Working on Miners Shot Down, about the 2012 Marikana massacre, has had a profound effect on my life.
I began to get rather nervous in early January 2013 when I realised that there was a wealth of revealing police and TV footage from the days preceding the massacre and from the actual day itself. When the production was awarded a generous grant by the Ford Foundation, there was simply no excuse but to attempt to make the definitive film, showing what had happened in what is considered the single most important event in post-apartheid South African history.
Carrying this burden, I soldiered on, knowing that I would lose friends, upset my wider political family, endanger my filmmaking career prospects in South Africa and my own and my family’s safety. But such thoughts would be a recipe for paralysis, so I shifted those fears firmly to the back of my head.
My long-suffering crew would be the only people in the world capable of realising my desire to capture the conflict and the story that followed the massacre.
Most of the time they took part gladly, knowing the responsibility we carried to the slain miners and the more than 100 000 mineworkers who joined the wave of unofficial strikes that followed.
I realised these strikes were about something far more than wages. They were about ending the cycle of poverty miners felt trapped in. The massacre had touched a deep nerve, bearing witness to more than a century of oppression and exploitation. The younger generation of workers told us over and over again: “This has to stop; we are here to stop this.”
Spending weeks in their informal settlements meant that we did not require much convincing of their plight. I have to admit I had never seen such squalor in my own country. It touched me deeply. Proud men and women, working day and night, shifts of 12 to 14 hours, six days a week, providing 60% of our much-needed foreign reserves – killed in a cold-blooded fashion simply because they were asking for more.
How could I ever do justice to such a story? The task haunted me during the many months that I took to shoot and edit the film. I became a difficult person to live with and my familial relationships suffered, as did my collegial relationships. I brought in editor after editor to work on the project, and their combined talents finally gave me the story that is today touring the world to wide acclaim.
Hopefully, the film is good enough to help my family and colleagues forgive me. Why was I so obsessed? I felt that if the film was capable of achieving some acclaim locally and internationally, people would bring themselves to watch it and possibly local TV would feel obliged to show it. To date, this remains up in the air.
The deeper question
I knew that by showing what happened to those miners people would be shocked, disturbed and perhaps willing to do something. Moreover, that people would also ask themselves the deeper question: How could this happen in our democracy?
Most importantly, I felt I could provide a document easily accessible to our people, a document that would stand the test of time, that our children and our children’s children could watch, so that we never forget those faces, their words, their bravery and why they were killed.
This is the central question the film asks. There is substantive rather than conclusive evidence that points to high-level collusion between the state, Lonmin and indeed the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to break the strike.
There were tangible fears that the NUM would be displaced by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which was leading the Lonmin strike, as had happened at Impala Platinum months earlier.
There were also palpable fears that the unofficial strike action would spread to other mines and would lead to the rise of figures such as Julius Malema. A dramatic show of force was required.
Pressure on her from political heavyweights such as Cyril Ramaphosa drove the provincial commissioner of police, Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo, to seek a meeting with Lonmin’s Bernard Mokwena. The transcript of the meeting is ominous and is clear proof that there was, at the very least, collusion to break the strike.
It seems clear Ramaphosa was successful in his lobbying efforts, too: he specifically called for “concomitant action” to meet the deeds of these “dastardly criminals”. An email from him to a senior Lonmin executive said Mining Minister Susan Shabangu agreed, and would take the matter to Cabinet.
That very evening, the top police management forum took a decision to “disperse and disarm” 3 000 miners. For this purpose, 4 000 rounds of live ammunition were ordered – along with four mortuary vans, each of which holds up to eight bodies. This meeting was never transcribed because the tape mysteriously never found its way to the typing pool.
But perhaps the most damning evidence was a premeditated plan to take lives is the fact that police in operational command on that day, despite being informed by a senior police officer that 16 people had been killed, continued to pursue and shoot people, in what can only be described as executions, for 20 minutes after the initial fusillade.
South Africa will never be the same again and neither will I.
Rehad Desai is the director of Miners Shot Down, which opens in cinemas today, Friday May 30. Find out more at minersshotdown.co.za