Marikana: A newshound’s account of the build-up to the massacre

2015-08-13 15:21
Picture: Leon Sadiki

Picture: Leon Sadiki

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August 13. When South Africa woke up on this day three years ago, three people had already been brutally killed in Marikana over the previous two days. The deceased were two mine security officials and a mine worker. 

Workers at the world’s third-largest platinum producer, Lonmin, had downed tools and violence was sweeping through the little known mining town of Marikana, north of Rustenburg in the North West. 

News was trickling in that the area had been plunged into total chaos; it was volatile and getting unstable by the minute. 

It was a Monday and for newshounds this was definitely a story to follow up. I joined in the rush to Marikana together with a photographer colleague but was nearly disappointed as we drove through the CBD. It was business as usual there with people going on with their lives. 

A local KFC was teeming with customers, and smoke from a number of shisanyama spots where men were having their meals gave the impression that it was calm. Not many people there knew of the violence that was reported in the news. 

A while later we were sitting in a boardroom at Lonmin offices, being warned of a “very dangerous group of heavily armed men” who were gathering on a hill next to Nkaneng settlement. 

Lonmin officials told the media that the men on the hill were “faceless” and definitely not their workers. The London-based mining company was just not prepared to engage the miners who were demanding that their salaries be raised to R12 500.

They had not been officially approached by unions with any demands even though mine workers, mostly rock drill operators, had marched to the offices on August 9 in a bid to voice their demands but were stopped by security officials. 

With things now seemingly getting out of control and tension thickening in the area, mine officials told stories of how these “dangerous men” had hacked and stabbed some people. 

A call came in reporting to officials that a fourth body had been discovered next to the rail tracks in the area. 

It was dangerous, we were told, but for a journalist, the main goal, and next move then, was to get the side of the story from the “dangerous men”. 

We set off for Nkaneng after asking for directions. We arrived at the Rowlands Shaft of Lonmin. With no “mountain” in sight, even though we could see Nkaneng informal settlement about 600 metres away, we approached Lonmin security officials. 

Once again, we were warned: “Don’t even think about going anywhere near those people. They are armed to the teeth and dangerous.” 

They pointed us to the hill west of the settlement – about 800 metres away. It was covered by multitudes of men. We were told by security officials that about 3 000 striking miners had gathered there. 

While we were still contemplating and planning how we were going to get to the hill, a call came through. There was a confrontation between a group of striking miners and the police on the other side of Marikana – between Nkaneng and the K3 Shaft. 

Driving down the road leading to K3 along Marikana West township, we could see a police helicopter, almost not moving but still in the air. A while later, something that looked and sounded like gunshots came from the helicopter. 

Police have since told the Marikana commission of inquiry that those were stun grenades aimed at dispersing the group of strikers, who were allegedly attacking police officers. 

By the time we reached the scene about 45 minutes later, police officers were all over the place – some weeping, others gnashing their teeth while a few looked visibly traumatised. They had just witnessed their own colleague being hacked and stabbed. It was confirmed to us that the body count had risen from four to nine in just hours. 

A distance apart from each other, the bodies of warrant officers Tsietsi Monene and Sello Lepaku lay motionless. Major General William Mpembe later told the commission how he had witnessed Monene being “chopped and killed”. 

In retaliation, the police shot and killed Semi Jokanisi and Phumzile Sokanyile. 

Arguments were raised in the commission on whether the third civilian, Thembelakhe Mati, was shot by the police or had died from stab wounds. His body was found in a shack nearby. 

The situation was getting serious and we were told more police officers were being deployed to Marikana. 

It later emerged that the two security officials who lost their lives on August 12 – Hassan Fundi and Frans Mabelane – were attacked and hacked to death in an incident in which one of them had a piece of his tongue cut out. The third casualty was Thapelo Eric Mabebe. He lost his life after striking miners allegedly pounced on their colleagues who were on duty at K4 Shaft three days earlier.

Mine worker Julius Langa, whose body was found earlier on August 13, is believed to have been attacked while on his way to work. His body had at least 18 stab wounds. 

Back at Nkaneng, we stood a distance away from the “dangerous men” on the hill. They could be heard singing and moving in small groups while the majority of them sat on the hill. It was getting late and the mine security officials were not only warning us but would not let us go anywhere near Nkaneng informal settlement, let alone the hill. 

A few journalists who were there reluctantly decided to leave, unhappy that one-sided stories were filed in absence of any active voice from strikers or the “dangerous men”. 

As we drove off, we told ourselves that the following day we had to talk to the striking mine workers and get their side of the story despite the lurking danger. 

Read more on:    lonmin  |  rustenburg  |  marikana
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