In the shadow of death

2013-03-03 10:00

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Lucas Ledwaba reports on a man who asked to be killed, but lived to tell the Marikana tale

Agroup of men move, huddled together, towards a line of armoured vehicles, and police officers stand ready with automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns.

The men, carrying sticks, sharpened steel rods and spears, emerge from behind a cattle kraal where police set up a barbed wire cordon to stop them from advancing.

Police fire tear gas and spray them with a water cannon, but they keep coming, heads bent as they move with blankets and towels covering their bodies.

As they approach a line of two armoured vehicles, police open fire with rubber bullets.

A miner produces a firearm and fires a shot in the police’s direction.

The men lean further down, as if to take cover, then advance forward, picking up pace.

Before them, another line of police officers lie in wait. And, as they emerge past one of the nyalas, police mow them down with automatic gunfire.

Mzoxolo Magidiwana is one of them.

Hit several times, he crashes to the ground.

Near him, others lie sprawled in the dust, pools of blood forming around them.

The gunfire lasts just eight seconds, but 16 of his group die. A few hundred metres away, 18 others are killed, allegedly by police bullets.

On Wednesday, six months after the gruesome incident in which 34 men died, the 24-year-old took the stand at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry and spoke for the first time about what happened in those moments before the police opened fire.

He walks on crutches, needs constant medical care and was told he may be infertile because one of the bullets pierced his testicles.

In newspaper photographs taken between 3.51pm and 4pm on August 16, Magidiwana is wearing a green sweater, a maroon towel draped across his shoulder, holding a stick and leaning forward. He appears to shout as a policeman fires a rubber bullet at him.

“I was screaming. I said: ‘yooo!’” Magidiwana testified. “I feared I was going to be shot.”

His lawyer, Advocate Dali Mpofu, asked him if he believed the police’s bullets would penetrate his body.

“I knew the bullets would penetrate my body,” he replied.

Mpofu’s question related to police arguments that Magidiwana was part of a warrior group called Makarapa, members of which paid a muti man R500 each in an invincibility ritual.

Magidiwana said they were only trying to reach the Nkaneng informal settlement after police erected a barbed wire fence as part of efforts to control about 3 000 striking miners on a nearby koppie.

But that conflicts vastly with police arguments that the group wanted to engage officers in “a mortal duel”.

The police argue Mgcineni “Mambush” Noki, known as The Man in the Green Blanket, declared war on them after telling their negotiator shortly before the shooting: “I see the police are looking for war. We must sign a piece of paper so the world sees how we kill one another today.”

Police lawyer Ishmael Semenya told the commission a Mr X would testify about a ritual the men underwent in the days leading up to the shooting.

He said the mystery witness would tell of how they gathered on the banks of a stream for the ritual, cooking two live sheep, one black, the other white, over a fire, and smearing their ashes on incisions on the men’s ears.

The men, Semenya said, were then given muti to hold in their palms and instructed not to open their hands in the coming days.

This, they were told, would make it impossible for bullets to penetrate their bodies.

A box was shot at after the ritual and it was believed to have suffered no damage.

In the two days after the ritual, two security guards and two police officers were brutally killed in confrontations with the group, further convincing them they were invincible.

“No one waged war on the police. It was the police who killed people there,” Magidiwana said during cross-examination by police advocate Vuyani Ngalwana on Friday.

Lawyers representing the injured and the dead miners’ families dispute the existence of such a group and that the miners underwent any rituals.

Siphethe Phatsha, who lost a toe in the shooting, denied his colleagues underwent rituals or meant to attack the police.

Magidiwana’s testimony that he only joined the strike the morning of the shooting was disputed by video footage showing him among the group of miners police lawyers have called the Makarapa.

City Press also has photographs taken the previous day of Magidiwana among the protesters, carrying one stick with a small knob on the end and another with a sharp steel object on its edge.

Magidiwana denied it was him, prompting Judge Farlam to ask if he had an identical twin.

A brother looked similar, he said. He finally conceded it may have been him.

Magidiwana said he pleaded with police to kill him and told them his name so they could help his relatives claim his body.

This, he testified, was after a policeman shot at him several times as he lay injured and another laughed while taking pictures with his cellphone.

This evidence has not been tested yet.

The commission adjourned briefly on Thursday for Magidiwana to recover from seeing a video of his colleagues’ bodies strewn in the dust, with one’s skull shattered.

The hearing continues.

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