South Africa

Marikana: who shot first?

By Greg Nicolson 30 November 2012

The NUM will use their Marikana Commission appearance to deny that their members committed the first murders. But the defence teams will try to pin the first deaths squarely on the shoulders of South Africa’s biggest union. Just who is responsible for the macabre climate that eventually led to the shootings in Marikana on 16 August? By GREG NICOLSON.

I met the now-deceased NUM branch secretary Daluvuyo Bongo on August 13. A dozen NUM members relaxed on a lawn in Rustenburg after fleeing Lonmin in fear of their lives. Bongo was obviously scared. We left the other workers and leaned against the hotel braai. “We heard they identified the branch top five to kill,” he said, scared of going back to the worker’s quarters where he would eventually be killed. 

Most reports acknowledge that the first deaths at Marikana occurred on 11 August. “Bongo said the violence began on Thursday,” I wrote after our meeting. “After fleeing for his life with other NUM members to the resort, he accused the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) of orchestrating the attacks.”

His account fit with reports from earlier in 2012 – AMCU was leading a violent turf war for members. “On Friday they gathered again and we heard they were coming to burn our offices,” said Bongo. He said six NUM members went to meet a large crowd of protestors headed for its offices but for far outnumbered and fled. Two security guards were killed by the mob and their cars set alight, he said. 

But just who was first to kill whom in those early days of the Lonmin strike? After investigating in Marikana, Jared Sacks wrote in Daily Maverick: “Some strikers I interviewed claimed the NUM leaders first threw rocks at them before the shooting started. Others said they were attacked from two different angles of the taxi rank. There is also a discrepancy as to just how many guns were in the possession of the leadership that came out of the NUM office (reports range from between five and 15 firearms).

“Despite those discrepancies, the strikers and other witnesses – without exception – claim NUM personnel shot at the protesters without warning or provocation. The miners were clearly ambushed by their union representatives.”

David Bruce, who describes himself as an independent researcher based in Johannesburg, read Sacks’ report and on Sunday wrote an open letter to Cosatu. He said the federation of trade unions would need to respond “if it is to have any chance of being able to retain credibility as a federation that acts in the interests of workers.” He drew parallels with the killing of two workers at Harmony Gold on 22 November and said “they indicate that the NUM is consistently involved in acts of aggression”. 

Cosatu responded on Tuesday. Spokesman Patrick Craven said Bruce was trying to get the federation of trade unions to pre-empt the findings of the Marikana Commission, which it refused to do. “Bruce is feeding the myths, divisions and suspicions, which is no help at all.”

NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni said he would let the Commission reveal what happened. While neither Craven nor Baleni could confirm the date the NUM would testify in Rustenburg, they expected it to be soon after the AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa, who is currently appearing. The NUM is said to be confident they can prove their innocence.

Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi would not comment Wednesday on what evidence there was to defend the NUM, but said it was a fallacy that two people died that Saturday. “The first point to make is that there was nobody that died on 11 August. Two: the names that have been mentioned – one name doesn’t exist and the other name is somebody who long died. But we will go to the Commission to articulate that position.”

Thapelo Lekgowa, who along with fellow University of Johannesburg academics will launch their book Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer next week, disagreed. He has worked closely with miners since the shootings and heard the same account of the march to the NUM offices from multiple witnesses. “As they passed the bus stop to turn left towards the NUM offices, with the taxi rank on the right, a few meters from the curve to the office they were confronted by men in red t-shirts who started shooting into [the crowd of] the unarmed marchers. Two marchers, workers, were hit. One ran into the hostel through an opening in the fence and the other ran towards the bus stop, where he fell and was finished by the men in red (NUM).” Lekgawa says that man died from his wounds.

AMCU Vice-President Jeff Mthahmeme said in the days following 11 August, “It is totally incorrect that (the NUM) have been victims. They are the perpetrators of this violence… Four of our members were shot at and two of them have since died.”

But police spokesman Captain Dennis Adriao told Daily Maverick two people had been shot on 11 August during the march to NUM, but the SAPS recorded no fatalities. In his report to the Marikana Commission, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Visser said an additional person was later found wounded, “possibly linked to the same incident earlier”.

While the stakeholders dispute what happened, it seems accepted that the conflict on 11 August established the climate of violence. “That was the shift to workers arming themselves,” says Lekgowa. The police say later that day they saw some protestors using muthi. “On Saturday we went back to the places where we stay and the people, the security police together with the people from NUM attacked and killed two of our people and that is the reason we are carrying these things (weapons),” a mineworker later told police on video.

The Marikana Commission will soon hear the opposing sides of the story. It comes at great risk for the NUM: if its members are found to have drawn first blood, the perception of the tragedy will change dramatically. They will be blamed for setting the climate of violence that resulted in the death of dozens of people. The retaliation of and hostilities of striking workers will become clear, as will their determination to hold onto their weapons. DM

Read more:

  • Marikana the prequel: NUM and the murders that started it all in Daily Maverick 
  • Lonmin’s killing fields in Daily Maverick 
  • Marikana Commission: What happened before 16 August? Lonmin and police videos failed to capture crucial evidence in Daily Maverick 

Photo by Greg Marinovich



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