Over the past several days, the eNCA satellite television news network has rebroadcast – and then placed a link to the entire hour-long programme on the network’s website – a dramatic documentary on the Marikana Massacre of miners from the Lonmin platinum mine near Rustenburg. J. BROOKS SPECTOR spent hours watching this documentary several times to get the full flavour of it.
While the actual events happened a year ago this week, the special commission appointed to investigate the dozens of killings as well as the causes of the labour unrest that was the fuse for those terrible events is still nowhere close to completing its proceedings, let alone issuing its findings. And even now, the killings continue as yet another miner, this time an NUM shop steward, was murdered the other day.
However one judges the toxic mix that led to Marikana that included a rapacious, badly managed mining company; appalling living conditions for many miners and their families; two feuding unions desperate to gain or hold onto the right to bargain on behalf of the miners; a simmering dispute over miner salaries; and an out-of-control police force together with some feckless government officials; the end result now seems on course to become as iconic for South African history as the earlier events of Sharpeville in 1960 or Soweto in 1976. Beyond any other comparisons, Marikana was the first time the full weight of state firepower was turned directly on the nation’s citizens in the post-Apartheid era.
This eNCA documentary has come to viewers in the wake of almost a century of documentary film and television history, experimentation and tradition. Since the 1920s, path-breaking works by Robert Flaherty (“Men of Aran”, “Nanook of the North”), Pare Lorenz (“The River”, “The Plow that Broke the Plains”), Leni Riefenstahl (“The Triumph of the Will”), Frank Capra (“Why We Fight”), Henry Salomon (“Victory at Sea”), the Edward R Murrow/Fred Friendly duo (“See It Now” and “Harvest of Shame”), Ken Burns (“The Civil War”, “Baseball”), and Connie Field (“Have You Heard from Johannesburg”), among others, have set a high standard in terms of visual values and the delivery of an authoritative viewpoint and voice. This body of documentary work has become one tough bar to be measured against, let alone equaled.
The Marikana Massacre: Through the Lens, to give the eNCA documentary its formal name, features at the scene reporting as well as recollections from eNCA reporters Xoli Mngambi and Phakamile Hlubi, cameraman Joe Komane (together with Reuters cameraman Dinky Mkhize), and continuity from news anchors Iman Rappetti and Debora Patta (who has now moved on to CBS News). Co-produced by Bavani Naidoo and Xoli Moloi, it features a haunting soundtrack from Lalela and is crisply edited by eNCA’s Dirk Fourie.
Instead of offering an authoritative vision (and the anger) of an overall point of view from a omniscient-like narrator, this program takes the alternative tack of delivering Marikana’s story as it only haltingly became clear to the reporters as they reported what is unfolding on that dusty, windswept hill in South Africa’s platinum belt. In that sense, this documentary is presented more like a detective story than a documentary in the format’s more usual tradition. Delivered this way, the reporters can reprise their astonishment, shock and horror as they discover the police killings, report on the earlier killings of police and security guards, and the continually cascading violence that was spinning out of control.
The Marikana killings have now been extensively reported over the past year (especially following serious investigative digging by DM’s Greg Marinovich, Thapelo Lekgowa, Sipho Hlongwane, Mandy de Waal, Khadija Patel, and Greg Nicolson, among others). Moreover, while its after-effects have now had significant impacts on the country’s reputation abroad and contributed to a creeping sense of its economic and social fragility; some of the visual images included in this documentary are still astonishing. Or perhaps the word really should be “horrifying”. Some of the footage – perhaps due to its vivid, sustained, graphic texture, has rarely – if ever – been shown on television.
In this documentary, the killing fury of lethal fire from what appears to be a police skirmish line marching through the veld could almost be part of a film where Marines clear a rice field of Viet Cong sympathisers before torching the hamlet. In fact, after watching this mesmerising but gruesome footage, the most astonishing thing is that so many more miners weren’t killed in the shooting. Then comes the audacity of a police detachment on horseback, cantering across the landscape, searching for stragglers – footage that looks like something out of a western film – or maybe even a Kurosawa epic where a band of samurai warriors hunts down the last remnants of their opposing force. And then, unbelievably, as wounded, nearly dead miners lie on the ground, the police callously kick at one, poke at another, and then casually check the rest for a hidden “traditional weapon” or two – all while the wounded bleed to death into the dirt of an open field. And one would need a heart of stone to be untouched by the anguish that pours out of surviving family members – from police, miners, mine security officers who have been Marikana’s casualties – when they talk about their losses on camera.
If there is a missing element in this program, it is the near-absence of that angry authoritative voice after these scenes have played out on screen. Reporter Xoli Mngambi is shown as he unsuccessfully tries to extract some kind of cogent explanation from the police commander on the ground about the police’s intended plans or goals on the day of the assault. However, the documentary largely avoids focusing closely on the larger responsibility of the Lonmin mining company for this disaster; the role of that increasingly violent competition between the two unions, AMCU and NUM, in contributing to the explosion; the culpability of government officers in failing to enforce their legal mandates on health and welfare; and, most importantly, perhaps, the inability of the police to carry out competent non-lethal crowd control operations, rather than falling back on a kind of “search and destroy” mission.
Given this structure, The Marikana Massacre: Through the Lens needs to be seen more as a preliminary report-back to the nation, rather than the final word on the saga. A year from now, if the Farlam Commission gets to the bottom of this tragedy and susses out who gave which order, and what on earth was going through their minds when they did so, then South Africans will deserve a more thorough, in-depth analysis delivered to them via their television sets. But when this happens, it will still need to be one that continues to portray the horror of it all – even as it pairs that emotion with the outrage that these events so clearly deserve. DM