South Africa

Marikana, one year later: the hell above and below ground

By Greg Marinovich 16 August 2013

It is a year since the event that shook South Africa to its core. There is no need to belabour what occurred in the dusty veld of Marikana on 16 August 2012, other than to say it was the first massacre by South African security forces in a democratic epoch. GREG MARINOVICH looks at what a year has wrought, and goes into the heart of mining darkness. Photographs by THAPELO LEKGOWA & GREG MARINOVICH.

It took a few weeks, but the true nature of the Marikana massacre inadvertently revealed itself through the esoteric markings made by police crime scene experts on the rocks of Small Koppie, which they call Scene 2.

Here, 18 miners were fatally shot by police in a hidden clearing encircled by a jumble of granite boulders. This was preceded by the gunning down of 16 men in front of the world’s press at the Koppie, or Scene 1, as the police call it.

Marikana roused the slumbering concerns of South Africa’s once prominent human rights organisations. It was as if the mist of the utopia promised in 1994 was blasted clear by the automatic rifles of the paramilitary police units on that autumn afternoon.

What followed was wave after wave of attention focused on this stark little mining village and its sordid shantytowns. Ministerial delegations sent by the President spoke of a “tragedy”, as if it were a tornado that had ripped through Marikana. Revolutionary imposters gathered to take advantage of the state’s gory misstep, and parliamentary also-rans grabbed the opportunity to distribute their t-shirt manifestos to a diverse group of people who happened only to be bound by the deadly crackle of police gunfire.

The circus of political concern ran from die-hard Marxists, to expensively suited democrats and self-consciously graceless “sandalistas”. Breathlessly indignant and thrilled journalists spoke grittily to camera, after checking their hair was just right in the lens’s reflection.

For more than two weeks, 276 survivors of the massacre remained in jail; many were beaten, suffocated and threatened with death if they did not reveal who the ringleaders were. Yet everyone knew who these supposed anarchists were; for seven days they had stood at the head of the miners gathered at the orange rock outcrop. Journalists and police intelligence operatives alike had repeatedly photographed the leaders. Long before the massacre spies among the miners told their masters who led the strike. In fact, several thousand men had long since given their mandate to a group of miners to represent them. It was no secret.

Yet outside that brotherhood of miners, police, politicians, analysts and journalists felt uncertain. They could not grasp the essence of what and who exactly these leaders represented. Why did men armed with spears, machetes and blankets feel empowered to challenge the might of a modern industrialised nation’s security forces, to confront their own democratically elected leaders, to challenge the will of international capital?

One year after the restive miners of Lonmin’s Marikana mine emerged from the bowels of the earth with their demands for a living wage, Thapelo Lekgowa and I took an underground excursion into a Lonmin mine to make what happened above ground all make sense.

In the boardroom at Rowland shaft, the smell of fresh coffee richly cuts through the chilly air. A series of incomprehensible maps and schematics show where the ingenuity of man chases the narrow reefs of precious ore. It all looks so ordered and, well, tamed.

Dressed in unfamiliarly heavy cotton overalls, and stumbling in thick rubber boots, an outsider follows the path that thousands of men take every day, through cage-like turnstiles, along metalled corridors marked by the anodyne sanctioned graffiti of safety mantra.

A large elevator, big enough to carry a company of men, descends swiftly from the bright winter sunlight into the underworld. Each level passed throws a pall of fluorescent light into the “cage”. The descent ends and the steel door opens, spilling us into a spacious cavern. It is a 15 to 20 minute walk along well-lit and clean corridors that are a working monument to post-industrial mining. Painted pipes of varying diameters carry the needs of mining from the shaft out to the working areas. Water flows in well-maintained channels. Brightly coloured mini locomotives flash safety lights as they slowly trundle past. The corridor leads to a conveyor of chair lifts that endlessly circle down from level 26 to the lowest at Rowland, level 31. Miners nonchalantly swing themselves onto these steel-saddled rocking horses. The chairs sway quietly past the entrances to the descending levels as loudspeakers play Zahara’s peaceful hit song Mthwalo Wam. It would be easy to doze off, were it not for the need to hold on.

Before long, the chairs come to the end of the chain, where they turn and begin the ride back up. This is level 31, about 1,000m below the surface. Within a short distance, the vibrating green flicker of fluorescent lights gives way to the stabbing headlamps of walking miners. Their faces are rendered invisible against the glare of the light on their safety helmets.

Soon, the clean main passageways peter out as the miners near the working tunnels, or stopes. It is impossible to walk upright, and the ground underfoot is treacherous with wires, cables and ditches. The occasional bulb illuminates junctures between low tunnels that lead into the rock. It’s all a maze, any sense of direction snuffed out this far from the sun and landmarks. The neatly drafted maps hold no sway here, at least not for the uninitiated. All one does is tramp behind the dipping, looping indication of the headlamp in front. Soon, the path that follows the narrow band of desired metals leads up a steep set of steel stairs. The atmosphere gets closer, and warmer. The chill of the larger passageways gives way to intense humidity; sweat begins to roll down faces, darkening armpits.

Arriving at the working rock face is a far cry from the deceptive introduction to mining in the more civilized areas. This is where the core work happens, and it takes place in intense darkness and humidity, relieved only by the limited glare of lamps that obscure men’s faces and light only their hands and tools as they grapple with the machinery of mining. The restrictions of these simultaneously wet and dusty confines make it clumsy for novices, yet the miners seem at ease. The clean overalls that clad everyone in the upper reaches have been discarded in favour of work rags. The grease and mud here make the use of pristine overalls redundant.