Marikana then and now — a tragedy that keeps unfolding

Painful past and present: The victims’ families nurse their pain away from the public gaze; officials and politicians grab the limelight and shape the narrative. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Painful past and present: The victims’ families nurse their pain away from the public gaze; officials and politicians grab the limelight and shape the narrative. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

They sat apart from the large stage and the performance of commemoration. Removed from the singing of gospel and trade union songs, removed from the public grieving and the beer drinking for amnesia or carousing.

Theirs was a silent remembrance of comrades falling, of torture and of horrors unimaginable. Men such as Ephrahim Plaatjie, Lesala Mpana and others.
Miners who were at “scene two” or the “killing koppie”, where police hunted down and executed 17 of their comrades with impunity on August 16 2012.

On Wednesday, during the fifth anniversary ceremony to remember the Marikana massacre, some were sitting alone on the koppie, for hours, praying, or staring into a distance filled with ghosts and lived nightmares.

Others, in groups of two, in deep communion. Miners, men who had driven the demand for R12 500 a month during the week-long unprotected strike at Marikana, and on whose agency, resoluteness and trauma unions have been built, political parties emboldened, reputations enhanced and new mythologies created.

“That is not for me,” says one miner who asked not to be named, pointing to the thousands gathered a few hundred metres away from the top of the small koppie where he lay, a Basotho blanket guarding against the dusty wind. “What happened to us here was hard. Very difficult. I am here to remember what the police did to us and the men I stood shoulder to shoulder with,” he says with quiet gravitas.

[Pakane Machete and Lesala Mpana, two survivors from Marikana’s ‘killing koppie’, pray at the spot where their comrade fell in 2012. (Paul Botes/M&G)]

He gets up and we walk across the clearing in the middle of the koppie. A vehicle with a water-cannon had driven in here to flush out the men hiding in the nooks and crannies of the rocks on the western side of this natural enclosure of boulders and bushes. Those miners fortunate enough to emerge from their hiding places alive were kicked into submission in this clearing, searched and arrested.

He had watched some of the strike leaders, like Mzoxolo Magidiwana and Mgcineni “Mambush” Noki, being mowed down at the cattle kraal near Nkaneng. The police’s Tactical Response Team line had blasted an eight-second fusillade at them. He had run for his life towards the smaller koppie. Dogs and cops had chased him and hundreds of others.

He points out a large rock on the small koppie over which he had scrambled that day in a panic — only to be arrested on the other side. Below this boulder is an opening that runs all the way through to the other side — a potential escape route from within to without.

There is a purple-and-blue blanket lying crumpled at the mouth of the opening. “That has been here for the past five years,” says the miner. “I remember the man who tried to go through that hole. He probably threw off the blanket to fit through. I do not know if he escaped. I do not know if he is alive.”

There are fragments of confusion and chaos, of horror and trauma, that permeate the memories of the men who stood up and refused to be treated as mere units of black labour. The men who insisted that their humanity be recognised and that their employers, Lonmin, should meet them and address their wage demands — something the company never did during the strike.

For some of the survivors of “scene two”, as it was described at the Marikana commission of inquiry, and where four of the 17 miners shot dead had bullet wounds in the neck and head and 11 others were shot in the back, their agency has yielded shrivelled fruit.

Shadrack Mtshamba tries to squeeze himself into a gap between two rocks where he had hid. It is a few metres from where the blanket lies and even closer to where he told the commission a miner was shot while trying to surrender to the police.

Mtshamba is a small, wiry man — unusual for a rock-driller — but he would have been unable to conceal himself completely in this gap. His legs and feet stick out. Close by, Mafolisi Mabiya was shot in the back of the head and Ntandazo Nokambo was shot through the chest, the R5 bullet lodging in his collarbone.

Mtshamba was one of thousands of miners who took Lonmin’s retrenchment package two years ago. He paid off his debts and moved on. Since then, he has worked on contract in Kuruman in the Northern Cape but last year he was unemployed.

His debts have accumulated again. The violent memories refuse to recede. He suffered dizzy spells and nightmares. He has always liked a drink, and now uses it to forget. “I take my medication with a few beers and, by eight o’clock, I am fast asleep. I can sleep without dreams, but then I wake up at about three in the morning and I am alone with all these memories,” he says.

On the stage, the VIPs, Lonmin’s chief executive officer Ben Magara, lawyers such as Dali Mpofu and the politicians from the various political parties (besides the ANC) are sitting in the front row. Behind them are the widows and family members of the 37 miners who were slain during the strike. At the first commemoration, the widows occupied the front rows.

Midway through the proceedings, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) president Joseph Mathunjwa arrives. This is preceded by praise-singing for his role in leading the 2014 platinum belt strike; he is the “breaker of closed doors” and the man who has “filled the bellies of mineworkers”.

Miners, made rotund by age and spared hard labour underground by union leadership activity, shuffle and sing around Mathunjwa as he arrives and greets those in the front row — all are men.

Mtshamba, who was an Amcu member when employed, says: “In 2012, Amcu didn’t organise us; we organised ourselves.”

Mathunjwa is still addressing the crowd at 3.54pm — the time at which police had opened fire on the miners at “scene one”. The blustery wind, which has whipped up red dust all day, appears to grow stronger, wilder.

The Amcu president exhorts the thousands gathered to “Remember Mambush! Remember the Marikana 34!” — a number that excludes the three striking miners killed by police in a skirmish on August 13, one of whose father, Goodman Jokanisi, also a miner at Marikana, had addressed the crowd earlier. That violent confrontation also left two policemen, Tsietsi Monene and Sello Lepaaku, dead.

The number 34 also excludes other Lonmin employees: the security guards Hassan Fundi and Frans Mabelane, killed by striking miners on August 12; non-striking miners Julius Langa and Eric Mabebe, who were on their way to work after Lonmin had sent out messages via radio that their shafts were still open; and Isaiah Twala, who was killed for allegedly being a Lonmin spy.

The Marikana narrative has always been contested. First, the government and the police sought to own it with disinformation to cover up their culpability. Forensic revelations created another narrative of what happened during the strike, and an emergent agency among the widows of Marikana has led to more intimate and personal stories of the tragedy being told.

They have slowly moved away from grief and into new lives. Many work at Lonmin, mainly as cleaners, a job they find deplorable but essential to provide for their families. Others have entered new relationships and have had children. Most have developed a living politics that embraces their autonomy and their decision-making power as a collective.

There are also other stories, of the 34, rather than the 37, or 44, who died, and how this excludes a recognition that there was no proof presented at the commission that any of the dead were responsible for the deaths of others.

This is a narrative that prevents all the families from recognising and sharing their common loss and grief — and the shared humanity invested in that.

It prevents people like Mary Sigwegwe Langa from coming to Marikana to mourn her dead husband. While the commemoration ceremony was winding down in Marikana, Langa sat crying on the cement floor of her home in Tonga, near the Mozambique border — the news bulletins on television, with fuzzy reception and the sound turned up, connecting her to the events at Marikana.

[Mary Segwegwe Langa spent August 16 alone at her home in Tonga, near the Mozambique border, consumed by a sense of exclusion. Her husband was killed by striking miners while on the way to work on August 13 2012. (Paul Botes/M&G)]

In an earlier interview, she had talked about not having had legal representation for much of the commission, and of still not knowing what its report says about the death of her husband.

About the commemorations that have increasingly focused solely on the events of August 16 2012, she says simply: “I don’t know why no one cares about us. Mr Langa was just going to work to provide for his family.”

The Economic Freedom Fighters partially built its nascent reputation on the Marikana massacre. Likewise, Amcu has stepped into the breach created by the miners’ unhappiness with the National Union of Mineworkers in 2012, which led to the nonpartisan nature of the strike. Amcu is now the largest union on the platinum belt and is making inroads into other mining sectors.

At this week’s anniversary, the stage and surroundings are festooned in Amcu green. The merchandising on sale has ballooned from just a few vendors in 2013 to an informal mall of caps, overalls and T-shirts.

The messaging on commemorative T-shirts has also shifted from recognising the dead men’s attempts to reclaim their humanity to more overtly mainstream political sentiments. The 2015 T-shirt stated: “Our lives were taken for demanding our dignity”. This year’s iteration states: “We were massacred for radical economic transformation by the state”. It’s a reference to the ANC’s sloganeering.

Although the strike was characterised by collectivism, Noki, the “Man in the Green Blanket”, has emerged as an omnipresent symbol for Marikana, the strike and the massacre.

Photojournalist Leon Sadiki’s powerful image of him, clenched fist rising at his side as he roars to his comrades, is hung in large banners down either side of the stage. The image is also reproduced behind those on stage and on innumerable T-shirts.

Amcu has set up a trust to build houses for all 44 Marikana families; they completed the first one earlier this year and it was for Noki’s family in the Eastern Cape.

Fellow strike leader Xolani Nzuza addressed the crowd in a green blanket reminiscent of Noki’s and similarly knotted. But he appeared dwarfed by the knot — as if wearing someone else’s clothes.

Noki’s wife, Veronica, was not at the commemoration. Her sister had died the previous week and she was preparing for the funeral. In an interview earlier this year, Veronica, who works at a mine in Carltonville, described “the pressure of being Noki’s wife” and spoke of miners coming up to her and professing their admiration for her husband.

But she says the man she knew was more complex than the one who “represented the workers and the poor, for whom he died. To them he was a strong man, a leader and a hero, but he was my husband too. He was also soft and caring, and always considerate about how I was doing.

“Everyone, Amcu, the miners, his family, they all pull Noki in different directions and sometimes I just want to be left alone with him,” she says.

Amid the tension and tussle over who is remembered and who is not, and what parts of the 2012 strike at Marikana are discarded and what parts are retained, the families attempt to move on.

Although many extended families remain in financially precarious positions, the haunted look of distress that dominated so many widows’ eyes for years after the massacre is slowly receding.

But it is a trauma that will dominate the lives of those affected — and the psyche of a country — for generations to come.

Since 2012, there have been three suicides by members of the 44 Marikana families.

Last year started with the suicide of Ayabonga Jokanisi (15), the son of Semi Jokanisi, who was killed by police on August 13. Stelega Gadlela’s mother, whose age her family estimated to be anywhere between 90 and 110, hanged herself this year. And Sandisa Zimbambele (22), the daughter of Thobisile and Nokuthula Zimbambele, poisoned herself. Her mother had taken a job at Lonmin and Sandisa was left in charge of the household in the Eastern Cape. Now her young child is also in Nokuthula’s care.

All three deaths are linked to the bloody events of 2012.

Nokuthula, who works underground at Lonmin, has carried a heavy loss. A year after the massacre, it was a grim memento on her phone: a photograph of her husband’s body limply hanging from the grip of a policeman establishing that he was dead — a certainty Nokuthula was well aware of from having to feed and clothe their extended family without his remittance.

In 2016, silently staring at her daughter’s coffin while mourners’ prayers rose up to the grey, swollen clouds above Lusikisiki, there was the nagging question: What could she have done differently? It was clear in her eyes.

Paul Botes and Niren Tolsi have documented the aftermath of Marikana for the past five years. Their book, After Marikana, will be published by Fourth Wall Books next year

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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