Living with the miners

2012-09-29 11:01

The story of Marikana has a simple truth at its heart which challenges the myths that have sprung up around it

For a week I lived in the shacks of Marikana, eating, sleeping, drinking and talking with the Lonmin miners as the strike ground on, trying to understand what led to the events of August 16 where 34 of their colleagues died in a volley of police fire a spitting distance away from us.

There was no “hidden hand” of Julius Malema or the renegade Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) in this dispute, they say.

The truth appears more straight-forward.

When the chips were down, the miners – who come from across South and Southern Africa – turned to the only people they could trust: themselves.

Their daily lives hold clues to what happened.

“The truth is that we live like pigs here while the mine smiles when we dig that platinum and make them rich,” said Thobisile Jali, from Mthatha, Eastern Cape.

“We have nothing to show for these long hours we work here. We have to provide for ourselves here and our families back at home. Our children need to get a better future than what we have.”

Said Carlos Zunguza from Mozambique: “As you can see for yourself I live in a tin (shack) and it’s hot but I have no choice because I have to save money for those twelve people back at home who rely on me.”

Over six long days and nights I witnessed miners seemingly at odds with the images of the angry men, armed with spears and knobkerries, which dominated newspapers and TV screens.

These men’s favourite evening pastime was sitting in front of TVs watching soapies like Generations and Rhythm City.

The dozens of miners and other locals tell identical stories about the strike: a basic bread-and-butter workplace dispute at its heart.

They had complained about their drilling quotas and the long hours expected of them and the pay they received in return.

They first turned to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for help after they met among themselves on August 9.

They claim they were rebuffed.

They then decided to take matters into their own hands and began the wildcat strike.

Initially they organised themselves through the warren of shacks and the hostels in which they live.

But after a clash with security guards and as tension mounted, they retreated to the now infamous Marikana koppie from which they fled on August 16 into the guns of the police.

Amcu’s role, the miners say, was minor and opportunistic, following in the wake of their dispute with NUM. Malema’s role was similar, although well-received.

“We have organised ourselves as mineworkers because this affects all of us – not the unions,” recalled Tholekile Mbhele. “Many of us have been earning peanuts for years and no union wanted to listen to us, so we decided to do things ourselves.”

The community is dominated by single men who come from traditional backgrounds, having had to learn to do their own washing, cleaning and cooking.

The walls of their tiny rooms bear pictures of loved ones back home. And for thousands packed together cheek by jowl, their fellow miners are their other family.

“There was no one who could defy all these men and not join the strike,” said one miner who asked not to be named, as negotiations continued.

“A decision was taken that all the workers are going on strike. It didn’t matter what my personal views were – I had to be part of this because some people died for us.

“I am tired of the strike. We are running out of food and we have to borrow money. But we have lost so many men we can’t go back until our demands are met.”

Thrown into the mix were powerful beliefs in traditional medicine and muti. The role of a mysterious sangoma in the events leading up to the massacre is real.

The man, whom the miners would not name, comes from Mbizana in the Eastern Cape. They say he works at neighbouring Amplats where another strike continues.

Miners say he charged each man R1000 for muti protection from the police and mine security. It’s unclear how many used it, but the miners said most of the 4 000-odd on the koppie had done so.

They still believed the muti worked, even after 34 of their comrades died.

“They shot at us but their guns didn’t work; that is when they started to fear us,” said an Eastern Cape miner recalling an early skirmish with mine security.

Said another: “Our men only had spears, pangas and knobkerries but those security guards were wounded. Iyeza belisebenza (the muti was working).”

The men believe that their slain colleagues had not completed all the rituals the sangoma had asked of them.
But efforts to trace the sangoma during my week there were fruitless.

Meanwhile, the strike has become folklore in the community tightly bonded by their shared struggle. And the dead miners are hailed as heroes.

What drove events in Marikana was created long before the massacre of August 16. It was built in the mine shafts, between shacks and outside hostel rooms.

It will not disappear soon.

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