Frustration over justice denied in South Africa

A year after police shot 34 miners in Marikana, an event seen as a turning point in the nation’s modern history, nothing has changed

By David Smith  /  The Guardian, MARIKANA, South Africa

Mon, Aug 19, 2013 - Page 9

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.”

The volatile, wildcat strike, in which 44 people died in total, finally ended when Lonmin agreed to pay wage increases of between 11 percent and 22 percent.

However, Nontshakaza says he still earns only 3,000 to 4,000 rand a month (US$300 to US$400), or 6,000 rand, including overtime. Like most miners here, he sends most of it back to his mother and six unemployed siblings in Eastern Cape Province, leaving little for his own expenses. He and his wife have no electricity and cannot afford 800 rand to connect to communal water taps.

“The money is not enough. You see it’s finished and you still haven’t done all the things you need to do. Lonmin doesn’t listen to us at all. It’s a year later and nothing has changed. We are still on low wages and might go on another strike,” Nontshakaza said.

The outcrop where the workers gathered a year ago, singing and waving traditional weapons, was hauntingly silent and serene last week. A series of white crosses erected to honor the dead lay in a broken heap below the curving rocks. The shacks of a nearby informal settlement glinted in the sun and the surrounding area looked much as it did in August last year.

“Like a pig sty,” local activist Primrose Sonti said. “It’s the same as it was. It’s worse.”

The field was a filthy sea of discarded bottles and sweet and condom wrappers. Children played in mounds of rubbish as cows, goats and pigs trotted by, while six dogs lay sleeping in the sun.

Thembi Mathumbu has lived in this grinding poverty since 1996 while minerals worth millions are extracted from the earth beneath her feet.

“We’re suffering,” she said. “We have not received anything from Lonmin. It has not done anything to improve our lives.”

The 63-year-old, who witnessed last year’s massacre from her yard, was friendly with two miners from Lesotho who lost their lives.

“It was a great pain because we were so close to those people. We are very angry because what they did killed a lot of people. The community can never forget what happened,” Mathumbu said.

For some, it was too much to bear. Three months ago the body of Lungani Mabutyana, 27, a rock drill operator, was found hanging from a tree. Chris Molebatsi, a local activist with the Bench Marks Foundation, a corporate social responsibility watchdog, said he is aware of seven suicides in the past year, four of them mine workers.

“It’s basically a reminder of the trauma of the massacre,” he said. “The suicides are telling us the community hasn’t recovered from that. It’s going to take a long time to heal the wounds.”

There have also been several murders in a vicious turf war between supporters of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, recognized last week as the majority union after recruiting 70 percent of the workers here, and the beleaguered National Union of Mineworkers, aligned to the governing African National Congress (ANC). Many say they will vote for expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema — who raced to the scene in August last year while others dithered — and his new Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in next year’s election.

The ANC stands accused of colluding with mining firms whereas the EFF has vowed to nationalize mines without compensation.

South African President Jacob Zuma set up a judicial commission of inquiry into the massacre, but, bogged down in numerous delays and wrangles over funding, it has not yet cross-examined any police involved in the killings and is fast losing credibility.

Many feel that neither the government nor mining companies have found any answers to the questions asked a year ago, raising the prospect of more violent strikes and instability.

Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and author of South Africa’s Suspended Revolution, said: “What Marikana brings to the fore is inequality, the relative deprivation that people have.”

“Inequality is South Africa’s Achilles heel. If we don’t address it, it will come to us,” he said. “A year later, are we any closer to resolving that fundamental challenge? The answer has to be no.”