Marikana miners’ families left reeling

Semi Jokanisi left behind his family and five young sons in Pondoland in July to return to the platinum mines in North West. This would be the last time that he would make the 12-hour taxi trip.  

In the Eastern Cape's Pondoland, the high green hills with scattered villages are submerged in sweltering heat fanned by a hot, dry wind. On the winding highway, the Xhosa women's hips sway gently from side to side as they carry bundles of firewood or buckets of water on their heads.

In Hombe, a village about 5km from Lusikisiki to the east of Pondoland, a young man uses a spirit level to lay concrete blocks for a wall as high as his shoulder.

The money to buy these blocks came from the Lonmin mine in Marikana in North West. Without many job opportunities in Pondoland, it is common for the young men here to travel to the platinum belt to bring back money to build their homes.  

But these blocks are not going towards a house. The young man is standing in a grave. The concrete blocks line the dirt walls of the grave for Jokanisi's body.

Jokanisi was 30 when he died at Marikana during an illegal strike in which police shot and killed him and 33 other miners. That was on August 16. On Saturday, September 1, he would be buried at his parents' home in Hombe.

Jokanisi worked as a winch operator, lifting heavy loads. He made the 12-hour journey home about every two months to visit as the young men of Pondoland have always done.

Born in Pondoland in 1982, Jokanisi attended school there until grade 10. He never planned to work on the mines, but because there was no money for tertiary education, he decided to leave school. His father, Goodman Jokanisi, had been working on Lonmin's mines since 1989 and it opened the door for the boy to earn a better living. His family was  happy that he had a job.

Now they are in mourning.  The women in his family, his sister, grandmother and two aunts, sit leaning against the walls, their legs stretch out, inside a thatch-roof hut with blue walls and brown vinyl flooring. The mourning started when Goodman received a phone call from a friend who works on the mine to tell him that his son had died.

The call confirmed a fear he had harboured for days. While on leave in Hombe, Goodman saw the violence at Marikana on television. Goodman phoned his son, who did not answer his cellphone. Being a production team leader, Goodman called other co-workers for news of his son, without success. A few days later, Goodman's co-workers called him to let him know his son had been among those killed.  

The women will sit in the hut until Jokanisi is buried on Saturday. Friends, neighbours and extended family will come to pay their respects. Each visitor receives a plate of puthu pap, gnush, chicken and cooked cabbage with a rich gravy and a glass of Coke or Sprite. The women from around the village come to help with cooking and sit with the mourners. The men buy the food and the women cook it at night. This is an expensive ritual, particularly at a time when the family has lost a breadwinner.

Jokanisi and his father supported 18 people.  He would send money home once a month for his family, including his five sons, aged six to 11 years.  Now, said his aunt Nowinile, the family was in crisis: "We are going to live from hand to mouth. The money coming in won't be enough."

Quiet and peaceful
There is not much else to do to earn a living in Pondoland. Apart from the salaries of migrant workers, people rely on subsistence farming with cattle and maize. But the Jokanisi family's square-kilometre plot lies fallow with the grey, dead stalks of the last season's maize crop.

Goodman does not know whether Jokanisi had a pension fund or life insurance. He does know that Lonmin has already paid them R15 000 for his son's funeral.

In another hut in Kwadick village on the other side of Lusikisiki, eight more women sit mourning the death of Mzukisi Sompeta. He was 36 when he died at Marikana. His mother and aunt are supported by women from surrounding villages who sit with them. When we arrive, they are having a lunch of rice, vegetables and meat. They eat slowly, talk slowly, move slowly in the hot air of the hut.  

Outside, things carry on as usual on the square-kilometre plot. In the corner are two cattle pens, about five-by-five metres each. The cattle are out grazing. On the opposite end are three houses: one larger brick home, the hut where the women sit and a smaller house.

Sompeta's unemployed brother, Luthando (29), is painting the hut. He has matric, but his aunt Beauty said there was less work on the mines now than there was for the previous generation. His father is sitting next to the cattle pen, a thin old man with a stooped back and sunken eyes. Chickens roam the yard scratching for food, small children toddle about and a dog rolls on the grass. Everything is quiet and peaceful. The hot wind is still blowing.  

Sompeta sent home R1 000 every month to support his 12-year-old daughter, mother, father and two brothers, one of whom was left mentally disabled after a mining accident.  Both his parents receive pensions and his father suffers from TB. Beauty, who was a teacher, speaks fluent English and does most of the talking. I ask her whether she thinks there will be justice for Sompeta.

"We would like them to be punished," she said.  "We want the government to support his parents for life. We would like the child [Sompeta's daughter] to be educated up to university level."

She said there had been no other talk of payment from Lonmin or the government and I ask her if she thought her wishes for Sompeti's family would come true: "I have hope. God can make that possible."

Heidi Swart
Heidi Swart is an independent investigative journalist. Since starting her reporting career in 2010, she has written for various national publications.

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