Leaning on a plastic chair against his shack, Eric Nontshakaza thanks God as he remembers the meal that may have saved his life. He was among hundreds of striking miners gathered on a rocky outcrop in Marikana on Aug. 16 last year. His split second decision to dash home to eat meant he escaped the bloodiest massacre by South African security forces since the end of apartheid.
“It always comes into my mind that maybe if I didn’t come to get food, I would have been one of the victims,” he said ahead of the first anniversary of the shootings that horrified the world on Friday last week. “Maybe God moved me there. My friends tell me it happened straight after I came to get food.”
A year on, democratic South Africa is confronting its darkest day, rewatching television pictures that show workers hurtling forward like a rolling ball of humanity while flak-jacketed police retreat and unleash a furious, crackling rain of bullets. When the clouds of dust settled, 34 men lay dead. One, on his knees, flailed and toppled over in front of the cameras, his last moments revealed to his wife.
The disaster drew comparisons with the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the 1976 Soweto uprising, but this has been bitterly described as the first “democratic massacre.” The police were serving a black majority government and defending the interests of London-based mining company Lonmin in the world’s richest platinum belt.
“Never did we believe that our government would turn their guns on our people in such a brutal and callous fashion,” said the Marikana massacre anniversary organizing committee on the workers’ behalf.
There was demand for reform, perhaps even revolution in one of the world’s most unequal societies. Yet, to date, no police officer has been charged, labor relations are in crisis and killings continue in Marikana. There is simmering frustration at justice denied and fear of more bloodshed. Twelve months after this “turning point” in modern South African history, the prevailing view is that nothing has changed.
Nontshakaza, 29, shares his shack with his wife, Nosange, 22, within sight of the outcrop where his fellow miners were mown down by hundreds of rounds of ammunition, some were allegedly killed execution-style. The interior is organized with pride: neat rows of buckets and cooking pans, a kettle, a plastic tablecloth, a laundry basket, a made bed, a linoleum floor and a photo of Soweto’s Kaizer Chiefs soccer team. Three discarded beer bottles lie in the rough yard outside, where goats ram their heads and lock horns as Nontshakaza, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans and speaking Xhosa through an interpreter, recalls the wage dispute with Lonmin.
“On that day they fenced the whole area where we were sitting,” he said. “After some time I came to get food and on my way back I saw workers running all over the place and being shot. Some of them were screaming. The others surrendered, putting their hands up, but they were still shot. There was chaos and I was trying to save my life.”
Nontshakaza, who lost a friend that day, continued: “I was shocked because as far as I know we were not fighting anyone, we were just demanding wages. My suspicion is that the police really knew what they were doing. There was no need for them to use violence, but they came prepared. We still need to ask the government exactly what transpired that day.”