Marikana’s literary afterlives

BROKE AND BROKEN: THE SHAMEFUL LEGACY OF GOLD MINING IN SOUTH AFRICA by Lucas Ledwaba and Leon Sadiki (Jacana)

THE SPIRIT OF MARIKANA: THE RISE OF INSURGENT TRADE UNIONISM IN SOUTH AFRICA by Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha (Wits University Press)

In reporting on Marikana, journalist Lucas Ledwaba’s stories in City Press distinguished themselves from the pack by aiming for a rounded appraisal of the situation.

When mineworkers were being painted as blood-hungry barbarians motivated by umuthi, Ledwaba dealt with the perceptions in a manner that did not seek to advance his own political agenda or strip the workers of their own agency to struggle as they saw fit.

Broke and Broken: The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa is his and photographer Leon Sadiki’s second mining-related collaboration, the first being Tonight We Are Going to Kill Each Other: The Marikana Story, which had other contributors.

Broke and Broken seeks to show the human face of South Africa’s silicosis crisis and provide better context to the legal machinations surrounding mineworkers’ search for justice.

Silicosis, a lung disease common among mineworkers, is caused by breathing in silica dust, which is found in most rock beds.

In the first half of the book Sadiki and Ledwaba visit the households of former mineworkers living with silicosis or, in some cases, the widows they have left behind. Here, you will be struck by the sheer brutality of the paltry pension payouts offered to these ailing men after decades of service.

The waya waya hamba khaya (go home and die) termination of service letter sets the tone and follows what is usually a more than 20-year mining career, accompanied by payouts hardly enough to sustain these families for longer than a few years.

In some cases, in circumstances that mineworker families consider fortuitous, younger men head to the very same mines that slowly squeezed the air out of their forebear’s lungs.

Sadiki’s portrait of Siwinile Ndabeni, flanked by younger brothers Andisa and Anele, is haunting in the way it silently spells out this trap. Shot in Ndabeni’s small room at a Carletonville mine, Sadiki captures in Ndabeni’s eyes a sense of foreboding for what may become of him and his brothers. They avoid the camera’s gaze, their civilian clothing speaking of a temporary innocence, as they have yet to don the mineworker’s uniform.

Like Ndabeni’s father, not all men given the waya waya are nearing retirement age. Mthobeli Gangatha was a mere 37 when he contracted tuberculosis in 2001. Refusing to go home and await his death as a mine manager had told him to do, Gangatha tried his hand at business, before finding out in 2012 that he too had silicosis, an incurable lung disease.

As the author, Ledwaba does well to highlight how wilfully mineworkers were exposed to dangerous conditions. As a photographer, Sadiki
aims for the soul rather than mere documentary.

Broke and Broken’s shortcomings are that the legalese towards the end is a woolly web of statistics and narrators that may require rereads to untangle the web of concurrent cases.

Although Ledwaba’s prose is a little restrained in this book, he and Sadiki make the slog of advocacy journalism accessible and effortless. Most of all, they add a human touch to it.

Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha’s The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa focuses on the little-told and even less understood role of the workers’ committees in the 2012 wave of strikes in the platinum belt.

The book is quite clearly the work of copious interviews, evident both in its authoritativeness and presentation. By the time the Marikana massacre took place in August 2012, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had long been a union of questionable repute among workers in the platinum belt for the way in which it conducted itself in strikes and meetings.

The union’s current president, Piet Matosa, lost his eye in 2009 to an angry worker and, by 2011, a feisty challenger was establishing a foothold in the platinum belt off the back of NUM’s mistakes, a situation that came to a head in 2012’s deadly Marikana strike.

Sinwell and Mbatha lay out this history by seeking out the key players in the epochal drama and letting them tell the story from their perspective. In the period documented here (roughly between 2011’s Karee strike at Lonmin to 2014’s five-month strike), the relationship between workers’ committees that led strikes and the union they would later adopt was itself in flux, but quite clearly headed for a schism.

The authors capture this tension well and valorise these otherwise faceless workers, some of whom would eventually be forced out of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) following accusations of working with people who sought to establish breakaway unions. The writers offer paradoxical insight into Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa, describing him as leading with an “undemocratic approach which denied branch leaders the opportunity to express their opinions”, and also of taking “the lead from the former committees of 2012” and “uncompromisingly demand[ing] a living wage”.

Another thing the book does well is to give a sense of the crowded space that Marikana and Rustenburg became, as some dyed-in-the-wool activists became political opportunists.

Although The Spirit of Marikana recalls an historic time with a degree of insight, there is little here to break the pace of the study and present the workers outside of the realm of actors being compelled to struggle.

So as Mathunjwa tightens his grip around his union, one gets the anxious sense that these men will again slip back into obscurity.

Kwanele Sosibo chairs the session Reporters without borders: journalists and the Marikana story, with panelists Paul Botes, Lucas Ledwaba, Athandiwe Saba, Luke Sinwell and Niren Tolsi, on Saturday 8 October, 11.30am to 1pm

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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