tension and volatility of being surrounded by a sprawling mass of discontent was numbing on one level, but the tinny crackle of voices fed through the loud-hailer that workers used to address each other rendered the atmosphere electric and urgent.
Watching how tightly the miners stage-managed what was in effect a press conference was an insightful lesson in how consensus is maintained in strikes. Of the five selected speakers, three isiXhosa-speaking men spoke without interruption.
One, who introduced himself as Tholakele Bhele, said: “We are all Lonmin employees. No union is representing us.” When asked how the workers knew that it was the NUM that had shot at them the previous Saturday, Bhele faltered for a second and had to be coached by one of his colleagues.
Impromptu press conference
A second man, who gave his name as Mandla Thonjeni, told us: “We retaliated, but they drew first blood.” It was a reference to gunfire said to have come from the NUM office on August 11.
The last, a Shangaan-speaker, was cut off when he made the mistake of claiming that “rock drill operators” instead of “all mine workers” wanted R12 500. A short, bald-headed man who looked to be in his 20s snatched the loudspeaker from the older man and with that our impromptu press conference was all but over.
Looking back, being unable to afford an education for their children was the resonant cry of all we spoke to. But at that moment, blinded by fear for my own safety, all I could see was angry and distrustful faces.
At about 2pm that day, as we retreated from the koppie, a 50-strong convoy of armoured and “soft” police vehicles made its way from the joint operations centre near Lonmin’s offices towards Wonderkop. Half the vehicles turned east into the hostel grounds and the other half snaked into the adjacent informal settlement coming out of its western edge, near the koppie where the miners had gathered. It was a grand display of manpower.
But later that day the prostrate body of Isaiah Twala, an NUM shop steward, was found near the same koppie; a deep, machete-inflicted wound ran down the side of his face.
On Wednesday journalists looked on as NUM president Senzeni Zokwana was booed by workers who would later warmly receive Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa, electing him as their sole emissary to Lonmin management.
Police still had options
Thursday, on the day of the massacre, I was not at Marikana, despite the talk of “D-day” and “moving in” from police spokesperson Dennis Adriao. Besides being on deadline, I simply did not believe that a massacre would transpire. Police still had various options, I thought, such as sealing off the empty koppie at night and conducting a raid if they were after weapons.
I watched the shootings of the miners unfold on my office television with a sense of bewilderment and embarrassment. I phoned a panicked Xolani Nzuza, the man who had snatched the loudspeaker from his colleague two days earlier. He said he had managed to flee into the informal settlement and change clothes, but said little else coherent in his panicked state.
It was the following day at Nkanini when I first began to hear anecdotes of how miners were finished off by police officers on foot and in Nyalas as they fled the main koppie. We published these accounts in an online article the following Monday.
On August 22, Lybon Mabasa, president of the Socialist Party of Azania, told the Mail & Guardian that workers pointed out the remnants of a crushed skull to him.
Greg Marinovich’s piece, which was published in the Daily Maverick and in the M&G that same week, told the full horror of the executions that took place in the smaller koppies to the west of the miners’ gathering place. His work was the mark of a veteran – a break from the officialdom that swamped the initial narrative.
Opportunists seize the moment
By that time, Marikana was abuzz with a confluence of agendas. The clergy, Julius Malema and the fractured left – all seeking a reinvigorating cause – descended on the town like famished vultures on to a corpse.
The Democratic Socialist Movement, having long held Rustenburg as the “centre of gravity” for a mounting “workers rebellion” (as executive member Mametlwe Sebei told the M&G), co-ordinated an independent joint strike committee that shook the platinum and gold sectors with a series of rolling strikes that refuse to die down completely.
At a joint strike co-ordinating committee meeting in Marikana on October 13, the socialist movement revealed that its intention was to organise a Workers and Socialist Party.
Having sat in at most of the Marikana commission of inquiry sessions since its start on October 1, I know it has a useful mandate to fulfil, but it is no conduit to grasping the dynamics fully of the platinum belt. In fact, many role players shunned the media because of the commission, making balanced reporting on the strike wave difficult. The didacticism of the left and the defensive propaganda of an NUM caught napping were also of little value.
Although still in its early stages, the commission has already helped to clarify the epochal puzzle that is the Lonmin strike. For example, we now know the NUM’s Zokwana was rejected by his own members; according to evidence before the commission, 52% of the workers gathered at the koppie were NUM members and only 35% belonged to Amcu. The rest were not unionised.
Miners shot in a state of panic
We have also heard there is no evidence of deaths from the NUM office shootings on August 11, although the workers still argue differently. We now know that shooting on August 16 at the main koppie began 30 seconds after the firing of the last tear-gas canister and immediately after a water cannon was sprayed, showing that miners were shot in a state of panic.
Even with the police’s dogged determination to conceal the facts, information continues to emerge, sometimes inadvertently, from the police themselves. In footage captured by a helicopter at the time of the massacre, a Colonel Solomon Vermaak can be heard saying: “No need to shoot while they are running unless they are targeting you,” suggesting that police were running amok, contravening standing orders.
Although an Al Jazeera news camera captured at least one miner firing at police officers with a pistol, we have since learned that the police planted several weapons on miners as they tampered with the crime scene.
And the journalists reliving the massacre on a daily basis? They often hide behind bravado and the pressure of deadlines. If self-medication does not get them first, Marikana will make them better journalists – more caring, more astute and less fearful.
Kwanele Sosibo is a staff reporter for the Mail & Guardian