/ 20 August 2012

Deep Read: In the eye of the Lonmin storm

Striking Lonmin mineworkers at the Marikana protest.
Striking Lonmin mineworkers at the Marikana protest.

Heading towards a group of men standing transfixed, not far from where Thursday's massacre took place, it doesn't take long to find the young, Xhosa-speaking mouthpiece of the Lonmin's striking workers.

He is tense, periodically looking up to stare at the helicopter hovering up above. Around him, a scattered group of mostly unarmed men hang around, eavesdropping. The young man – who has identified himself only as "Nzuza" – holds court, recounting his version of the previous day's killings as a crowd gathers around him.

"I was at the top of the hill when the barbed wire was laid," he says.

"Someone went to the hippo [police nyala] to ask the police to open a way out of the barbed wire. A white man said 'come on, shoot' and then two hippos moved in to obstruct another exit route. I was watching from the top when people were being shot. People in helicopters were also shooting.

"I ran down the hill and someone had lit a fire. People were being chased by hippos so I ran in the direction of Nkanini [the nearby informal settlement]."

Alarmed, Nzuza says he ran to the home of the councillor in Nkanini, to try to find out who had given the order to shoot.

It wasn't the workers, he says. They weren't rushing towards the police – they were trying to escape when they were fired upon. "They started firing, we didn't," he says, refuting the police's assertion that the workers had shot first.

Earlier in the day, police commissioner Ria Phiyega had defended the police action, which left dozens dead and scores more injured, by calling it self-defence. Police claimed to have recovered several guns from dead miners and argued that they were returning fire.

Other miners interviewed by the Mail & Guardian say their colleagues were run over by advancing Nyalas. With emotions still running high, one gets the sense that it will be difficult to get to the truth of the matter.  

In Nkanini, families have been torn asunder by Thursday's killings. A miner named Lucas Mazivika says he sent his family back to Mozambique. He says even though he is a National Union of Mineworkers member, he has lost faith in the union, which he feels could have avoided the bloody confrontation by securing a decent increase for workers before they decided to strike.

When the miners regrouped on Friday, it was against the bleak backdrop of a heavy police presence. This time, it was further north, away from the koppie where 34 were snuffed by automatic gunfire, and 78 injured, just 24 hours before.

Later that afternoon, the young Nzuza, who says he evaded arrest by changing clothes after the shooting, is cautiously approached by former ANC Youth League spokesperson Floyd Shivambu and another colleague. Their intention is to get Julius Malema, whom they still refer to as "the president of the youth league", to speak to the striking workers.

As the thousands assemble in a nearby open veld, the helicopters hovering ahead quickly multiply in number. Having agreed to be addressed by Malema, the workers again break into song, their favourite with lyrics that translate to, "How are we going to get rid of the National Union of Mineworkers [NUM]? We really hate it."

Gleaming pangas and hewn staves once again cut through the air as they advance in the direction of the koppie where they've been meeting all week. Tactical response police move into position, with several Nyalas shifting position to form a barrier. The miners, chanting in unison, avoid a confrontation by heading towards Nkanini and dispersing.

Allies from Implats
Interesting to note in Friday's meeting is the presence of Impala Platinum workers, who say they have since joined the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and that the NUM is shrinking fast at Implats' mines.

As Phiyega defends police action, relatives of the injured, dead and incarcerated miners gather outside the Lonmin Saffy Memorial Hospital nearby, ahead of President Jacob Zuma's visit. The hospital's entrance is guarded by four armed men, and the building is bordered by barbed and electric wire fencing.

Tension is obvious on the faces of these 30-odd relatives as they wait to find out who is being treated inside the hospital, but despite this they seem relatively calm.

A woman, who identified herself as Nomsa, and her two sisters sit on a few bricks against the wire surrounding the hospital. She is the only one who agrees to speak. "We are waiting for my father," she says. "We knew he was going to protest because he wanted an increase in his wages, but we don't think he was part of any union. We have not heard from him. He did not come home. He could be dead. Who knows? We are angry, why must people be killed just because they are protesting?"

A young man in his twenties is sitting nearby with his friend. He does not reveal his name but says he's a student at the University of Johannesburg, and comes home only three times a year. He is here because of his brother, whom he says was part of the protest. "I hope he is fine. I don't know if he is here or maybe in prison. I don't want to think of the other option," he says.

He is studying mine engineering and his father and his brother are both miners. "I want to work here one day," he says, pointing at a big board bearing the Lonmin logo.

Adjacent to the hospital is the Wonderkop hostel, a cluster of rectangular box houses that houses the miners from Lonmin.

Jackie Mashange strolls out of the hostel gates. He explains that "most of us here in the hostels are NUM members. We were not even part of that protest. I work for another plant, not too far from here. Where I live, we are also NUM members, and we are harassed when we are alone, on our way home. They (Amcu) harass us".

He says the sangoma who was said to have been supplying muti to the protesting miners, has not left the area.

"He is still here. They brought him here all the way from the Eastern Cape, can you believe that?" says Mashange.

When Malema addresses the workers the following day, he is suitably predictable: "Zuma and Phiyega must step down … even Zuma has a spear".

The fact that the expelled Malema could hijack the platform so soon after the tragedy, speaks to the void created by Phiyega and Zuma's reluctance to address the miners directly. He is embraced as their champion – at least by some, who on Tuesday go on to accompany him to the Marikana police station, where he lays murder charges against the police.

"We need answers," Malema says. "I don't trust President Zuma and his inquiry."