Marikana: Suicide on the Koppie

This edited extract is part of a collection of stories to be published in a Mail & Guardian ebook called Writing Invisibility.

The body of rock driller Lungani Mabutyana was found hanging from a tree at “small koppie” on May 6, the location where several executions took place on August16 2012 – what is now referred to as the Marikana massacre.

His death, like that of Marvellous Mpofana’s, was under mysterious circumstances. Colleagues wondered how Mpofana could have moved from his bed to a beam in the centre of the room, set up a noose, hopped on the chair and kicked it away, all without the use of his right leg, which had been injured during the August 16 shootings.

Mpofana and Mabutyana were possible witnesses at the Marikana commission of inquiry. Both had survived the massacre but were among the more than 270 miners who were arrested or injured. Mabutyana witnessed some of the close-range executions. 

Because the Lonmin mine management had apparently discharged Mabutyana for absenteeism after he allegedly failed to report for work in early 2013, the company would not subsidise his funeral arrangements.

On the weekend after Mabutyana was said to have ended his own life, three other people were slain in episodic violence around Marikana. One of them, Mawethu Steven, an Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) regional organiser, was shot four times in the back as he watched football previews at a tavern in nearby Photsaneng. In the hours following Steven’s death twin brothers Ayanda and Andile Menzi were murdered in a shack in Nkanini. One was believed to be a National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) shop steward. 

Environment still hostile
With the working environment still hostile, workers were weighing up the gains of last year’s strike. When the parties emerged from negotiations to end the strike, a 22% increase was announced, one that never materialised.

Mabutyana was believed to have been experiencing financial problems and had attempted suicide twice before, since the massacre. He lived in Wonderkop hostel’s dilapidated single quarters. 

Last year’s strike lasted about five weeks. In the aftermath, the National Credit Regulator shut down 11 of the 17 cash-loan operators in Marikana for illegal practices. According to his brother, Thabani, Mabutyana’s documents had been rescued from loan sharks more than once and some of his debt settled. Mabutyana had told his family that part of his depression was due to “not seeing most” of his salary.

It was Thabani who put me in touch with his cousin, Vuyisanani Mlobeli, who lives at Wonderkop hostel. Two days later, on a Wednesday in May, as I accompany Mlobeli on funeral-related chores, I find out more about his family.

He is the fourth of 11 children. One sibling died, but his parents also raised his cousins – Thabani, and Mabutyana and his twin brother, Lungisani. 

Mlobeli came to the mine through an uncle and he, in turn, brought Mabutyana to Lonmin. 

The next morning I drive from Magaliesburg to Marikana to take Mlobeli to Tlhabane West, about 50km away, where he must identify Mabutyana’s body. As the grey morning unfolds, Mlobeli and I talk about the events of the past few days. In the charged atmosphere of the week, Amcu members had downed tools for two days demanding the closure of NUM offices. The union [NUM], still bleeding supporters, was living out the last days of its recognition agreement with Lonmin, trying to win back lost members through the bureaucracy of official presence.

“Lonmin employees are actually not unreasonable. Most of the times when they [go on unprotected strikes or work stoppages], it’s because they just want the management to treat them like people – to actually acknowledge that they exist. Even on August 16, all the guys wanted was for the management to come and talk to them, but they don’t seem to get that.”

Body was found hanging
On the verandah of a funeral parlour in Tlhabane a man wheels the body out and unzips it to chest level. 

Mlobeli stands next to the corpse and looks into its bearded, chiselled features. Decomposition wafts through the air. 

Satisfied that he has seen the remains of his cousin, Mlobeli phones Mabutyana’s brother, Thabani, and arranges a time to meet at the Marikana koppies, near where the body was found hanging. 

A ritual to transport Mabutyana’s spirit home is performed at the site and again at the hostel before the car leaves – first to Midrand and eventually to Harding, where the body will spend the night before being transported home to KwaMrwabo, outside Matatiele in the Eastern Cape.

That afternoon, Mlobeli, Mail & Guardian photographer Madelene Cronjé and I make the journey from Rustenburg to Matatiele by car. Thabani travels in the van with his brother’s spirit and body. 

We drive through intermittent rain to Kokstad, Cedarville and then Matatiele, which we reach at 3am. We travel out of the town, in the direction of Mount Frere, hitting a precarious 35km stretch of gravel that takes us to KwaMrwabo. 

It is 4am when we reach the homestead. Mlobeli ushers us into a large, unfurnished rondavel. In the flicker of a kerosene lamp, women of all ages straighten themselves up from sleep. They are members of Mlobeli’s extended family. 

Someone starts a hymn and several bell-shaped contraptions accompany the singing. Mlobeli’s father gives us a solemn welcome. 

“We are grateful that you came to see for yourselves,” he says sombrely. 

Mlobeli homestead
Mlobeli and I share a room in an adjacent house with two double beds set against diagonal ends of the room. By 7am he is up, donning a puffy neon-orange safety suit to oversee the slaughtering of several animals. The Mlobeli homestead is elaborate, but every square inch is put to use. 

It faces east, down a seasonal river valley overlooking the ruins where the head of the family Mhlab’uyashukuma settled in the Sixties, as a young man. 

A row of houses and rondavels gives way to an outside cooking area, a meat preparation room and several kraals. Mhlab’uyashukuma’s livestock number in the hundreds. 

The wide, deep pit of the only toilet for the homestead is situated not far from the pigsty. 

Outside the mud structure of the prep room, near the centre of the sheep’s kraal, Mhlab’uyashukuma grants me an interview. 

His working life started in the Westonaria gold mines in 1963. 

“The money was too little, so I left,” he says, rubbing his straggly black and grey beard. 

“I started working in Durban on the Spoornet [now the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa] line. We would lay tracks and maintain them.”

'It destroyed my spirit'
Now several members of his family are employed by Prasa; his daughter is a station manager, his son is an office clerk and his granddaughter has also worked there. 

Mhlab’uyashukuma marvels at how different working conditions are from those in his day.

“It was rough working then, and it was easy to get fired for any small thing. When we talk about the children’s work they complain about it being difficult, but I feel they have it easy. Some of them use pencils at work, like you – you are writing.”

I ask him how he feels about the death of his nephew, whom he took in and raised as his own son. 

He lets out a deep sigh and sits askew, using his hand to prop himself against the back of the white plastic chair. 

“It destroyed my spirit, deep inside of me. I still can’t come up with a reason why he would kill himself. When he was here during Easter, he said that, after the strike at the mine, he was treated very badly. 

“What broke him the most was that the dying men had fallen on him, their blood spilling on to him as he lay down playing dead. Even sitting alone was scary for him because he couldn’t reconcile with those events. He said it still affected him profoundly because they were still being hunted down.”

“Did you say anything to him?” I ask, aware of the respect Mhlab’uyashukuma commands. 

“I said when a man is working, obstacles are part and parcel of it and he shouldn’t be afraid.”

Funeral
That night at a river a few hundred metres away, Mabutyana’s body is washed with goat bile, water and ubuswane, a herb, to remove the spectre of unnatural death. It is crucial for this ritual to be performed before the body enters the yard in order to avoid the same sort of death befalling the family. 

The following day, the funeral gets under way at about 11am. The weather is sunny but carries the sting of winter. It’s a simple ceremony in a 100m2 marquee, without the peacocking of urban funerals. 

An hour later, the funeral procession makes its way up a small hill, near the rondavel that Mabutyana called home. Lungisani lies down in the grave for a few seconds; this is to ensure that his twin’s fate does not befall him. Men pass around shovels as the party descends for lunch.

The more family members I meet, the more solid the network seems. 

In one of the kraals, where the men gather after the funeral to drink sorghum beer and cut pieces of meat with their pocket knives, the stocky Zimele Mlobeli, the eighth-born, who works at Nampak in Durban (where Lungisani also works), says: “It’s good having your family in one city because when you have problems you can rely on each other and share ideas.”

I’m sitting next to Bulelwa Mlobeli, first-born of the family, in the lounge of the house Mhlab’uyashukuma sleeps in. It is the building closest to the yard’s entrance. 

She is 48, and her head is wrapped; she wears a pinafore. 

Bulelwa has worked at Prasa since 1985, when she started out as a coach cleaner. Today she is the manager for Thandaza, Cato Ridge and Georgedale stations.

Family is doubtful 
“The load of Lungani’s funeral was carried out at our cost … I thought he had a funeral policy or that the mine would cover the costs of the funeral. I don’t understand why [he was not considered] employed. As far as I knew he was attending the Marikana commission and at his work they told us he was ‘discharged’, which is jargon I don’t understand.

“During the funeral my daughter said she thought that we should have sat down and spoken with him [before he died]. I think we failed him as a family. We should have made sure that he received counselling. He was far away, but those close to him should have recognised that he needed help.” 

Bulelwa says the family is doubtful about the suicide claims. 

“Dali Mpofu [the lawyer who represents the miners who were injured and arrested in the massacre] has just been stabbed [and robbed on an East London beach in April], an inyanga [who supposedly supplied muti to striking mineworkers] has been murdered, there have been others who have been killed. 

“There are all these things that were found near him [Mabutyana]; his [access] card, bread, a two-litre bottle of Coke and his keys. Would he bring all those things with him if he was going to kill himself?”

Next I ask Bulelwa whether she thinks the size of her family influenced some of her brothers to choose employment on the mines. 

“Those who did that had dropped out of school because they had failed and thought it better to leave.” 

Bulelwa’s daughter later tells me that this was the case with Lungani. He started falling behind at school and went to Marikana. 

“He thought there was money to be made in the city of gold,” she said. 

Started out as a miner
Bulelwa explains that her dad also started out as a miner. 

“Teba [a mineworker recruitment agency] used to recruit here in Matatiele and there used be a lot of openings.” 

The next morning, I wake up and bath in a PVC tub, as I have done for the past few days. Afterwards, I witness an interesting scene when Alfred Gege, who is married to the second-born sibling, has a brief exchange with Mlobeli as he walks into the room from his house nearby. 

Gege, who works in retail in Durban, tells Mlobeli that things could be better and wonders what the prospects are at Lonmin. Before he steps out of the room, Mlobeli promises to look into it. 

For breakfast there are more dollops of tripe that I can’t finish, then long, heartfelt goodbyes. As we began, so we end, with a prayer and some words of thanks. 

We make the journey from KwaMrwabo to Matatiele in the morning sun. The landscape is entrancing, but we leave it behind as we move towards tarred roads and speed traps. 

Mlobeli alights at Matatiele, where he is to take a taxi back to the killing fields and underground tunnels of Rustenburg. 

Some weeks later, as the body count from shootings around Lonmin continues to rise, I get a call from Mlobeli, asking after me as though I am a long-lost friend. I ask him whether he ever found out about Mabutyana’s dismissal and he sighs. It leaves me with a question: What did the miners gain from five weeks of struggling?

Lonmin workers lost 12%
A recent talk at a University of the Witwatersrand Finwrite seminar by John Brand, an employment law director at Bowman Gilfillan, suggests some answers. 

He says that the 22% the mineworkers were promised, as was announced following the negotiations, was actually the result of grade conflation and the amalgamation of two-year increases. 

“The maximum increase to rock drill operators was in fact 3% and that was only to a few of them because, again, they conflated grades, and those rock drillers that were below a certain level got 3%. 

“So how did they get it up to 22%? They added in the 10% wage increase from 2011 and they took into account a R750 rock driller allowance that had been agreed to prior to the strike. So R750 is 9% of the wage, then there’s the 3%, that adds up to 22%,” said Brand.

In fact, Lonmin workers lost 12% of their annual income during the strike due to the no-work, no-pay rule, and “9 000 of the workers got absolutely nothing because they were employed through labour brokers,” said Brand. 

At the time of writing, the Marikana commission of inquiry, set up to investigate killings that took place between August 9 and August 16, culminating in the killing of 34 miners, was in limbo due to the funding woes of the legal team representing over 270 of the injured and arrested miners. 

The team, led by Dali Mpofu, was appealing a high court ruling that found that the right of the miners to state funding was not absolute. 

Mabutyana never got to tell his side of the story and a year after the Marikana massacre, Lonmin and its surrounding settlements have taken on the air of hell on earth.

This extract is from Death at the Killing Koppie and the Aftermath of the Marikana Massacre. It is part of Writing Invisibility, a collection published by the Mail & Guardian in association with the African Centre for Migration and Society and supported by the Max Planck Institute. The e-book is available to download on mg.co.za/acms

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.

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