A journey into the tragedy at Marikana

One of the photographs in Greg Marinovich’s Murder at Small Koppie: The Real Story of the Marikana massacre (Penguin) shows a pool of muddy water lying between two parallel rows of corrugated iron sheds. The pool of water is perhaps two metres across and scattered with an assortment of rocks and bricks, likely to be used as stepping stones by those crossing between the sheds.

The sheds are home to two of the Marikana strikers, Shadrack Mtshamba and Jackson Mjiki, whose stories are woven into Marinovich’s book. Mtshamba, in particular, occupies an important part in the narrative, notably because he was one of the survivors of the second stage of the August 2012 Marikana massacre, the police killing of 17 strikers at the “small koppie”, sometimes referred to just as “scene 2”, which gives the book its name.

Marinovich first made his name as a photographer. But though his book is illustrated, it is not primarily a book of photographs. Instead it is an attempt to provide a full, true and fair account of the build-up to Marikana, of the massacre itself, and of some of its aftermath.

In some respects it mirrors the structure of the report of the Marikana commission, describing developments over the preceding days before focusing on Thursday August 16, the day of the massacre.

The pool of water that lies between Mtshamba’s and Mjiki’s rooms is not only the subject of a photograph but is referred to early in the book when Mtshamba is introduced. It is not only their rooms that open on to a pool of mud.

The area surrounding the sheds in which they live is a treacherous swamp. Unless he takes the long way round on his way back home, “Mtshamba has to make his way past a large, reeking black pool of sewage leaking from a never-repaired broken pipe”, which, especially when it is raining, “stretches across the entire width of the road” with its stench sitting “fog-like over the closely packed shacks”.

In describing the conditions in which Mtshamba lives, Marinovich not only highlights the neglect and exploitation by Lonmin that the miners rebelled against but also illuminates the multifaceted journey that he, as a journalist, has embarked on in seeking to tell the Marikana story.

In his opening chapter he takes us underground, describing how the miners work in a “mist of rock dust and water” and an “infernal din that drowns out every other sound”.

Elsewhere he shows his familiarity with some of the key strikers, other members of the Marikana community, and many of the legal and other practitioners who have become part of the Marikana story.

His account of the efforts of the two forensic pathologists, Reggie Perumal and Steve Naidoo, to oversee the hastily conducted autopsies of the victims of the massacre in the face of numerous attempts to obstruct them, is one of many distressing parts of the book.

It is impossible to tell the Marikana story in a nonpartisan way and Marinovich is clearly sympathetic to the strikers. Of the strike itself Marinovich says that it “was born of financial desperation, of the knowledge that no matter how much sweat they shed or blood they sacrificed, they would end their lives in poverty”.

The book, in part, reflects his own efforts to immerse himself in the world of the strikers and to understand the Marikana story through their eyes.

But in his introduction he refers to the different voices Marikana has provided a platform for. Some of these, he says, “failed to understand, or perhaps chose to ignore, just how brutalising it is to endure a lifetime of scrambling to survive, and tried to gloss over the acts of violence perpetrated by the striking miners themselves”.

Marinovich’s book does not hold back from describing the violence of the strikers. He describes in detail the confrontation on the Sunday before the massacre in which the two Lonmin security guards were killed, the attack by strikers in which a nonstriking Lonmin employee, Thapelo Mabebe, was killed later that night, and the confrontation with the South African Police Service on the Monday in which three strikers and two police members were killed.

In his conclusion he says that “a minority of the strikers were prepared to kill anyone whom they believed stood between them and a better wage”, indicating a desire not simply to excuse or condone the violence of the strikers.

If there is a flaw in Marinovich’s book it is perhaps that he does not examine more fully these questions about violence. Though the Marikana commission made strong findings against both the police and Lonmin, it presented the violence by the strikers as the central cause of the massacre.

The “tragic events that occurred during the period 12 to 16 August 2012 originated from the decision and conduct of the strikers in embarking on an unprotected strike and in enforcing the strike by violence and intimidation, using dangerous weapons for the purpose”, the commission said.

But was there, in fact, any other way open to the strikers to change their conditions? Taking into account that the primary victims of the violence were mineworkers and rank-and-file security guards and police officers, is there any way in which their violence can be excused? It is true that a minority of the strikers directly participated in acts of violence. But were the strike leaders part of this minority? And what were the consequences of this violence?

Marinovich argues that the use of traditional medicine by the strikers contributed to a fear of the strikers by the police, some of whom also held traditional beliefs.

He also suggests that the images of their dead police colleagues, circulated among the police after the confrontation on the Monday, were critical in shaping the way in which police responded when the operation against the miners was eventually launched on the Thursday.

But considering that there was already a bloodbath in Marikana by the Wednesday on which Cyril Ramaphosa sent his now infamous email messages, was it not appropriate for him to call for police intervention?

And considering his historical ties with the National Union of Mineworkers, whose position of dominance on the mines was imperilled by the strike, should his actions really be understood as a betrayal of his past?

As Marinovich shows, the strikers’ world view was not one that was situated fully within the post-1994 modernist constitutional consensus.

The rock drill operators, who were the strike’s central driving force, “were part of a cult of manliness”, he says. As Mtshamba puts it: “You are a strong man if you are a driller. If you are not a driller, you are a sissy man.”

Though they were a heterogeneous group, some of them indeed hoped that the sangoma would “impart magical protection or powers”.

In reconstructing the massacre, the strikers have often proved to be unreliable witnesses. Some of them have constructed a post-massacre mythology that is demonstrably inconsistent with the hard evidence.

It is interesting then that it should have been this group whose heroic, and brutal, act of resistance should have so fully exposed and ruptured the corporatist quagmire of vested political, business and union interests that had become institutionalised in democratic South Africa.

Was it only they who could have done it? Was it only through violence that it could have been done?

David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in crime and policing.

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David Bruce
David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in policing and public security

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