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In the thick of Marikana: The lessons no journalism school can teach you

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

There are many things nobody warns you about when you become a journalist. There are many things you have no idea how to handle – and don’t bother thinking about when you’re chasing a deadline. But the death of one man I encountered through Lonmin has changed the way I operate. It has changed how I perceive things, and it left some acutely painful questions I might never be able to answer.

The Swahili have a proverb which says Ndovu wawili wakisongana, ziumiazo ni nyika. Roughly translated, it means: When elephants jostle, it is grass that gets hurt. 

There are many variations of this saying on the African continent, but they all mean the same thing. The weak and insignificant are inevitable collateral damage when the mighty vie for power. 

One such struggle has taken place in South Africa over the last three years or so, reaching a crescendo on 16 August 2012 when dozens of people were mowed down by the police in full view of television cameras, near Marikana. The struggle for power between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has been epic and is nowhere near its resolution yet. In our efforts to try to understand what was going on, and communicate our knowledge to the world, we have tended to focus on the big players. It has helped that the government, the unions and the big mining companies involved have mostly played seemingly open cards – in many instances it made reaching deadlines a dawdle. 

But that does not mean that the grass has not been trampled. 

I was at the Oppikoppi rock festival when the labour unrest in the mining sector finally began to explode. On the weekend when I enjoyed the sounds of Fokofpolisiekar, the BLK JKS and Valiant Swart about an hour’s drive north of Marikana, several people were killed when an angry crowd descended upon the NUM offices at Lonmin’s Marikana operations. More skirmishes between AMCU and NUM supporters happened between that weekend and the fateful Thursday when the situation finally tipped over. 

Just two days before 112 people were shot, I spoke to Daluvuyo Bongo, the NUM secretary at Lonmin. He sounded absolutely petrified on the phone. His most repeated phrase was “I just don’t know what to do anymore.” He said he was in hiding because people wanted to kill him. At the time, the gravity of the situation hadn’t quite dawned on me yet (Oppikoppi hangovers typically last for up to two weeks) and while he proved to be a very useful source who could provide accurate information, it didn’t occur to me to ask personal questions that would not feature in my stories. 

I took leave in the midst of the Marikana mess, and did not so much as open my email accounts or Twitter page for about 10 days. When I finally did peek at the news accounts on the interwebs, I was confronted with the news that the “NUM local secretary at NUM was killed in Lonmin’s hostels”. It was Mr Bongo. 

The most immediate thought that I had was that I did not know what his face looked like. I don’t know if he was short, or tall. Was he very dark or light-skinned? Was he bald or did he have a magnificent Afro? I don’t know how many children he had, or what their names were. Who were his friends? 

I know absolutely nothing about Mr Bongo the human being, except that he was a very low-level unionist who was desperately trying to do his job as he best knew. To me, at that time, he was just a voice down the phone that gave me vital information so that I could file before deadline. 

One of the most difficult things to communicate about the Marikana tragedy has been the fact that this is not a simple conflict between goodies and baddies. There are no clear battle lines. I have personally castigated NUM for the way that the union has dealt with the labour unrest, and indeed for the way that it has contributed to the toxic situation in the first place. 

But there are thousands of people who are connected to NUM because it represented the best way for them to get ahead in life. I have no doubt in my mind that for Mr Bongo, being chosen by his peers to be the branch secretary of the most powerful union within Cosatu was a major life achievement for him, in the same way that so many graduate students dream of becoming a CEO, or young journalists like me dream of running a national newspaper someday. 

The timing of his term couldn’t have been more catastrophic. He was the local face of a union that was hated by some very desperate people. His time was always going to be up too soon. 

I read of his death – shot in the hostels – with indescribable anguish. 

Mr Bongo died because he had the ambition of getting on in life. I never knew him well, and perhaps we will learn that he did have some dark hand in this sordid tale, but the impression I am left with right now is that this man was killed because he had a desire to survive and serve as a prominent member of his community. His ambition put him in the crosshairs of a battle not of his choosing. I’ve spoken to many Cosatu-aligned unionists in the last five weeks, and their hatred of AMCU is astonishing. I didn’t get that from Mr Bongo. The strongest emotion I got from him was terror.

This is one of the things that nobody told me about journalism that I have had to discover for myself, by the way. Desperate people put immense trust in my abilities to help them when I truly don’t know what to do. 

My heart broke when a man came to me in Marikana and said, “My child is sick. She breathed in the teargas yesterday. The police were firing teargas and rubber bullets just anywhere. It didn’t matter that there were women and children in the shacks. Many children got the gas.” They thought that as a journalist I could do something, yet all I was capable of was driving the man to the nearest clinic so he could get medication – and then I pissed off to the next area of unrest. I have not wept in many years as I did that day, on the shoulder of the Platinum Highway, while other cars sped by mine. 

I know that I could not have done anything significant to save Mr Bongo’s life. But I also know I cannot fully tell the story of his life and death today because I couldn’t be bothered to find out who he was as a fellow human being when I had the chance to. It makes my encounters with new contacts at different mines so traumatic. I speak to up to 10 people when I go to trouble spots; I have no idea how many of them will be alive the next day. 

This is why it absolutely drives me up the wall when people speak of the Marikana miners as if they are mindless animals or dumb savages who must be culled. These people know that they have no political clout to be heard at the negotiating tables. They feel like they are just black bodies that mining companies throw into the hole to dig up gold or platinum. They don’t see the reward of their labour. The only effective tool they have is downing tools. When the law tells them that they can’t, they do it anyway. When that doesn’t work, they turn to violence. 

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has dubbed the protests in the townships surrounding Johannesburg “the ring of fire”. Those people also feel like that nobody listens to them, so they have to do something spectacular (and often terrible) to be noticed. 

They know that we the press only showed up in Marikana when people started dying. We know that they know. 

What a horrible bloody mess. 

I don’t know how many children have been orphaned by Mr Bongo’s death. I don’t know how many friends of family have deep wounds, which nothing will ever heal, for his murder. I don’t even know what he looks like. He was just the grass that got trampled when the elephants fought. 

But his life is not less significant than anyone else’s just because he didn’t have a corner office and a Jaguar in the garage. For that alone, it seems like all the days I have spent talking to people in all those mining communities have been a waste of time. DM


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