South Africa

When theatre met the Marikana massacre

By K Patel, G Nicolson & T Lekgowa 21 August 2013

One year after the Marikana Massacre the town is still coming to terms with the events that have unfolded. In an effort to better understand what happened, and to never forget the violence, the Marikana Women’s Group has adapted the tragic events to the stage. By GREG NICOLSON, THAPELO LEKGOWA & KHADIJA PATEL.

A woman leaves her Eastern Cape village in August 2012. She has no TV to watch the news, but she hears two men have been killed in the platinum mining town of Marikana, where her son lives and works. She leaves for Marikana immediately. She meets the women of Marikana and persuades them to approach the management at the Lonmin mining company to persuade them to accede to workers’ demands. The women, however, are too late. The 16 August massacre begins as they journey to see the mine bosses.

This is the plot of a play performed by 50 Marikana women at Friday’s one-year commemoration of the killings.

In her Nkaneng kitchen, Nomzekhelo Primrose Sonti, 51, scoops a glass of water from a bucket before hunching over a table to explain the drama. The actors are local women from the Marikana Women’s Group and most have never been on stage. The plot is entwined with their own experience. Sonti’s face scrunches as she talks about the deaths. “There are many strikes in the mines. It was not the first strike. Each and every year at all the mines, even in the factory, there are some strikes. But there are no killings. The only thing we expected as women, as women all over the world, was the dismissal of the workers, not to kill.”

She’s interrupted by a phone call; cast members are calling to ask about the final rehearsal.

“We want to express that pain, not [just] here in Marikana or South Africa. We want to express all over the world our pain as women of Wonderkop. And we want that drama not to end here on the 16th or here in Marikana. We want [the play] to continue. In fact, we need to have a film of that drama … Our aim after the 16th is we want even to go to the Market Theatre to do that … We want to show them the workers, where they stayed at the mountain – no water, no food, waiting for the management to come to them and answer them.”

A year ago, Sonti and the other women were at Wonderkop stadium when the shootings started. They tried to get to the mountain but were stopped by the miners. “No, no, move back. There is bad. You can’t go there. Go and sleep,” they were told. Sonti turns her palms to the ceiling. “We didn’t sleep. [We] came back and we didn’t sleep. We didn’t sleep,” she repeats.

The following day the women’s group went to Lonmin’s Number 1 shaft but turned back when police said they would be shot. They cried as they were denied access to the injured in hospital. In the coming days, their children made do as they focused on helping the mineworkers. They worked non-stop in different communities “until we finished to bury them”. Sonti’s friend, Paulina Masuhlo, was shot and killed by a rubber bullet in September.

In January, Sonti began working on the play. She handwrote a script, her first attempt at writing a drama, but struggled to convince the other women. “You know the people are stubborn,” she emphasises. Others thought they could be arrested. “But I’ve told them about… what is that play? Sarafina!” She challenged the woman to share what happened with the world.

“Why must you just sit down?” she asked. “What about our generation? I’m thinking of this generation. Where can they get this thing? They must see it. They must see it.” Sonti wants the play to travel and be recorded and shown on TV. “Even if they want us to do it elsewhere, somewhere far, we can go. And then we want cassettes for it, film. Maybe [that] can create us, uplift us,” she says.

Isis Thompson, a London-based filmmaker who has been documenting the group’s efforts and watched them grow from a cast of 15 to 50, said the women formed their own support group because they felt distant from the ANC Women’s League. “There is an intimacy between them. They offer each other support. In the weeks I was with them there were three shootings in Marikana. One of the deaths was a friend of one of the women. They all rallied round to give their support. Many of these women never knew each other before but now they very much feel they are part of something big,” says Thompson.

The play debuted on Friday in front of an audience of thousands. The stage faced the koppie where so many miners died. Lonmin gave workers the option of taking the day off to attend the event and many miners watched the play attentively. Afterwards, miners came to the performers’ tent, shook their hands and encouraged them to keep telling their story.

The women wanted to show where the mineworkers came from and the people they left behind (women and children in the villages). After the performance sinks in, Sonti says, “[People will see that the] people who were on the mountain have people who love them and now the love has been cut short. The women of Marikana and those back in the rural areas were affected by the massacre and it is a lifetime pain we will carry.”

Once again, her reality and the drama intersect. The play ends with police gunning down miners. The main character asks: “Are they killing them for their rights? Why don’t they fire them? What about these orphans now? What about the orphans? What kind of democracy is this?” DM

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Photo: The Marikana Women’s Support Group acts for cameras in Marikana as they wait to start their final rehearsal before the play’s debut. Photo Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick

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