Deep Read: Go tell it on the mountain

Nkanini could've easily served as the location for the film District 9, without so much as building a new set.  (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Nkanini could've easily served as the location for the film District 9, without so much as building a new set. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Marikana 2012. How many lives were snuffed out in those three minutes of hell? The papers say 34 and 78 wounded. That's the deadline statistical emotion: No soul, no blues, no punk, nothing.

So that people, their families, offspring, their unborn children, their mothers tears, their long histories, glory, potential, warmth, foolishness and so on are reduced to disembodied digits: 112, that's the score.

Although we are talking, raging, cursing and howling about everything and everyone but ourselves: imbecilic cops, our favourite Zulu target man in Mahlamba Ndlopfu, capitalist bastards owning Africa's mineral gifts "18 years into Freakdom" and, geez- those befok striking workers.
What were they thinking?

As we try to make sense of the pain in these spirit-smothering times, Ŕégis Debray is on my mind. Debray is an author, journalist and media-theorist who, among other things, fought alongside Ernesto Che Guevara in the trenches in Bolivia, the Sierra Maestra and across South America. Debray once bemoaned fact that we live in what he named the "mediatic age".

I am thinking of Debray and his "mediatic" age right now as I type the words: Marikana 2012. It's a fib. I am not thinking. I can't think right now. I am crying. And it doesn't make sense that I'm crying for those people. I am crying for South Africa. For me. For you. For them. Yes, for those bastards, too.

I am weeping for what happened on the day that will go down as the day the barbarians in blue mowed down dem-belly-up proletariat. The day the uniformed barbarians, reared on a shoot-to-kill diet killed those menaced, menacing, exploited, angry, mad, black and already disjointed, disorganised and dehumanised mineworkers in cold blood.

Where Twit is King
Look, I don't know Marikana from a bar of cheap soap. Even if you were to Google Map the area and throw a wide-angle GPS I would still point at Maritzburg instead of Marikana without so much as a hint of embarrassment. I have never been to Marikana. And it's not even on my 1001-one-horse-towns-to-see-before-I-die list. I don't know where Marikana is. I have no idea what it means. And yet, I am overwrought.

The problem with words, especially meditated words (of journalists, authors), is that they rarely convey pain in real time. Words rarely reflect how you feel at the time that you are feeling it. And besides, even if you can marshall them with the leanest of economies, you are not allowed to actually say how you feel right there and then.

So you filter them through poetry. Through the rituals of the 5Ws+H. Through what you imagine your editor's whims are that morning: likes and dislikes, their upbringing as much as yours, their sensibilities as much as yours, their sensibilities as much as your readers, an imaginary republic you might not even be a resident of. But you think, instead of crying.

You think instead of allowing the tongue to express what the heart feels. So much that, that by the time you say anything at all it's dramatised. It is performed. Performed news. Not that different from filtered coffee. Not even different from last night's News at 10, with the anchors' make-up and televisual pose. Like Debray says, it's the "mediatic" age. Like I say, it's bullshit.

I am aware that in this "mediatic" universe we live in, where Twit is King, and Instagram is a visual picnic spot, we are already looking beyond Marikana's body count. Exhausted or too ashamed of mining up the Andries Tatane imagery, we are already looking at the next headline. What's next?

"The end of trade unions as we know them?" Maybe, maybe not. "How will Marikana impact on Zuma's march to Mangaung?" Maybe it won't. "Is Mbombela Stadium case our next chase?" Maybe, maybe not. And so we roll. Up and away.

Soon, Marikana will just be a filter. Maybe the widows will be bought houses to show off. Maybe some shop stewards will be bought. Maybe the unions will start addressing their supporters, people who put them in power to represent their interests in the shop floor. Maybe Elijah Barayi, Moses Mabhida and Moses Kotane's bones are turning in their final resting places.

Cry the beloved bullshit.

Firing on the mountain
And within all that we'll forget something that has nothing to do with, and yet has everything to do with, the workers. Workers who risk limb and leg, who risk their lungs, and even worse, risk making some poor child out there fatherless every time they go into the belly of the African earth.

Workers who risk making some poor woman back home in the village, back home in some squatter camp, back home in some township, into a widow every time they go deep into the unknown.

Although it has never been the focal point of the media reports, almost all who were on the ground the weeks before, the week during and the day of the tragedy make references to the "mountain". They make references to the fact that the disgruntled workers had gathered at the "mountain" where they kept vigil for nights too many to count.

It is also said that at the "mountain" and presumably acting on some marabouts and charlatan inyangas, the workers oiled themselves with animal-fat believed to render them both invincible, as well as invisible spirits to their enemies: the police. A sadistic metaphor if there was one. Callous capitalism had rendered them invisible anyway, in their workplace. Except, of course (with their dangling "shift" ID bar-codes on full display) they are required to be visible and present enough if only to expand the company's profit margins.

One journalist who got too close to the chanting warrior-workers with sing-songy recitals tells me they were ordered to "take off the shoes, switch off the cellphone and make sure no women are present."

The message was clear. Women, the true niggers of the world; would indeed soil the men's rituals and render them weak, visible, impotent and lose focus.

One can only imagine what else happened at the mountain.

Whatever it is, these workers, mostly uneducated masses who view the white man (including black white men like us in the media) and his belief, the white man and his money, the white man and his viciousness, the white man and his religion, with great suspicion.

They look at the white man and his God, the God who stands on the sidewalk and never intervenes when they suffer humiliation, peanuts pay packets, violence, no services, no infrastructure, and on, with disgust and start to imagine they can counter the "ways" of the white man.

They start believing in what others, including charlatan bones men, tell them. You know nothing of the organising force and power hierarchy in the hostels, in the mines, and of course in the areas they come from, if you are not aware of the power of alternative faith plays in the lives of our people.

The striking Lonmin workers are not the first and will not be the last to combine the art of displaying overplayed masculinity in the face of a more powerful force, with the science of black magic. Even more telling, they are not the first to combine brawn, old age belief in physical strength against enemy, with sorcery, pig-fat, fire-eating dubious bone men, quaint, dishonest African juju. Often this is employed against the forces of modernity, which of course comes with their oppressive, culture-shocking, life-altering possibilities. An assault on the their way of life. Marikana is even late in the game of juju as the last resort against "bloody agents!"

Things fall apart
Have we forgotten the story of the fierce, cat-like athletic fighter Okonkwo, the feared son of the fictional Umofia in Chinua Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart? This proud African hero who tactlessly, butchered a white man with a machete and believed his tribesmen would join him in his fight against the encroaching red roaches and their religion, only to realise he was alone in that. His fellow community men were conquered souls. Too proud to give up he committed suicide.

To a large extent, Marikana mountain men were suicidal in their approach to the police; in their lack of specialised, mob-violence training the police, even more so.

Not long ago before, even when the Boers were negotiating with Nelson Mandela, after isolating him from his fellow islanders (not holidayers…these were incarcerated men who have spent their entire lives in apartheid's concentration camp prisons), the same Boers were working with tribal Zulu men from the hostels.

Hugely dehumanised, measly paid Zulu men who believed the African National Congress and its internal satellites such as the United Democratic Front represented a threat against their Zulu traditions and way of life, were exploited and pulled into service of a racist programme against encroaching change, for such was inevitable.

Again, deep in the bowel of the night, the tribal Zulu men filed in long queues to gulp litres of bitterest muti known as iNtelezi. The (ir)rational was that this beast-fat concoction possesses super natural powers. That it would turn the "comrades" bullets into water and some such nonsense.

Never mind.

Their belief in it was irrevocable. Skin deep. We know now how some of those were mercilessly gunned down as they were about to attack Shell House. Lesson? Forget the juju: kill your inyanga. Burn his bones pouch. But that's was not about to happen. Not anytime soon.

History is full of such tales. Tales of uneducated, under-exposed, African true believers, innocent men and women who, like all of us, have this undying, irrational, belief in the super being. Men and women who surrendered their left functioning parts of their brains to something higher and deeper than us: often those "beings" are just charlatans, and just sheer believer.

Legend has it that after one of his meditational marathon prayers, the founder of the Nazareth Baptist Church, the mystique Isaiah Shembe went up the hill-peak in Inanda, KwaZulu Natal for a demonstration that had God's blessings. Upon touching the hill-peak, Shembe took off and jumped – just like a white man's aeroplane he believed – hoping God's on his side. Alas, the ol' geezer he plunged to his death.

The most famous and saddest example where irrational faith, black magic, God, and whatever you think is the "supernatural" clashes with reality with heart-wrenching results etched in the South Africa history that nobody cares to revisit is The Bullhoek Massacre.

Like the Marikana, some wanted to wash it off simply as an "incident" and not what it is: mass murder. Like Marikana, Bullhoek was not an un-invited confrontation.

Again, it's the story of faith and the surrender of rationality to the all-powerful unknown. Something we can recklessly, with mediatic-age hindsight and narrative stitching refer to as the Joseph Kony's God of the Jungle indoctrination

Disperse or fire
A charismatic religious "seer" going by the name of Enoch Mgijima, who splintered off from the Wesleyan Methodist 100 years ago, to start his own Ethiopianist church was a man of both fanciful dreams with uncharacteristic violent undertones. He had told his followers to start preparing for the Armageddon. Apparently his "visitations" told that the world would come to an end on the December of 1920, and of course the Lord would descend to see his children, "and then you would be saved".

His followers, known as the Israelites, after the Hebrews of the Old Testament, descended in thousands on his church premises outside Queenstown in anticipation of meeting their maker. Up to 3 000 people from all over the country spilled on to neighbouring farms with no livestock, nor food, nor belongings and starved waiting for God. One thing led to another. The Cape Colony's governor, and the central government in Pretoria and the white farmers tried to reason out with him: Please ask your people to vacate our land.

The paradox is most of this land was earlier stolen from Africans through some quasi-legal means "negotiated" with co-opted and defeated tribal chiefs. Mgijima could not lose face with his followers and so the stand-off escalated into palpable tension.

As with the striking Lonmin workers in 2012, police were dispatched to surround his followers and issue a warning: "disperse or fire".

Buoyed by the imaginary God on their side, Mgijima's followers; angry, hungry and homeless, sprinkled themselves with juju believing that the joint protection of God and Shamans, they'd whip the white man's ass. With an African God on their side, show him who's the boss.

Of course no amount of blood and pig-fat sprinkled spears, or even the deepest belief in their highest God, by these African "children of Israel" stood a zinger's chance against the Colony's security structure juggernaut.

Alas more than 200 of them were ruthlessly mowed down and Mgijima, together with plenty others, were arrested. To this day, that piece of land renamed Whittlesea outside of Queenstown remain the source of my emotional-restlessness whenever I pass through, which is every year. My blood relatives are there, and so I should know.

What I didn't know existed, is a patch of windswept place on the fringes of the North West called Marikana. Until last week, I had never heard of even its Sociology experiment gone terribly wrong informal settlement, known as Nkanini. In Nguni: "home for the hard core"; also translates easily into "home of the damned."

Nkanini could've easily served as the location for the film District 9, without so much as building a new set.                                                                                     

Trust me, many South Africans had never heard of the place, until, well, they felt like bullets whizzed past their lounges as they watched clip after clip, police losing their control and things fell apart.

Personally, I never thought that history would repeat itself there one cold extended winter of discontent. We should've read the not-so-cryptic language of the omens much clearer: Excuse me, but what business did that snow have, falling in on Africa few weeks before?

Bongani Madondo is the author of a collection of profiles, Hot Type: Icons, Artists & God-Figurines (Picador Africa) and a contributing senior writer for the Mail & Guardian.

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