Police surround the bodies of striking miners after opening fire on a crowd at the Lonmin platinum mine near Rustenburg. Photo: AP.
Police surround the bodies of striking miners after opening fire on a crowd at the Lonmin platinum mine near Rustenburg. Photo: AP.

The bloody smell and ugly sight of Marikana

By JANET SMITH Time of article published Aug 19, 2012

Share this article:

 The Boer leader Manie Maritz showed no mercy when he gave the order for people to be killed at the end of January 1902 at the height of the Second Boer War.

 Maritz and his men had entered the church station of Leliefontein in the Northern Cape to confront British missionaries there and the Khoi residents, who wished to protect the foreigners, bravely stood up to them.

Ruthlessly, the Boer general did not hesitate.

He saw to the summary execution of 35 people as punishment.

Leliefontein would be the last century’s first of five massacres in SA.

Marikana mine is the first of this century, and the horror couldn’t be more real.

Between Leliefontein and Marikana were the other atrocities.

At Sharpeville on March 21 in 1960, 69 were killed when the police opened fire. At Boipatong on June 17 1992, 45 died in political attacks. The Saint James Church in Kenilworth, Cape Town, was the site of 11 murders when gunmen shot at parishioners. And at the ANC’s former Joburg headquarters, Shell House, on March 28 1994, 19 people were killed in a stand-off between the ANC and the IFP.

But the massacre that bears the most resemblance to the tragedy at Marikana is Bisho, where 29 people died on September 7, 20 years ago.

It was a much larger crowd. For Marikana’s 3 000 to 4 000 protesters, Bisho had up to 80 000.

Ciskei Defence Force soldiers opened fire on the marchers with automatic weapons and between the first fusillade of about 90 seconds and the second of about a minute, 28 protesters and a soldier were killed, and more than 200 injured.

It was a similar scene.

People had been sitting on the hillside of the homeland’s independence stadium outside Bisho when the order to shoot came as some tried to get through the troops.

The officer in charge would say his men were under fire, but the immensity of the tragedy would prove otherwise.

It was late in the week before last that workers at Lonmin’s platinum mine in the dry North West town started showing some dangerous muscle in their fight for better wages. At least that was how it looked on paper. An illegal strike had flared up by the Friday, and by Sunday, a story of deep unhappiness among workers and the broader mining community at Marikana was beginning to go public as violence started to grow. It had been months in the making.

Even at that time, after four mineworkers had been found dead and two security guards shot, nobody could have predicted the whole bloody progression.

But in a week in which Trevor Manuel and his National Planning Commission presented the dream for a prosperous and caring SA to President Jacob Zuma, a massacre in which 34 people died was on the cards.

It seems a couple of things happened simultaneously.

Employees at the mine were experiencing significant labour, political and even tribal divisions at the same time as Lonmin offered what amounted to a unilateral adjustment of wages to some workers.

That adjustment offer went outside an agreed bargaining process with the unions which emanated out of a two-year wage negotiation deal which expires in 2013.

It would make sense that Lonmin could and should have read its labour environment better and seen that divisions being fuelled in a volatile political arena could only make the mine ripe for anarchy.

Yet its intelligence on the ground, among tens of thousands of workers, must surely have failed it.

The declining price of platinum, weak demand and the wish to be rid of underperforming mines may well have been too distracting for too long.

The divisions between workers themselves have mostly concerned the violent clash of two unions: the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the smaller, new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). While NUM itself has battled internally over who controls the ailing platinum sector, it has been alleged by NUM’s general secretary Frans Baleni that Amcu is little more than a bunch of disgruntled former NUM members and a capitalist set-up, designed by business and the Chamber of Mines to undermine the long-dominant Cosatu affiliate.

But this had proved to be difficult for Amcu, as take-up among workers was not particularly high. It is believed that Amcu was not even able to enter into the bargaining process at Marikana as it did not have enough members at the mine.

But that did not seem to deter the aspirant union, which had already battled for members with NUM at the nearby Implats Rustenburg mine.

Three had died there in the struggle for control.

Amcu nonetheless urged Marikana’s rock-drillers to demand a R12 500 wage - well up on the unbending R4 000 they earn.

Lonmin itself was said to be highly uncomfortable with the proposed number, which is one of the reasons why the strike started.

Amid the unrest over wages, NUM leaders were being attacked, and there were threats that their offices would be burned down.

To protect themselves against a growing crowd of anti-NUM Amcu supporters on the warpath on the Friday before last, NUM officials had retaliated with rocks.

Lonmin then unleashed its security, and eventually the police started moving in. That was just over a week ago – a week in which union leaders repeatedly warned that violence would intensify.

NUM president Senzeni Zokwana even had an audience with the police minister Nathi Mthethwa on Sunday to express his concerns. The union wanted the SANDF brought in, such was its fear.

Although the SAPS indeed sent in specialist units on Monday to boost its force after two of its members were hacked to death, it opted to try and let the situation stabilise.

But another employee was killed on the same day to add to those murdered in weekend clashes. A swelling crowd had turned rougher and heckled NUM’s Zokwana.

Negotiations were crumbling and even the NUM, powerful as it is, was losing control of a situation even it did not completely understand.

By Monday, 10 people, including the two policemen, had died in surging violence. The story was making the national news agenda. National police commissioner Riah Phiyega and Zukiswa Mbombo, the North West police commissioner, went to Marikana. But the lack of political involvement at a higher level was becoming more obvious - and more dangerous.

Only after Zuma cut short his SADC trip did North West Premier Thandi Modise, the Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, and other politicians descended on Marikana.


Equally, Lonmin continued to show inadequate leadership, and it seemed the police and the miners were on their own.

The stalemate continued through Tuesday and into Wednesday, when Ancu alone was given the go-ahead to address the strikers. But the two sides - aligned to different unions - now faced off in a more menacing way.

Police officers and mine security guards were everywhere.

Even a few soldiers had finally been brought in.

But the presence of an ever-increasing crowd of miners on a nearby hill was drawing attention.

It now seems unconscionable that hundreds of armed men were allowed to congregate as aggressively as they did, under the eye of the police, while they insisted on waiting until management addressed them.

In particular, they wanted to see Lonmin CEO Ian Farmer, but neither he nor any other representatives of the company arrived. This enraged the workers.

By Thursday, the mood had worsened considerably. Ten people had already been killed, but no arrests had been made. The police’s tactical response team had, however, been bulked up.

Thousands of blanket-clad miners, many wielding gleaming knives, pangas, spears, sticks and knobkieries, had properly installed themselves on the hill opposite the heavily-armed force. Their singing was perpetual, loud and rousing.

By midday, word had reached the police that the protesters would not disarm, and so they moved in with water cannons and barbed wire - the tools of “crowd management”.

But they also carried weapons and live ammunition.

When a breakaway group started moving towards the police through the sprigs of dry winter trees and dead grass, it felt like the gunfire was instant.

On TV, it didn’t seem like there was an instruction to shoot, even if three or four ceasefire commands were bellowed less than a long 20 seconds later. The terror happened in under a minute, right at the wheels of the Nyalas.

When the blasts of gunfire ended and the dust lifted, bodies lay on the ground not far from dozens of dusty police boots.

Minutes before, the police had been creeping forward with their loaded guns aimed ahead of them.

We don’t know what their instructions were, but earlier in the day Mbombo had confidently advised reporters that “today is the day we intend to end the violence”.

Even though she later said she felt strongly that police actions were justified, how her words on Thursday had come back to haunt her.

Night fell on pools of blood.

Just as the world watched Bisho, so the world is watching Marikana - only this time, the massacre played out on live TV. To outsiders, we must surely seem like a nation in a whole lot of trouble. - Sunday Independent

Share this article: