Everyone just called him Steve. Mawethu Joseph Steven, widely known as Steve Khululekile was a cautious guy, some thought paranoid. When he went to hotels, he took his own skaf’tin, or lunchbox. He feared being poisoned. The last time grassroots activist Chris Molebatse saw him; they were both travelling in the same minibus taxi. Steve, as everyone called him, was seated at the back. They nodded a greeting. Despite Steve being the regional organiser for AMCU, who now rule the roost in the platinum sector, he preferred not to drive. “Why should I buy my own coffin?” he would respond, when people tried to convince him to get a car.
When the taxi stopped at Ga-Pitse village in the Bleskop mining area outside Rustenburg, Steve made his way out, greeting Molebatse with a “Sharp, comrade.”
Steve preferred to drink at taverns where there were people he knew, miners who would watch his back. Billy’s Tavern was one such place, where Steve felt secure.
Photo: The entrance to Billy’s Tavern and Butchery, Ga-Pitse village, Sunday morning May 13, 2013. North West Province, South Africa. Photo Greg Marinovich
He walked in past the butchery and the buy-and-braai chisanyama. It was lunchtime on Saturday, and the place was busy. Toward the bottom of the stand was the tavern, a large rectangular building with two signs above the door: no one under 18 was welcome, and neither were firearms.
Steve bought two Castle Lagers, which he put down on one of the large communal tables, and then went to put money on the side of the pool table to book the next game. He returned to his beer, and the soccer match on the television.
Photo: Billy’s Tavern, Ga-Pitse village, where AMCU organiser Steve Khululelkile, (Mawethu Josh Steven) was murdered Saturday May 12, 2013. North West Province, South Africa. Photo Greg Marinovich
Witnesses say they saw a man dressed in a blue two-piece worker’s overall. They noticed him, because he was a stranger. He left. Shortly thereafter, another similarly dressed man entered briefly before leaving. Steve had his back to the entrance and did not notice them. Within minutes, the two men were back, accompanied by a third who was also dressed in overalls. One of them swiftly approached Steve from the rear and fired four shots with a pistol into his back.
The patrons either ducked or ran for cover at the sound of the gunshots, and the four men escaped through a gate set in the fence at the rear of the tavern property.
Steve, the regional organiser for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) on the platinum belt, was dead.
Steve rose to prominence in the mid 2000’s when he was a general worker, or a malaisha as his friends joked, at Lonmin’s Karee mine. He was elected as the NUM shop steward and from there he rose in prominence. From the first, he made his comrades at NUM uncomfortable. He was troublesome, and belligerent, and did not care for a united front with the rest of the elected NUM officials. He was clear that he represented the interests of the miners who elected him. Period.
Steve was a guy with a big voice, and would often arrive at meetings unkempt, unwashed. He was, according to someone who worked with him, ‘an arrogant bastard’.
He might well have been arrogant, but Steve had power across all Lonmin’s mines, and not just at Karee. Even if the shop stewards representing over 50% of the 28,000 workers across all of Lonmin’s shafts agreed on a certain subject, but Steve disagreed, the motion would not fly. Steve would call a meeting of all NUM members and they would always back Steve. He was extremely powerful, solid on the ground, and a thorn in the side of NUM.
Many of the workers believed the NUM leadership, other than Steve, to have been co-opted by management.
It was during the local branch elections at Lonmin in 2011 that things came to a head. At the NUM regional conference that preceded it, Steve told the branch that there was no need for elections as he and his team would be re-elected. NUM said “no way”, that was unacceptable, unconstitutional. Steve then called for a mass meeting to get a popular mandate from the Karee mine, where he was chairman.
At the mass meeting, a miner from KwaZulu Natal called ‘Bongani’ put himself forward to contest for the position of chairman. Steve addressed the crowd, and apparently said, “Comrades, you said that anybody who tried to contest my position is a spy. And now there are people who are showing; you must deal with him.”
The elections did not go ahead. After the meeting, a crowd of people followed Bongani to his room. He was stoned to death. Nobody was arrested. Intra-union violence is a fact of life between competing candidates, and there have been several murders of candidates, or of people belonging to competing actions over the years.
The NUM regional power structure insisted there had to be an election. The officials went to the Karee branch and said there should be an election. The branch members stoned the regional officials and the meeting was abandoned.
Steve apparently said, “I am the man, no one is going to take over from me as chairman.” The situation continued to simmer for a couple of months and in May of 2011, NUM then suspended Steve and the secretary Dan Moeketsi.
Steve went back to the members and asked them to decide what they wanted to do about it. The next day, May 18, 2011, the entire mine went on an unprotected strike. Within days, Lonmin management (with NUM’s approval) agreed to fire all 9,000 striking workers.
Management invited all workers to re-apply for employment. Most were re-hired but some 1,400 were not. They were the ones deemed to be troublemakers – Steve’s most fervent supporters. At the time, Socialist World’s Liv Shange reported on The Star’s story of May 26 2011, where NUM national spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said: “We will make sure that the workers are reinstated.” Shange further noted that the same spokesperson, a day later, told the Mining Review that “Unfortunately the company cannot have such people and has to let them go,” and that “the union would not support those that are on the wrong side of the law.”
Steve would never again work for Lonmin. Nor would the other non-rehired workers. The anger against NUM was massive, and even though the 50% plus one rule at Lonmin meant that Steve could not enter the mine, his former members at the mine told him to find them another union. They would follow Steve anywhere. That is how AMCU entered the picture, and with Steve’s popularity, AMCU swiftly displaced NUM at Lonmin.
With Steve at the helm, it is little wonder that AMCU signed up a massive 70% of Lonmin’s workforce, as announced by Lonmin weeks before his death.
AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa says that Lonmin accused Steve of being behind the terrible violence of the 2012 strike. He was due to be called as a witness at the Marikana hearings to be cross-examined on this by Lonmin’s counsel.
His foes did not forget him, and Mathunjwa says that Steve received death threats, without specifying from whom.
Steve was a powerful leader as well as a divisive force. He told confidants that he was contesting the position of deputy president at AMCU, a post held by Joseph Mathunjwa’s right-hand man, Jimmy Gama. An AMCU elective conference set for earlier this year was cancelled as the union said they were not ready for it. Mathunjwa denies this, saying that as an official in the union he was not eligible to stand for any elected office bearer position, not even shop steward.
Steve, it seems, had no shortage of adversaries. It is little wonder he was so careful of anything from being poisoned to being attacked. Yet come Saturday last, as he was watching soccer and drinking a beer while waiting for his turn at the pool table, assassins got to him.
As word spread that Steve had been killed, hundreds of people made their way from across the platinum belt to the bar.
That afternoon, a few dozen residents of the shanties and hostels around Lonmin’s Marikana operation gathered at the mountain, the Koppie near which the Marikana massacre took place. They say that they were dispersed when police opened fire on them with rubber bullets. Police, on the other hand, say that they were responding to an emergency call, that people had been killed inside the shanty town, and that they came under fire from the group and responded.
The call the police were responding to occurred soon after darkness fell. Masked men wearing blankets and armed with machetes, spears and pistols descended on a shack in Nkaneng settlement, where they questioned twin brothers about the whereabouts of another brother, said to be a NUM supporter (and possibly an elected local office bearer, though Daily Maverick cannot yet confirm this). Other sources claim that the murdered men were, in fact, allied to AMCU. Misinformation seems to upstage information at this stage.
Police say that the two brothers were shot dead when they did not assist the assailants. Two women in the shack were also injured; one with a gunshot to the leg, and the other was hacked. Both were discharged from hospital on Sunday.
While the police do not refer to any other deaths, Daily Maverick has been told that the man the attackers were searching for had indeed been found and killed.
Sources we have spoken to tell of another man, rumoured also to be a NUM member, who was being hunted but managed to escape, though his car was torched. (None of this information can be verified to Daily Maverick’s satisfaction in the current climate of fear that pervades Marikana, but we feel it is important to add it to the record.)
Later that same Saturday night, a leading member of the Marikana miners’ strike committee, Tolakile Bhele Dlunga, came home after the meeting about Steve’s death. As he approached the entrance to the yard where his shack is one among a dozen that the local resident rents out, he noticed three people lurking at the gate. On instinct, he turned off into another yard, where he spent some 40 minutes chatting. When he emerged, the trio was no longer there. Dlunga walked into the compound.
As he passed between the owner’s brick house and the tap where the shack dwellers like him got their water, he saw a man wearing a hoody. It was about ten thirty at night by then, and dark. Bhele could not make out his face, and so as he passed the man, he gave him a non-committal greeting of just “Hey,” to judge the response. There was none. Adrenaline surged through his body. Instead of heading for his own shack at the rear of the compound, he stepped into a neighbouring one, where, in whispers, he asked to spend the night.
Later on, he and his hosts heard footsteps round Dlunga’s shack, five metres away. The padlock securing his door was fiddled with, and then they heard the sound of the fence being scaled.
The next morning, Sunday, he and his neighbours emerged at first light. They found shoe prints circling his shack that no one in the compound had seen before. They belonged to strangers.
On investigating outside, where the trio had been waiting, at least one of the distinctive shoeprints showed that non-residents had indeed been walking back and forth outside the gate.
Photo: Bhele Dlunga, right, Lonmin miner and AMCU official, who believes he escaped a hit squad on Saturday night, talks to neighbours in the shack compound where they all rent rooms North West Province, South Africa. Wonderkop, Marikana, Sunday May 13, 2013. (Greg Marinovich)
Dlunga was spooked, as were his neighbours. And while some miners made plans to move their leadership to safe houses (read, the shacks of other people), others began the process of laying traps for the assailants. The Daily Maverick has previously written about Dlunga, when he was arrested and tortured by police last year, and he spoke at the Gathering about his experiences.
On the morning after Steve’s murder, one of the Marikana 2012 strike leaders who was visiting the scene of his death said, “Without Steve, we are done, he was our only hope.”
An overheard cellphone conversation spoke of paranoia among local AMCU members. One said, “They are tackling us top to bottom.”
AMCU members in Marikana believe that they are up against fighting talk from both NUM and the SACP’s Blade Nzimande, as well as the call by African National Congress’s tycoon deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa (until recently, on the board of Lonmin, and a substantial shareholder) for there to be just one union while at a May Day rally in Rustenburg.
Photo: Marikana village, Sunday morning May 13, 2013. North West Province, South Africa. (Greg Marinovich)
Yet the initial despondency soon turned to more belligerent talk of revenge; of chasing NUM out of Marikana; of closing their office at Wonderkop. “We see how the NUM walk freely around here, we must take them head on, now.”
AMCU president Mathunjwa has called on the union’s members to stay calm.
“Violence deprives us of all the gains which was fought for by our heroes and heroines in achieving the democracy we today enjoy in South Africa.
“Freedom of association is what we fought for in the new democratic South Africa. People should not be killed for exercising their right to associate or disassociate. Let peace prevail,” said Mathunjwa, echoing his call for non-violence in the lead-up to the Marikana massacre.
As the fear spreads throughout the platinum belt, real and imagined enemies strike terror into the hearts of mineworkers and their families. The fear provokes possibly paranoid assumptions and acts of revenge, or even of pre-emptive action against their adversaries. In such an environment, suspicion is cast on any possible enemy.
Yet there are people out there targeting specific individuals. Few are as provocative as the killing of Steve, and it is unlikely that this spasm of violence will end soon. Retired Judge Ian Farlam has stated himself that the assassination of witnesses is a threat to the work of the Marikana commission. DM
Main photo: Lonmin’s Marikana operation at dawn, Sunday May 13, 2013. North West Province, South Africa. (Greg Marinovich)