South Africa

South Africa

Marikana: Putting words to tragedy

Marikana: Putting words to tragedy

South Africans are still trying to come to terms with what exactly happened in Marikana. And if the poetry and music on Marikana that has emerged so far is anything to go by, we are deeply conflicted in our understanding of the tragedy, its causes and its potential effects. By KHADIJA PATEL.

The strike is over. The dead, most of them, have been buried. It’s only the most recent victim of the strike at Lonmin’s mines in Marikana that awaits interment at the Phokeng Mortuary in Rustenburg. Even as the headlines mull the cost to the economy, sifting rumour from fact and shifting focus to the next big strike and quantifying the potential for greater unrest, Marikana will not recede from the public consciousness very easily. Even as a sense of calm and normalcy returns to the town, where goats steal spinach from street vendors, poetry and music, cultural expressions of Marikana, not as a place, but as a pivotal movement in South African history have begun to emerge.

A poem by Professor Ari Sitas, sociologist, poet and dramatist; lines by an unnamed police officer that have been shared on the Internet and published by Jacaranda FM on its website; a spoken word poem or rap song called “Blood Shed of the Innocent” by a group called Soundz of the South, or SOS; all these have captured some of the threads of thought currently running through South African society.

Poet Rustum Kozain believes that Marikana will not only be a turning point in South African politics and labour relations, but also in the thrust of South African cultural expression. “What happened was a tragedy, but I think there’s going to be a shift in South African culture,” Kozain says.

“I think we are going to see more and more overtly political culture and importantly, it will be more readily available as well. I know in poetry this has been going on since 1994. Poetry that we don’t see in the mainstream – they are published in little magazines, they are performed in [obscure places].”

Kozain agrees that poetry in South Africa has always maintained space for a radical critique of South African society. He adds, “There has been a kind of quietude in South African literature and culture in the past 15 years or so, but I think there’s been a kind of restlessness developing in South African literature.”

It is, of course, the ANC that is in the most influential position to shape South African arts and culture. As the ruling party, it is the ANC that has the power to determine the country’s educational and cultural policies. And of course, this is not unique to South Africa. In any country, the government influences art and literature by making laws and by subsidising schools, universities and the performing arts. And there certainly is an appreciation from government for poetry as a worthy cultural expression. The country’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile notably received R1 million in 2007, when his achievements were lauded by government. Former President Thabo Mbeki awarded the Silver Order of Ikhamanga posthumously to Ingrid Jonker, for her contribution to literature and human rights. So there certainly is an appreciation for poetry from government and it is manifest as well in recitations of poetry in official events. 

Kozain referred us to an article in literary journal “Mediations” that argues that though poetry is appreciated by the powers that be and even encouraged through competitions on the national broadcaster, the tone of poetry in the public eye in recent years is apolitical.

“Generally speaking, nowadays a plethora of festivals and prizes has emerged aimed at rewarding the utterance of poets, and poetry is a presence on radio and television. The question one must ask of this is (as it always is) what kinds of utterances are rewarded. There is a discernible tendency by organs of the state and big business to turn to poetry in order to communicate marketing and political messages,” the writer, UCT professor Kelwyn Sole, says.

And on cue, “The system is killing us,” warns the concluding refrain in the SOS song.

“We thought we should add value to the voices out there at the moment and add our voices in support of the miners demanding better working conditions, better living conditions and better pay,” explains Anele Africa, a member of SOS.

“In some ways [recording the song] was a learning experience for us, but it was also an opportunity to raise awareness of the lives lost in Marikana,” Africa says.
He describes SOS as a “political arts collective” that combines activism with artistic expression.

“For us, we think music, poetry and arts in general is an important medium to educate and organise but more importantly to advocate for change and justice,” he says.

“I am quite amazed by the song,” Kozain comments.

A persisting criticism of media coverage of Marikana has been a perception of the lack of the police perspective. Jacaranda FM Newscast Editor, Dianne Broodryk, shared a poem sent to her from a member of the South African Police Services, detailing police dissatisfaction with the prevailing narrative on Marikana.

“[A police officer] sent me a poem, to express some emotion from the blue side of the battle. I share it with you, as it gives a voice to the side that cannot speak on their own behalf. Another vantage point, to the dust of confusion that saw policemen become soldiers and mineworkers become warriors,” Broodryk wrote.

Massacre they scream

Murder they cry
They don’t even look at the facts
They don’t ask why
They see the men run
They see police fire!
But before this –
What all did transpire?
They show only minutes
Of what lasted a week
They point fingers and blame
don’t think before they speak
They don’t know what it’s like
to stand in the line
To feel tension and risk
all of the time
They don’t see our planning
Our attempts to bring peace
They just see dead bodies
and point blame at the police
They don’t stop to think
to think of our lives.
We’re just normal people
with family lives
They call them victims
and visit their beds.
They ignore our dead colleagues and just shake their heads.
Though the flag of our nation won’t fly at half-mast, to his name they won’t add a gold star.
The suspect that killed him will stand up in court, with counsel demanding his rights.
While a young widowed mother must work for her kids and spend many long, lonely nights.

Yes, somebody killed a policeman today…
maybe in your town or mine,
While we slept in comfort behind our locked doors
A cop put his life on the line.

So I just shrug my shoulders
and keep dressing in blue.
I’m doing my job protecting people like you.
Sometimes it is hard,
the decisions we make –
to protect life and property
and all that’s at stake
We have months’ worth of training and more every day.
We learn tactics and planning
forget what THEY say
We serve with pride
and dignity to boot
and if they don’t recognize this I don’t give a hoot I know I serve proudly and think it all through all for the sake of protecting people like you.
And when the dust has all settled and the blame has been laid.
No flags fly half-masts for dead colleagues
I’ll still be standing here that’s just how I’m made
I stand tall and proud and take it each day
it’s part of the job it’s the policemen’s way
I’m not black or white
I’m really just BLUE and proud of my job – protecting people like you

Kozain believes that the police perspective is particularly significant to our understanding of Marikana. “It is very, very interesting and very important that no matter how the police emerge from this incident, it is understood that the police [are part of] an institution – but that it [the institution] is also made up of individuals, of people who also have stressful work and who are low-paid,” he says.

“They do have guns, of course, which we can’t really equate with the striking miners, but it’s very important…this individual voice, this poem by a police officer, it doesn’t have the lyricism of the [SOS] song or the full literary flourishes of Ari Sitas’ poem, but it’s important to hear that voice just as well.”

The Sitas poem evoked the memory of an Ethiopian shopkeeper in Marikana describing miners as people living underground, in limbo between life and death. Or, as Sitas puts it, “The strike is over, [t]he dead must return to work.”

Sitas explains that the television footage of violence on August 16 moved him deeply. “The imagery haunted me,” he said. “It shook my inners.”

A poem on the unending hurt of Marikana, by Ari Sitas.


The digital images fold as the TV screen tires
The cops, rifles in cabinet, past their third beer are edging towards bed
The night is quiet as the smelter has been closed,
the only music is of the wind on razor wire
the ears are too shut to hear the ancestral thuds on goatskin
humanity has somehow died in Marikana
who said what to whom remains a detailed trifle
the fury of the day has to congeal, the blood has to congeal
I reverse the footage bringing the miners back to life
in vain, the footage surges back and the first bullet
reappears and the next and the next and the next
and I reverse the footage in vain, again and again in vain

The image of the man in the green shroud endures
Who wove the blanket and what was his name?
There are no subtitles under the clump of bodies, no names
stapled on their unformed skull
A mist of ignorance also endures, a winter fog
woven into the fabric of the kill
The loom endures too, the weaver is asleep
The land of the high winds will receive the man naked
The earth will eat the stitch back to a thread
What will remain is the image and I in vain
Reversing him back to life to lead the hill to song
In vain, the footage surges back
another Mpondo, another Nquza Hill, another Wonder Hill
the shooting quietens: another anthill

My love, did I not gift you a necklace with a wondrous bird
pure royal platinum to mark our bond?- was it not the work of the
most reckless angel of craft and ingenuity? Was it not pretty?
Didn’t the bird have an enticing beak of orange with green tint?
Throw it away quickly, tonight it will turn nasty and gouge
a shaft into your slender neck
And it will hurt because our metals are the hardest- gold, pig iron, manganese
yes, platinum
Humanity has somehow died in Marikana

What is that uMzimu staring back at us tonight?
Darken the mirrors
Switch off the moon
Asphalt the lakes

At dawn, the driveway to the Master’s mansion
Is aflame with flower, so radiant from the superphosphates
of bone
of surplus oxygen and cash,
such flames, such a raw sun
such mourning by the shacks that squat in sulphur’s bracken
and I wait for the storm, the torrent, the lava of restitution
the avenger spirits that blunt the helicopter blades in vain

these also endure: the game and trout fishing of their elective chores
the auctions of diamond, art and share
the prized stallions of their dreams
their supple fingers fingering oriental skins and their silver crystals
counting the scalps of politicians in their vault

The meerkat paces through the scent of blood
I want it to pace through the scent of blood,
she is the mascot, the living totem
of the mine’s deep rock,
the one who guards the clans from the night’s devil
she is there as the restless ghosts of ancestors
by the rock-face
feeding her sinew and pap

goading her on:
the women who have loved the dead alive
the homesteads that have earned their sweat and glands
impassive nature that has heard their songs
the miners of our daily wealth that still defy
the harsh landscape of new furies
the meerkat endures-
torn certainties of class endure
the weaver also endures: there-
green blankets of our shrouded dreams
humanity has died in Marikana

The strike is over
The dead must return
to work.

*(after a tough two weeks and seeing Pitika Ntuli’s miner sculpture with the green corrugated iron blanket)

Kozain remarks, “For me, as someone who has great faith in literature addressing the greater question of life, politics, religion and whatever else, it’s important to see the development of artistic expression about Marikana develop. But it is unfortunate that a tragedy like Marikana should have to spark something like this.” DM

Read more:

  • S.Africa’s mine ‘struggle’ has its own soundtrack on Reuters;
  • Marikana’s theatre of the absurd claims another life in Daily Maverick;
  • Marikana: The next goal for the workers – split from NUM in Daily Maverick.

Photo by Greg Marinovich.


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