During the last days of the #FeesMustFall movement at the end of 2016, when the tenacity of the students had faltered and many had grown disillusioned at the prospects of achieving decommodified and decolonised education after being met with the iron-handed brutality of the police and an indifferent university management, a group of students decided to make one final push of activism by visiting the community of Marikana.
At that time it had been four years since 34 rock drillers at the Lonmin mine in Marikana were gunned down by police while fighting for a basic monthly wage of R12,500. For these students, the massacre – which formed part of debates at campuses across the country and was taught in their classes – had angered and inspired them.
“A taxi has been organised going to Marikana, bring a blanket and pillow,” read a text message from one of the group chats of the student body, the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania (Pasma). When I saw the text, I jumped at the opportunity to go.
I remember how, during one of my Politics 1 classes, a debate ensued about Marikana. The students, whom we all knew as deeply political, would argue with the lecturer about who the real perpetrators of the massacre were. At that time, I was vaguely aware of what Marikana was about. I wanted to participate in the debate, but what I knew I had overheard from other people talking, as I had no interest in the subject up until that time.
By 5pm I was waiting outside the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway Campus in Auckland Park for the taxi headed to Marikana. Finally, I would experience all those things people felt when engaged in something bigger than themselves – a momentous struggle for freedom, I thought.
I had missed large parts of the #FeesMustFall protests while I was an excluded student the year before. I desperately wanted to be involved and experience some part of the action.
Democratic South Africa was built or rather liberated by Struggle stalwarts. By the time you can walk you already know about Nelson Mandela and the 27 years he spent in prison, then about Sharpeville, June 16, guerilla training in exile and all the heroic and selfless things they did. These are South African heroes who make an impression on the young mind of a born-free.
And although the youth are born into a country in which they can be whatever they make of themselves, still we choose to imitate the only example we know – to find a struggle of our own with the hopes of accessing that euphoria felt by the country in 1994. A world of enterprise and business has been laid at our feet, yet we choose protest instead.
The taxi, coming from Braamfontein after picking up students at Wits University, was late and I started to get hungry. I had no money as I had spent all of my part-time job salary on rent and groceries for the month.
After several hours, the taxi arrived, by which time I was famished. I got inside and sat by a window so I could look outside and not have to speak to anyone. It was easy to keep to myself because I was an outsider and new to the #FeesMustFall inner circle.
I did not know most of the students there except those I had met briefly when I joined Pasma a few weeks before. I dreaded the journey ahead on the long road to North West.
We picked up more students from downtown Johannesburg and along the way we stopped at a garage. I was hoping I would finally share some food with someone, but the students only bought alcohol.
In that taxi, they drank and sang, belching out songs of revolution – of the gun and the fist, the land and the blood spilt on it, that one day the land will be returned to its rightful owners, one day.
As I sat there crouched, with my arms across my stomach, I wondered if this trip to Marikana might console us for what was lost in the fires of #FeesMustFall. I realised that these young men and women, whom I had admired from afar as revolutionaries engaged in an important struggle, were caught up in the threshold of a quarter-life crisis and lost in the wilderness between who they are and who they want to be.
We arrived in Marikana in the wee hours of the morning, outside the two-bedroom RDP house of Napoleon Webster, an activist in the community. He is a short, plump man with a heavy beard and referred to himself as Khoisan X – because of his Khoisan ancestry. He had been a member of the PAC, then the EFF, but now a lone ranger in the political wilderness of radical struggle for land.
Although he was not from there, the Marikana community respected him and counted him as one of their own. The first rule he told us was:
“If anyone stops you when you are on the streets, tell them you are with Napoleon”.
I found out that the men of Marikana respected Napoleon and they proudly relate how he told then-president Jacob Zuma to “voetsek” when he visited the community. Of all the cardinal rules there, the most important is that the ANC and the police are not welcome in Marikana. As a result, every newcomer is suspect, frequently stopped on the road and asked who they are and what they want in Marikana.
We offloaded our luggage and made our way into his unkempt RDP home. There was no food, only a bed in each room, a recently used braai stand and two small paraffin stoves. I found a small space on the floor, laid down my blanket and slept – knowing that the pangs in my stomach would only stop while I was asleep.
I wasn’t aware of this back then, but Napoleon had organised the taxi for us. I was told he had sold his laptop to get the money for #FeesMustFall students to visit Marikana. He wanted us to help the youth of the community with career advice, information about university applications and mentor the sons and daughters of the slain miners.
An hour into my sleep, someone nudged me awake and told me there was food. Napoleon and some students had bought loaves of bread and cooldrinks. Everyone was seated around a fire, debating Afro-pessimism, black love and the meaning of quotes by Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. I broke off some bread, grabbed a cup of cooldrink, ate and went back to sleep.
The following week at Marikana was a whirlwind of unexpected events. The plan was to engage community members and the youth about politics and the struggles in Marikana and link them to the #FeesMustFall movement’s fight for free education and to end outsourcing, but we were totally unprepared for what we found.
After a couple of days of organising community meetings with only a few people showing up, I noticed the students’ spirit deflate as they realised that activism work outside of university is a different ball game. People respond to long-established trust, which the students had not taken time to build, rather than the sporadic bursts of anger that varsity crowds respond to.
During the fourth day of our stay at Marikana, I volunteered to stay for kitchen duty with three other students, to prepare lunch while the rest of the group went to engage with community members at the taxi rank.
We had to cook outside using the paraffin stove. As we sat and talked while cooking, debated about communism and how to resuscitate the PAC, a police van sped towards the RDP house opposite where we were staying.
Policemen with guns got out of the car and entered the house. A shirtless man with a big belly escaped through a backroom window and ran past us. When the police saw him they got into the van and started chasing him.
A neighbour came out with a spear and knobkerrie in hand. He took a whistle out of his pocket and signalled the other men of the community. When the police had caught up with the shirtless man, the neighbour went to his rescue. He swung his spear and knobkerrie like a skilled warrior at the police as they cuffed the shirtless man and loaded him into their van.
Two police officers then approached the weapon-wielding neighbour while shooting their automatic rifles at the ground to prevent him from advancing. But he kept on attacking, swinging and hitting while blowing his whistle. The police finally retreated, with the shirtless man in custody.
Every woman and child stood outside their RDP house, watching the scene. Although as students we had experienced police shootings on campus, it was only with rubber bullets and as a group. We all stood there, in fear of the sound of live ammunition and in awe of the man who fought the police with nothing but traditional weapons.
A taxi full of men from around the neighbourhood arrived soon after, all carrying spears and knobkerries. They spoke to the man who had just fought with the police, and he told them what had happened. They got into the taxi and sped off in the direction of the police van.
Not long after, the taxi came back with a bakkie following it. The shirtless man sat at the back of the bakkie with handcuffs still attached to his right hand. He had been rescued from the police.
I could not believe all that I had just seen. From the man who was fighting the police with guns by himself to a group of men who went and took back their comrade from police custody.
When the rest of the #FeesMustFall group came back at the end of the day, we revelled in telling them the amazing things we had seen that afternoon. To some, this was revolutionary – that a community can band together against abuse from the police. To me, it was frightening, that a community had to live like this and the impression that scene was making on the kids who stood and watched – and how they had to grow up in a world where you can’t trust the police who are supposed to protect and serve you.
The next morning, two of us went to fetch water from the tap a few metres from Napoleon’s house. While we were filling our buckets, some men from the day before came up and asked us who we were. When we told them we were visitors of Napoleon their mood changed and they told us not to walk around the neighbourhood that day.
We were all grounded for that day. The community was on high alert and Napoleon told us it would be safer if we stayed at his house the whole day. While we were sitting idly, a black car entered the neighbourhood. We went outside to find out what was going on.
The Marikana men started to chase the car and caught up with it a few minutes later at a roadblock. They took over the car and parked it across from Napoleon’s house. The two men who had been driving the car were thrown out and made to kneel on the ground. The men then started to search the car and found papers with an ANC letterhead inside a briefcase in the boot.
The papers were stacked in front of the owners of the car and burnt. The two men were slapped around, given their car keys and told never to return.
Later that evening, we were told the Marikana men had discovered who the person was who had told the police where to find the shirtless man they arrested. The men went to the house of the man who had co-operated with the police and, in front of his wife and children, beheaded him.
We were shocked.
The next morning we packed our bags and left Marikana. The trip did not turn out as we had expected. We found a shattered community, gripped by anger, suspicion and vengeance. A cold-heartedness had infected the entire Marikana community. They could not afford to trust anyone nor could they depend on anyone but themselves.
On the drive back to Johannesburg, I sat quietly, attempting to make sense of the previous week. I was scared at what had happened to the people of Marikana and I was sad at not knowing what could be done to change their lives – the indifferent police had hardened their hearts. They had gone to a place where raising their salaries to R12,500 would not fix their lives.
A week or so later, while I was Johannesburg, I heard Napoleon had been arrested for the murder of the beheaded man. The #FeesMustFall group wanted some of the students who were with Napoleon that day to be witnesses in his case and testify in court. Someone volunteered in the group chats, stating they were with him and detailed their movements for that entire day.
Napoleon spent almost a year in prison without trial. He was later acquitted with no evidence which directly implicated him.
Without knowing how to make sense of things, I decided to distance myself from #FeesMustFall activism for a while and buried that tumultuous week deep inside.
Napoleon and a group of widows from Marikana had walked from North West to Pretoria to spotlight the lack of accountability of the police who gunned down the miners and the poor conditions that people in Marikana are living in to this day.
When I saw Napoleon I was excited and ashamed. My life had improved. I had a job and was making a decent living, while he was still fighting the struggle. He told me he was hungry and had not eaten since leaving Marikana. I remembered making the same journey on an empty stomach. But while I had been seated comfortably in a taxi, Napoleon had to walk, hungry, for almost two days.
I thought of the people of that week in Marikana and the raw emotions I had suppressed. It is hard to make sense of the atrocities that happen in this country: the brutality of the police, growing inequality, rampant corruption, the neglect of the poor by the elite and accompanying exploitation by big business.
The only thing we can do is continue to fight the struggle. The students sought to make their impact in this fight by attempting to collapse the systems of exclusion into higher learning that leads to economic freedom.
I left the Union Buildings after my encounter with Napoleon with a renewed determination to tackle the complex and seemingly intransigent parts of South African society. DM
Mooning is considered a form of free speech in the United States.