Frans Baleni sent me a text message, back when he was still general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. Four people had already been killed as thousands of rock drill operators went on strike, demanding R12,500 a month. The deaths were blamed on union rivalry, NUM versus the rising Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. It followed another bloody strike, months earlier at Impala Platinum.
“Daluvuyo Bongo,” Baleni responded to my request for a NUM contact in Marikana; he included the branch chairperson’s phone number.
It was 13 August 2012 and Bongo had fled with about a dozen NUM members to a hotel on the edge of Rustenburg. They sat on the grass in the sun, some still in their overalls, as though on a break before starting a shift. Bongo suspected he might be killed.
They have to return to work, he said, despite saying the striking mineworkers were going door-to-door looking for prominent NUM members, targeting them and their families. Bongo was killed in the aftermath of the 16 August massacre, his predictions becoming a violent reality.
When we met, I didn’t know NUM members, and Bongo himself, had escalated tensions during the strike through arming loyal unionists to defend NUM’s Lonmin office and shooting at the rock drill operators, wounding two strikers as they marched on 11 August 2012. I didn’t anticipate that he and so many others would die.
As the sun set over Lonmin’s platinum operations, I arrived in Marikana that afternoon and stumbled upon what I later realised was called the “JOC”, the Joint Operations Centre the police and mine security had established to deal with the strike. Security and the SAPS were rushing in all directions, heavily armed. There were two choppers in an adjacent field, the provincial and national police commissioners having flown in.
A SAPS officer said I could go to see the striking mineworkers if I was willing to be cut into to pieces. Lonmin security officials said it was too dangerous. Those at the JOC were reeling after two cops had just been hacked to death. Three strikers were killed in the encounter. It got dark and I left to file the story in Joburg, still stuck on issues of union rivalry. On the way out of the mine, I got lost in Lonmin’s network of roads that connect shaft to shaft, shaft to hostel.
The next day I flew overseas and read about the massacre through wire stories in the international sections of foreign papers. When 34 people were killed on 16 August, we were still naïve. The police deceived the public and the media bought it before Daily Maverick’s Greg Marinovich reported the story, not of charging muti-crazed mineworkers, but of cops who had pursued and killed people in cold blood.
Today, four years on, we know so much more about both the 10 killings in the days proceeding the massacre and the 34 killings on 16 August. Not all is known, but anyone with access to Google can find out intricate details about each death and arguments from the sides of the company, police, strikers, unions or government. So why does it feel like we’re still as lost as I was on those Lonmin roads in 2012? I now know the route, know so much more about what happened, but still feel overwhelmed, numbed by years of outrage.
There have been numerous books published on Marikana. Documentaries too. We’ve followed a commission of inquiry that lasted two years and published its findings. Arguments and blame have come from all corners. The story has even been turned into a musical. Eventually, even journalists did some good work.
We know the strikers killed non-striking workers, as well as security guards and police officers in the days leading to 16 August. We know how Lonmin, the police, government and the NUM influenced the classification of the strike, to change it from a labour issue to a policing priority. We know that on 16 August the police plan was insufficient, against standing orders – frankly, a joke – some would say destined for death. And we know police officers were found to have killed people without justification. The Marikana Commission of Inquiry, despite its flaws, made wide recommendations for killers, across the board, to be investigated and potentially charged by the National Prosecuting Authority.
We also know the killings tore breadwinners from families, leaving widows and orphans, parents without sons, wives without husbands, children without fathers, and dependants without providers.
Lonmin has given widows jobs and is providing for the orphans’ education. The industry says it has learnt a lesson and needs to transform. Striking mineworkers were charged for both the killing of non-striking workers and their own comrades, which was more a knee-jerk response of a vindictive state than a pursuit of justice. Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega has faced her own inquiry for her role at Marikana and at the inquiry (the finalisation of her inquiry appears to be delayed). The state has entered into compensation talks with the families of the deceased and the injured and arrested mineworkers. There have been rumours the NPA will actually charge the police involved in unjustified killings, but no charges as yet have been laid against a single officer.
We know so much more about Marikana, so much more than when it occurred, but it still feels like we’re lost in the dark. There are 44 souls hovering over that part of the platinum belt, plus those, like Bongo, who lost their lives in the aftermath. A massacre occurred without consequence. We’ve flipped the calendar for four years and it’s time the knowledge amassed must be used for healing. Charges need to be laid. Compensation must be finalised. Massacres must have consequences. DM
Photo: Strike leaders gather on a hill called Wonderkop at Marikana, August 15, 2012. Photo by Greg Marinovich
"By scepticism...we arrive first at suspension of judgement, and second at freedom from disturbance." ~ Sextus Empiricus