/ 14 August 2014

Grief overflows at Marikana commission

The widow of a slain miner collapses during the Marikana inquiry.
The widow of a slain miner collapses during the Marikana inquiry.

The Farlam commission of inquiry reached a state of extreme distress this week. Family members fainted and wailed as they were invited to remember their loved ones who died at Marikana two years ago. Equally distraught miners and lawyers could be seen comforting them during the lunch break.

Relatives were afforded the opportunity on Wednesday and Thursday to give a five-minute presentation on their deceased family members, revealing intimate details about their personalities, their dependants, how each family found out about the death and what their lives have been like since their loss.

Police fatally shot 34 miners and injured more than 70 on August 16 2012 during an unprotected strike at Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana. In the preceding week, 10 people, including miners, police officers and Lonmin security guards, were killed.

A police widow, Petunia Lepaaku, recalled how she saw her injured husband, Warrant Officer Sello Lepaaku (45), on the evening television news on August 13. He was being carried away from the scene by his colleagues. “I tried to call him, but his cellphone remained unanswered,” Petunia’s lawyer read on her behalf. Her husband died on the way to hospital.

“He and I were meant to be together … he was a supportive husband,” said Petunia. His family remembers Sello as being well loved, generous and kind-hearted. He was not only the breadwinner for his wife and three children, but also for his three sisters, brother and mother.

Petunia said his 17-year-old son is struggling without his father, and his five-year-old daughter keeps asking when he is coming home from work.

The police will miss him too: Sello received two loyal service medals and one commemoration medal during his time in police employ.

Small details
Family members cling to small details. Some recall how a loved one was football-mad, others how they were admired in their communities.

Makhonsandile Mkhonjwa, a mineworker from Bizana in the Eastern Cape, was one of those killed on August 16. His family remembers how he loved to work with his hands and was building a house for them, which is still unfinished.

He was the sole breadwinner for his family. “We have no closure, and what’s even worse is we have nothing to eat,” said Mkhonjwa’s wife.

Mkhonjwa would phone his wife every day during the 2012 strike and explain how hard he worked, but complain about how little he earned. After he was killed, the mortuary would only show the family Mkhonjwa’s face and not his body, and gave them his bloodied clothes in a bag.

Some of the families described in detail the traumatic scenes that met them at the mortuary. Bodies were piled on top of each other in an inhumane way, they said, with blood still oozing from the corpses.

Evident grief
Throughout the presentations, the grief was evident. One victim was pictured in an orange frame with a big red heart printed on it. Many relatives spoke of the worry and confusion that consumed them in the days after the massacre as they waited to hear from their loved ones.

Most family members said Lonmin had not informed them of the deaths. Some found out through the media, others searched hostels, hospitals and mortuaries. The majority only received confirmation a few days after the massacre took place.

Many reported being treated for depression after their loved ones died. One widow even told how she tried to commit suicide by drinking pesticide straight after finding out about her husband’s death.

But two years later they still don’t know who the perpetrators are, what exactly happened and why. And they all want justice.

A life changes – for the better

Khuselwa Dyantyi was originally asked by the Socioeconomic Rights Institute of South Africa to help it to translate statements during the first three days of the Farlam commission in October 2012. Almost a year later, she was still working for the institute, known as Seri, as a family liaison officer and had developed a strong bond with the 36 families the organisation represents.

Dyantyi recalled how she struggled to relate to the mothers, widows and sisters when she first met them in Rustenburg. “They were still in mourning and spoke so softly,” Dyantyi said this week.

The ice was broken when the mother of Akhona Jijase, a miner who was killed on August 16 2012, approached Dyantyi and related her story. She became like a second mother to Dyantyi and paved the way for her to forge relationships with the other families.

“After all the widows told their stories, it wasn’t easy for me. I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to handle it,” she said.

At one stage Dyantyi wanted to quit, but couldn’t bear leaving the families. “I felt guilty and wondered who’d look after them. I gave them hope for living. If I go, it’s like I’m letting them down.

“I’ve got such a great relationship with them, I doubt I’ll ever lose it,” she smiles. “I’ve been to their homes and to their [family members’] graveyards.”

One particular case stands out. Widow Mokobane Thelejane’s husband, Thabiso, was a contractor at Lonmin when he was shot during the strike. Dyantyi spent hours trying to convince Lonmin and Thabiso’s employer to help the widow in some way, and asked the government to start paying out Mokobane’s old-age pension a few years early.

Dyantyi’s life has changed immeasurably as a result of the commission, which has inspired her to become a lawyer. This year she started studying law part time and works as a receptionist at Seri, which is paying for her studies.

Grace Gomba, also from Seri, has now taken over her duties in family liaison, but Dyantyi still makes an effort to see the families.

Seri has had to fight for the families’ wellbeing. In 2013 the government stopped providing the widows with food parcels and social workers started losing interest in the case.

Dyantyi says not enough is being done to remember Marikana. She was horrified when one of the paramedics who came to assist the distressed widows on Wednesday did not know about the commission – or about the events that took place at Marikana.

“I just wondered: ‘Which planet are you from?'” she said.