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DM168 COMMEMORATION

Marikana: The unfolding of a never-ending tragedy

Mine workers gather at the Nkageng informal settlement on 15 August 2012 in North West, South Africa, to plan a way forward following violent clashes at Lonmin's Marikana Platinum Mine. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

For nine long, tortured years, the grieving families of the slain at Marikana have sought justice – in vain. Alone, they suffer a suppurating and very wicked wound, for both themselves and the entire South African nation.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

On 16 August 2012, in a terrifying act of police revenge for the killing earlier of two of their colleagues, the SAPS vowed to “end this thing today”, then went out and cold-bloodedly shot dead 34 miners out on a wildcat strike. Many were shot in the back with military assault rifles, the culmination of 10 days of mine violence that left 47 dead.

At the time, it was the bloodiest massacre in post-apartheid South Africa, fourth to three prior apartheid-era massacres, the hardly known 1952 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in East London, in which 80 to 200 people were killed; the infamous Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960 (69 dead); and Soweto’s 16 June 1976 Uprising (176 to 700 killed).

What came to be called the Marikana Massacre at the Lonmin platinum mine near Rustenburg in North West was a direct result of a betrayal by Lonmin mine management, police incompetence, union rivalry and the insufferable indignity of migrant labour, a highly exploitative practice that no-one post-apartheid has seen fit to end.

Those who have escaped consequences (but not blame) include President Cyril Ramaphosa, former president Jacob Zuma, then minister of safety and security Nathi Mthethwa, then police commissioner Riah Phiyega, and (at the time) North West provincial commissioner Lieutenant General Zukiswa Mbombo, their subordinates, key union representatives from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), and Lonmin senior managers Jomo Kwadi, Barnard Mokwena (a paid State Security Agency spy), Abey Kgotle, security manager Graeme Sinclair, and the top triumvirate of Lonmin executives, Ian Farmer, Ben Magara and Simon Scott.

For nine years, the families have slept every single night holding the pain of their loss. They filed a civil case in 2016 to compel a recalcitrant Zuma presidency to act on their promised R1-billion-plus compensation, still largely delayed.

Key breadwinners are gone. Some widows live in shacks.

Nine years later, not a single police officer has been convicted.

It took nearly five years for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) to identify 72 police officers in connection with the incident on 13 August 2012, which left five dead just days before the massacre. It took another year for the first six officers to appear in court.

William Mpembe, then deputy North West provincial commissioner and now head of security at Tharisa Minerals in Marikana, was charged in 2018 with four counts of murder, five of attempted murder.

He and former air wing commander Lieutenant Colonel Salmon Johannes Vermaak face counts of defeating the ends of justice.

Vermaak allegedly instructed officers Nkosana Shepherd Mguye, Collin Masilo Mogale, Katlego Joseph Sekgwetla and Khazamola Phillip Makhubela to hunt down and shoot fleeing mineworkers. The State has 140 witnesses. That trial is ongoing.

Striking mine workers meet to discuss their wage demands outside the Nkageng informal settlement on 16 August 2012 in North West, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

Mpembe earlier faced separate charges in the Mahikeng High Court, with officers Jacobus Gideon van Zyl, Dingaan Madoda and Oupa Pule, for failing to report that mineworker Modisaotsile Van Wyk Segalala had died in the back of a police truck. They were acquitted in March 2021.

For nine slow years, this litany of injustices over Marikana has lain like a ghoulish incubus on our nation’s soul, with the government failing to apologise, the police refusing to accept responsibility, and the mines putting money over life while the lives of the victims decline.

In the icy Highveld winter of 2012, the ANC-aligned NUM was being challenged for organising rights by the non-aligned Amcu at the Nkaneng platinum mine, owned by British company Lonmin plc, formerly the mining division of global miner Lonrho plc. (On 10 June 2019, Lonmin was finally sold to Sibanye-Stillwater.)

Many miners felt the NUM did not represent their interests and was “too close to management”. The rock drill operators, who work long hours at the rock face in conditions that are incredibly uncomfortable and dangerous were being paid a cost-to-company of between R8,000 to R10,000 a month, including a “live-out allowance”.

Some migrant miners support families of up to 13 members, mostly in the Eastern Cape, Lesotho, eSwatini and Mozambique.

The “migrant labour system”, instituted about 100 years ago, has contributed greatly to the enormous wealth that built South Africa’s infrastructure but returns very little to the people themselves.

“The truth is that we live like pigs while the mine smiles when we dig that platinum and make them rich,” Thobisile Jali tells journalist Thanduxolo Jika later.

On Thursday 9 August 2012, after a meeting, the rock drill operators go out on a wildcat (unprotected) strike, demanding basic pay of R12,500 a month. Tholekile Mbhele tells Jika: “We decided to do things ourselves.”

The following day, they demand to see the bosses at the Lonmin offices. Management refuses. That night, in the Wonderkop mine hostels, there are assaults and clashes.

Striking mine workers run for cover after police officers open fire outside the Nkageng informal settlement on 16 August 2012 in North West, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

Men in a Lonmin bakkie shoot and wound Thando Mutengwane and Bulelani Dlomo. The strikers gather at a nearby koppie to avoid hostel intimidation.

They will spend nearly a week on the mountain, peacefully demanding that management come and talk to them. Management will consistently refuse and 34 of those miners will go home in wooden boxes.

On Saturday 11 August, about 2,000 strikers march on the NUM offices, carrying traditional weapons. Stones are thrown at the NUM men, and three shots are fired at the strikers. Bongani Ngema and Vusimuzi Mandla “Zulu” Mabuyakhulu are wounded.

The next day, about 3,000 strikers again march on the NUM. Despite earlier orders that Public Order Policing (POP) units be deployed there, no police are seen. It’s Sunday. Senior police cannot be reached.

Two Lonmin guards try to calm the angry crowd, which hacks Hassan Funi and Frans Mabelane to death, steals their phones and a pistol, and burns both them and their Lonmin vehicle.

That night, strikers march to shaft K-4, set nine vehicles alight and kill Thapelo “Eric” Mabebe and Julius Langa. The violence is escalating beyond the control of the elected strike leaders led by Mgcineni “Mambush” Noki, 30, a popular miner from Thwalikhulu in Pondoland. On Monday 13 August, police set up an interim joint operations centre at the mine management offices. The managers claim the protesters are “faceless” but they have pictures in their HR files.

Mbombo instructs Mpembe to “disperse and disarm” the (3,000) protesters and marchers, confiscate their weapons, arrest everyone involved, and “enhance strategic deployments”. After setting her deputy this Herculean task, she leaves.

Police units pour into Marikana: the Special Task Force, the Tactical Response Team, the National Intervention Unit, the POP, Air Wing, Mounted Unit, K-9, Visible Policing, Planning.

That afternoon, 25-year career cop Mpembe and 70 officers intercept 100 to 200 strikers returning to the koppie. The strikers sit down quietly when they see the police.

Police officers open fire on striking mine workers outside the Nkageng informal settlement on 16 August 2012 in North West, South Africa. Violence broke out in the area as workers downed tools during an apparent wage strike at the Lonmin Marikana Platinum Mine. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

Mpembe tells them to surrender their weapons

With impeccable logic, Noki replies they are not fighting. Their weapons are only to defend themselves. They are returning to the koppie to report back, and may the police escort them safely? Mpembe demands they lay down their arms. Noki rises and says: “We have spoken enough now. We are leaving.”

As one, the miners begin to move. The police accompany them, but about 200m later, Warrant Officer Daniel Kuhn fires a teargas cannister (contravening Standing Order 262). In the mayhem that follows, officers Hendrick Tsietsi Monene and Sello Hendrik Lepaaku are stabbed and hacked to death, and a 9mm pistol and an R5 rifle stolen.

Officer Shitumo Baloyi is stabbed and hacked, but survives

Looted weapons are fired at police, who return fire. Phumzile Sokanyile and Semi Jokanisi are killed. Four strikers are wounded. Thembelakhe Mati is found dead later.

The police regroup and agree they have “insufficient resources” to disarm the miners. They draw up a plan to “negotiate a peaceful solution”.

At 6pm, National Commissioner Phiyega arrives. She instructs Mbombo to “continue to try and bring the unions to negotiate” and urges management to “do everything in their power to ensure that the situation is normalised”. She then returns to Pretoria.

On Tuesday 14 August, Noki tells journalists they are not fighting, they just want an audience with their employer. The miners behind him on the koppie are extremely disciplined and peaceful.

The police arrive to negotiate in an armoured Nyala. Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh, a police negotiator, is too afraid to get out. Noki and four others come forward and kneel down. Noki then goes to the front window of the Nyala to talk to McIntosh.

McIntosh says the police cannot force management to negotiate. It’s late, so Noki says management must come the next day. That evening, Mpembe asks NUM president Senzeni Zokwana and Amcu boss Joseph Mathunjwa to try to resolve the impasse.

The body of Lonmin mine worker Mafolisi Mabiya is carried up a mountain to his village before his funeral on 2 September 2012 outside Dutywa, Eastern Cape, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

The next morning, Wednesday 15 August, Nyala-style negotiations resume. The police say calling management “is not part of their duties”. Noki asks them to go. It’s hard to negotiate with an armoured vehicle.

Meanwhile, Mpembe has called Zokwana, Mathunjwa and mine management to a meeting. He says the situation is “explosive”.

The two union leaders, no love lost between them, agree to talk to the strikers. They are taken down separately, Zokwana first. They are not allowed out of the Nyala and use a loudhailer.

It’s now late afternoon. The strikers refuse Zokwana’s urgings to return to work, singing and stamping. McIntosh nervously pulls the Nyala back. Then Mathunjwa. He is also not allowed out, but is received warmly.

Mohammed must come to the Mountain. The strikers are implacable. Noki suggests management come the next morning. The union bosses return to the meeting, and debrief separately. Mpembe is impressed. Mathunjwa says: “Everyone is positive.”

Unknown to Mathunjwa, four police mortuary vans are ordered that same night at  Phiyega’s executive meeting, where, ominously, the term “D-Day” is used.

Mathunjwa asks Lonmin’s Kwadi and Kgotle to meet him at 8am the next day. They agree. But at the 6.30am joint operations meeting the next morning, informer intelligence says there will be “no laying down of arms”. Things get tense. At 8.20am, Mathunjwa arrives but management reneges and refuse to negotiate. It is a betrayal of tragic magnitude.

Mathunjwa then discovers the police and Lonmin are holding a press conference. At 10am, Provincial Commissioner Mbombo tells journalists in the Lonmin boardroom: “We are ending this today; don’t ask me how, but today we are ending this.”

SSA spy Mokwena allegedly has turned the police against Amcu. Mbombo insults Mathunjwa. Management’s turnaround is “not her problem”. Then she leaves to attend a ceremony with North West Premier Thandi Modise.

Mpembe tells Mathunjwa that Mbombo (who has now gone) has replaced him as police commander. No one will engage with Mathunjwa. At 1.40pm, under a cold, steel-blue sky, Noki tells the police he can see they are “preparing for war”.

Noki tells McIntosh: “We must sign a paper so the world can see how we kill one another today”

The cops refuse to take Mathunjwa to the strikers. He uses his own car, and begs the strikers to avoid violence. He falls to his knees. “You are going to be killed here,” he pleads. Noki thanks him. The strikers will stay, he says calmly, and if police or management want to kill them, so be it.

A memorial service at the koppie in Nkaneng behind the Lonmin mine in Rustenburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Then Noki warmly welcomes SA Council of Churches president Bishop Jo Seoka and requests him to ask management to come. Noki says they will return to work as soon as their demand is met. The bishop says Lonmin’s Kgotle had told him earlier they would not negotiate with “those criminals”.

As the sun sinks lower, the Special Task Force uncoil long rolls of shiny new razor wire. Police tell journalists to leave. A chill falls as the light begins to fade.

Then the shooting begins

Noki leads a group of miners cautiously towards an escape route but is cut off by police. A striker fires a pistol in retaliation to police stun grenades and teargas.

In 12 seconds, 284 bullets rip bone and sinew to shards and shreds. This bloodbath is later called “Scene 1”. A commander calls: “Cease fire.” There is a stunned, very loud silence.

Bodies lie motionless in the dirt and thorny scrub. Blood soaks the thirsty earth.

Dust swirls, as if moved by spirits of the dead. It’s all in slow motion. Death has descended.

Then the police begin shouting, regrouping, moving towards the 17 dead strikers. A helicopter clatters overhead.

Other police formations pursue strikers running, literally for their lives, towards another little koppie several hundred metres away. Out of sight, a lengthy bout of shooting echoes sporadically for 11 minutes.

This is “Scene 2”, where 57 police fire 295 bullets, killing a further 17 miners.

These sinister details are revealed in a report by independent researcher David Bruce, based on photographs, statements from police and surviving miners, and ballistic and forensic evidence.

Multiple miner statements accuse the police of shooting defenceless strikers. A police witness later tells how a cop shot a miner with his hands up. Police put weapons into the hands of dead miners. Some bodies have their hands tied.

Bruce concluded that most of the murders were motivated by a desire to punish the strikers for killing two police officers earlier in the week.

One miner was shot 12 times. Four others die later. Police arrest 270 and charge the strikers with murder under the apartheid-era “common purpose” doctrine. Years later these murder charges will be dropped.

Meanwhile, in faraway villages, hearts crack and the wailing begins as news comes of the death of breadwinners, husbands, sons, brothers, and colleagues. The nation goes into rigid shock. Headlines shudder around the world. Marikana is a new pin on the map, for all the wrong reasons.

Phiyega congratulates her officers, saying they “did nothing wrong”. Zuma appoints the Farlam Commission of Inquiry, but it becomes a whitewash. Political principals are exonerated, the police shootings justified, the miners blamed for “violent behaviour”, and Lonmin partially blamed for “reckless actions”. The charge of “toxic collusion” between Lonmin and the SAPS is dismissed.

Phiyega later faces the Claassen Inquiry into her fitness to hold office. It leads to her suspension on full pay, until the end of her term. During her suspension she earns R3.2-million. She also takes the Farlam Commission report on review, but on 18 June 2021 the High Court dismisses her bid to overturn the report, with costs.

Violence continues sporadically until 18 September 2012, when the strikers, assisted by the unions and the SACC, finally win a 22% increase. Strikers had not slept at home. Police were kicking in doors and beating people. The miners remain haunted, traumatised.

Farlam clears Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president, a Lonmin shareholder and board member at the time, of possible culpable homicide, despite a chain of emails showing he had pressured the police minister to send reinforcements, and leaned on then mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu, saying the strikers were engaged in “a dastardly criminal act” and her silence was “bad for her and the government”.

Despite being a skilled negotiator and former NUM general secretary, Ramaphosa had refused to talk to the strikers. He has never been to Marikana. He didn’t visit the widows. He has not apologised. He calls his words “unfortunate”.

Striking mine workers meet to discuss their wage demands outside the Nkageng informal settlement on 16 August 2012 in North West, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

Police Minister Mthethwa was cleared of accusations of murder

Farlam said the police at Scene 1 had “reasonable grounds” to believe they were under threat. But Phiyega’s claim that miners attacked police was shown on video to be false.

Despite evidence of multiple failures in SAPS record-keeping, withholding of documents, fabrications, deceiving the commission and altering evidence, Farlam inexplicably clears the police.

Human rights lawyer George Bizos says senior police made a “deliberate attempt to defeat the ends of justice”. There are no findings about the 17 deaths at Scene 2 because there is “no clarity”, despite clear witness statements. Farlam’s recommendations are ignored to this day.

Greg Marinovich, author of Murder at Small Koppie, an investigative book on Marikana, concluded that “heavily armed police hunted down and killed the miners in cold blood”.

Turning to the culpability of Lonmin and its managers, the commission called the living conditions for 13,500 miners “truly appalling” and found Lonmin had reneged on its legal obligation to phase out the single-sex hostel blocks by September 2011 and replace them with 5,500 houses.

Lonmin built three houses. They could not explain why. Farlam said Lonmin “created an environment that created tension, labour unrest, disunity” and “harmful conduct” among its 28,000 employees. Lonmin’s failures were “inexcusable”.

Lonmin’s 2012/13 annual report recorded an after-tax profit of $198-million, calling the massacre a “production disruption”. The two top executives, Ian Farmer and Simon Scott, earned R13.6-million and R6.2-million, respectively, in 2011. Lonmin had 3,000 rock drill operators demanding R12,500 a month. It would only have cost 14% of Lonmin’s after-tax profits to pay their demand.

The widows filed a civil claim in 2016 to compel the government to pay compensation. In December 2017, the government announced it would pay R1-billion. In 2018, at least 320 claimants who sued the state were paid R69-million for loss of support.

The families have yet to settle for emotional damages. DM168

Remembering those murdered at Marikana:

Nobhozi Bhabhazela, Hassan Duncan Fundi, Stelega Gadlela, Thembinkosi Gwelani, Patrick Akhona Jijase, Semi Jokanisi, Julius Langa, John Kutlwano “Papi” Ledingoane, Jackson Lehupa, Sello Lepaaku, Janeveke Raphael Liau, Thapelo Eric Mabebe, Matlhomola Frans Mabelane, Mafolisi Mabiya, Julius Tokoti Mancotywa, Tembelakhe Sabelo Mati, Anele Mdizeni, Bongani Mdze, Makhosandile Mkhonjwa, Telang Vitalis Mohai, Hendrick Tsietsi Monene, Khanare Elias Monesa, Thabiso Mosebetsane, Thobile Mpumza, Dumisani Mthinti, Babalo Mtshazi, Nkumbulo Mvume, Michael Ngweyi, Mpumzeni Ngxande, Ntandazo Nokamba, Mgcineni “Mambush” Noki, Bongani Ngqongophela, Mongezeleli Ntenetya, Motlapula Andries Ntsenyeho, Molefi Osiel Ntsoele, Mvuyisi Henry Pato, Modisaotsile Van Wyk Sagalala, Fezile David Saphendu, Phumzile Sokanyile, Mzukisi Sompeta, Thabiso Johannes Thelejane, Mphangeli Thukuza, Isaiah Twala, Nkosiyabo Xalabile, Cebisile Yawa, Bonginkosi Yona and Thobisile Zimbambele. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • I am sorry, but at what point to we stop being surprised that gathering in a crowd with guns, spears, axes and pangas is going to end up in your getting shot? Have you seen the videos of the protestors before the obvious outcome?

    Would you approach them for a peaceful chat? You’d end up in pieces and burnt.

    The sad result was the only and destined result.

  • Thank you for this important and powerful reminder of an event that should continue to shame all South Africans, and especially the governing ANC. The narrative shows how routinely responsible officials gave incoherent instructions to their subordinates, and then left to do something else (for example, “to attend a ceremony with NW Premier Thandi Modise”), having washed their hands of the consequences. Has this has changed since then?

  • When are we going to accept that we live in Africa – this is what happens on this Continent. And the wars continues … Faction Fights, Taxi violence, Drug wars, Looting, Riots, insurrection. Just because we have a Constitution, a Judiciary and a Tax System doesn’t make us a Civilized society. In fact when you reflect on the 2 World Wars, you really get to see what human beings are capable of – killing 6million people based on their religion?
    Marikana was a terrible episode in our history – it was also the first time the world got to see that South African whites were not as bad as we are made to feel. Black cops killing their brothers – that was the real shock ( in my opinion)
    Yes it was a tragedy…but it is part of our history. We have hopefully learnt from it. Some say we have – no police or army could be found defending against the rioting and looting this July. Could this be because of the lesson learnt at Marikana?