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Story Publication logo August 15, 2014

After the Massacre: Life in South Africa’s Platinum Mining Belt

Image by Jason Larkin. South Africa, 2014.

In South Africa's poorest mining communities, fury at the political class is mounting.

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Multiple Authors

On 16 August 2012, Thembisa Nkuzo was among a group of women who set out from their homes in Nkaneng settlement, in South Africa's platinum mining district, and began walking towards a rocky outcrop just south of the Lonmin mine. Striking mineworkers had been camped out on "Marikana mountain" for several days, demanding that the British mining company paid them a living wage, and the women wanted to support them. But they never reached the outcrop because they met a group of local men on the path who warned them that the police were about to force a violent confrontation.

Nkuzo, a 28-year-old seamstress who had written solidarity songs for the strikers, wasn't far off when she heard the first shots. "I saw workers running in every direction," she recalls, quietly. "I remember those moments so well. And I cry so much."

It has been two years since 34 mineworkers were killed by security forces and shocking images were seen around the world. An establishment version of events painted the miners as violent extremists: high on drugs and persuaded by a local witch doctor that they were invincible, several of them had reportedly charged towards police lines, brandishing traditional weapons. Officers had gunned them down in self-defence. "You had a situation where workers were armed to the teeth, and they were killing their colleagues," said South Africa's national police commissioner, who later went on to congratulate her personnel on displaying "the best of responsible policing" during the tragedy. "Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilise maximum force to defend themselves."

Evidence given at a formal commission of inquiry into the incident, which is due to give its final report this year, suggests that the official explanation was untrue. Leaked transcripts of phone calls between Lonmin executives and police chiefs have revealed high-level concern at the political implications of the mineworkers' strike. In private, resolutions were made to "kill this thing"; officials ominously referred to 16 August as D-day. Cyril Ramaphosa, a former mineworkers' union leader who went on to become a business magnate and leading figure in the ANC, was on Lonmin's executive board at the time. He urged government ministers to come down hard on the "criminal" workers.

It was the police who escalated the standoff at Marikana mountain, bringing in large numbers of reinforcements and live ammunition. Four mortuary vans were summoned before a single shot had been fired. Lonmin was liaising closely with state police, lending them the company's own private security staff and helicopters, and ferrying in police units on corporate buses. Razor wire was rolled out by police around the outcrop to cut the miners off from Nkaneng settlement; pleas by strike leaders for a gap to be left open so that workers could depart peacefully to their homes were ignored.

As they began to walk slowly away from the wire in small groups, police opened fire. In the confusion miners scattered in all directions, some fleeing towards the police lines – and news cameras – at the bottom of the hill. Others ran towards a second "koppie" (rocky hill), where police caught up with them. Seventeen bodies were later found here; many had been shot at close range, in the back of the head. Lungisile Madwantsi, 31, a Lonmin rock drill operator, was among those who tried to escape in this direction; he remembers the pop-pop-pop of gunshots, the sensation of a bullet entering his scalp, and terrifying soundscape of bangs, screams and whirring helicopter blades as he lay on the soil for half an hour, unable to move.

"At first I thought it was a stone," Madwantsi told me, standing on the spot where he was felled. Today it feels eerily quiet, the only movement small knots of sparrows darting playfully in and around the mottled rocks. To our south lies Marikana mountain, and beyond it the Lonmin mine; to the east is Nkaneng settlement, its shacks clustered around the base of huge electricity pylons which ferry energy to the platinum shafts while leaving the homes beneath them in darkness. "But then I fell down, there," he continued. "When I realised I was hit, I thought I was dead. I couldn't feel my arm, and I was bleeding from my nose and mouth. I was face down, inhaling the dirt, I couldn't breathe." Doctors believe it would be too dangerous to try to remove the bullet lodged in Madwantsi's skull. It may remain there for the rest of his life.

"This was not public order policing," concluded one independent investigation into the shootings, "this was warfare."

Two years on, the massacre may be over but Marikana's struggle for justice is not. Two decades on from the end of apartheid, this region is once again in the eye of a storm which commingles wealth, power and an extraordinary battle for change from below – the outcome of which could not only reshape South Africa, but echo much further afield as well.

Drive west from Pretoria on South Africa's N4 highway, alongside a soft carpet of bleached yellow-green veld, and odd shapes soon begin to assemble on the horizon. Giant cranes and smelters stand sentinel over vast gashes in the earth. Artificial mountains – layers of subterranean rock and soil piled high into the sky – mark a landscape turned inside out. Strung out between them is a chain of human settlements, mostly comprising corrugated-iron shacks.

"Many people back home imagine there is money lying all over the ground here," says Nkuzo who, like countless others, migrated hundreds of miles to Marikana from the Eastern Cape. "There is lots of money," she smiles. "But the money is not for us. It's a strange world."

For most of the apartheid era, the region around Marikana was tranquil farmland. Today it is the heart of South Africa's platinum mining industry, which contributes more to the nation's GDP than gold and diamonds combined. Platinum and its associated elements are used as catalysts in a range of chemical reactions, as well as being vital components of nearly every electrical device we use. Yet 90% of global reserves lie in a narrow stretch of rock in the earth's crust called the Bushveld Igneous Complex, and it is above that stretch of rock that Nkuzo has made her home.

Her family is from Flagstaff, near the Indian Ocean, one of the poorest regions of the country. Her aunt, whom everybody knows as Mazula, first came to the platinum belt in 1994, the year apartheid ended. She moved into Nkaneng, one of the shack settlements scattered around the mine shafts in Marikana, and found herself with no running water, no electricity and no job. Access to work was controlled by intermediaries and local labour brokers, and Mazula couldn't afford the payments they demanded. She started an illicit shebeen, brewing and serving home-fermented beer, had a child, and waited patiently for the transformation she'd been promised. She is still running the shebeen, living in the same shack in Nkaneng, and still reliant on outside toilets and a communal tap.

"We were all so excited when Madiba [Nelson Mandela] became president," remembers Nkuzo, who was eight years old at the time and now lives with her aunt in Nkaneng, scrabbling together bits of sewing work. "Life was such a struggle. We thought that everything would change."

For some South Africans, everything did. The accelerated development of platinum mining in the country is one chapter of what the ruling ANC claims is a "good story to tell" about the first 20 years of democracy. This spring, South Africa held its first general elections since the death of Mandela. For the first time, the electorate included members of the so-called "born free" generation – those who have lived their entire lives under a system that does not discriminate on the basis of skin colour. The ANC shook off corruption scandals to win an easy victory. Jacob Zuma held on to the presidency and declared his party to be "God-given" and predicted it would remain in power for ever.

But behind the headline figures lay a different story: since 1994, the ANC's support among eligible voters has dropped by a third, and the number of South Africans opting to stay at home on election day has risen by almost 10 million. Back in Flagstaff, Nkuzo was once an enthusiastic ANC volunteer. This year, she voted against the government and campaigned openly for the Economic Freedom Fighters – a new party led by former ANC youth league chairman Julius Malema, who has promised to nationalise the mines and accuses his old colleagues' government of being "worse than apartheid". One of Nkuzo's songs has become a campaign track for Malema; she couldn't believe her ears when she heard thousands singing it at an EFF rally in Marikana on the eve of the elections. The following day, she wore the EFF's signature red beret with pride to the polling station.

Nkuzo's disillusionment with the ANC is part of an alternative story, which can be read in the columns of thick black smoke that dot the skyline, spiralling up from villages and townships. South Africa is the world's most unequal society (in the past two decades, gross national wealth has grown three-fold yet the number of people living on under a dollar a day has doubled) and its protest capital. The smoke is from tyres set ablaze by residents furious at their living conditions, the lack of safe water and electricity, the high unemployment rate and low wages in an economy that has brought riches to a tiny elite.

Nkuzo and Marikana are at the heart of this struggle because the mining industry, as it has always done, plays such an important role in assigning economic winners and losers, creating both vast concentrations of wealth and institutionalised systems of exploitation. Under colonialism and apartheid it was the interlinked mining interests of government and white capital that fuelled everything from the hated pass-laws (through which racial segregation was enforced) to the migrant labour system, which pushed huge swathes of the black African population off the land and into industrialised work. No surprise then that when the ANC drew up its famous Freedom Charter, it declared that the mineral wealth beneath the soil must be returned to the South African people.

And yet following Mandela's release from prison in 1990, something altered. Aggressive lobbying by international financial institutions persuaded the incoming ANC government that its plans for radical redistribution would be a mistake; South Africa should privatise as much of its asset base as possible. The structure of the mining industry remained virtually intact, apart from the elevation of a few black faces into boardrooms. Platinum mining has been the industry through which many members of South Africa's new moneyed classes made their fortunes. It is also the terrain on which a fresh round of resistance struggles against the status quo are being fought.

This year, a local NGO gave disposable cameras to a small group of women in Marikana so they could record what that terrain looks like through their own eyes. Nkuzo was among them, and her photos – of dirty pools of stagnant water and empty taps, of people scrabbling for firewood in the bush and shacks bathed in darkness after sunset – testify to the gulf between expectations and outcomes that has accompanied liberation. When Nkuzo first fled the poverty of the Eastern Cape, she planned to bring her young daughter. Now she says bringing a child here is unthinkable.

"Children here play in rubbish, they walk to school down dangerous roads, they use outside [long-drop] toilets and sometimes they can fall down them," she told me.

By the time Nkuzo wakes up and stumbles out of her bed into the communal yard that doubles as her aunt's tavern, a few shacks are already humming with calypso, or maskandi (Zulu folk music). Cleaning out the tins in which last night's beer was served is an arduous task. There are streams nearby but they are regularly pumped with raw sewage and some are contaminated with the bilharzia parasite. Nkuzo would love to spend much of the day at her sewing machine but the churned-mud roads linking the settlement with towns make transport difficult and expensive, so materials are hard to come by. Instead she spends most hours helping her aunt ferment maize meal and corn into beer. With virtually no municipal waste collection, rubbish doubles as fuel.

Not long after dawn the first customers of the day begin drifting in. Most are mineworkers; deprivation drove them to the platinum belt, and fear of joblessness has kept them there, enduring a combination of low pay and arduous working conditions. Some are in the yard to get drunk, but most are simply looking for something to quash their hunger. "It's a cheap way to fill their bellies," explains Mazula. In between sips, the miners who frequent the shebeen echo Nkuzo's determination never to let their children see Marikana, or get trapped in its grooves. "My father worked in the mines, I worked in the mines, and it ends there," insists one. "The way I have suffered at the hands of these mines, I don't want my children to go through the same thing."

A 2012 NGO report said the injury and fatality rates at Lonmin were unacceptably high, while mining companies' use of subcontracted labour allows them to circumvent many workers' rights. (Lonmin responded that their operations "have a positive impact on our employees".)

"You want to know about the work in the mines? It is hard work, work that makes your body forever sore," says Bob Ndude, a rock drill operator and local union representative. "You are underground in a tiny space, holding a metal machine that weighs 50kg, surrounded by rock. I've seen a lot of people injured in the mines, people who no longer have eyes, people who have irons in their legs."

Income inequalities are extreme; most manual workers labouring in Lonmin's shafts would need to stay down there for more than three centuries to earn what executives at the company's Belgravia headquarters make in a single year. With much of those meagre wages sent to subsidise families in townships and villages, miners are trapped in a cycle of debt to local payday creditors, and deprivation is extreme.

Most people in Marikana see their government as entirely of the rich, and speak of the mining companies and cabinet ministers as a single entity. One of President Zuma's closest political allies, Baleka Mbete – the national assembly's new speaker – was recently implicated in a corruption investigation at Gold Fields, one of the world's largest gold mining firms, which provided her with a large share allocation in its new mine shaft. (Mbete denies corruption.) This was claimed to be part of the state's "black economic empowerment" programme, although it was allegedly part of a deal to get permission for the new shaft waved through. Recent congresses held by Cosatu, the country's ANC-affiliated official trade union federation, were funded by a prominent mining magnate who has relatives in Zuma's cabinet. It's easy to see why, in Marikana, the ANC is no longer considered a realistic vehicle for social change.

In January, mineworkers launched another strike over pay, this time under the banner of the insurgent trade union Amcu, which is not affiliated with the ANC and has replaced the government-friendly NUM in the region. Workers demanded a basic living wage of R12,500 a month (£694), a notion so incendiary to the main platinum mining houses – Lonmin, Implats and Anglo American – that they joined forces to wage a propaganda campaign, dismissing it as unaffordable.

As both sides dug in, first for days, then weeks, then months, platinum production ground to a halt. By May, it had become the largest and longest strike in South African history. President Zuma chastised the union for its "irresponsibility". In Marikana, police trucks roamed the fringes of settlements and the shebeen filled with more workers without paychecks looking for a cheap way to stave off hunger.

"The memory of 2012 is what keeps us going," said union rep Bob Ndude. "We can do the maths, and we can count out the injustice. You work so hard for 20 years to make them wealthy, and at the end you have nothing to show for it. Now, this ends. This strike will end that."

By June, the financial damage to employers was topping $2bn. The sense that this wasn't just a quarrel over wages on the platinum belt, but a proxy war for something much bigger – a union of business and state versus a movement of the poor – was inescapable. Without the ANC and its powerful allies in industry, would marginalised South Africans be capable of transforming realities for themselves?

"People are interested in self-worth and dignity," said Jim Nichol, a British lawyer representing the 2012 Marikana massacre victims at a judicial commission of inquiry. "For the workers, going on strike for this long is economic suicide. But it's about saying, 'Actually, I'm worth something.' And in South Africa today, that's an incredibly important statement."

For people such as Thembisa Nkuzo, the strike was a way of saying that the ballot box no longer offered much hope of asserting self-worth. "All that has happened under democracy is that those who once fought for us have become rich by acting as our oppressors," Nkuzo told me. Bob Ndude concurred. "Lonmin and the government are one thing, they both stand on the other side of that fence. It doesn't matter who we vote for, because everything stays the same. We are told that we are free, but we do not feel free."

One bright morning in mid-May, columns of armoured police vehicles snaked through the scrubland between Marikana mountain and Nkaneng settlement as thousands of striking workers gathered for a rally in a nearby stadium. After weeks of refusing workers' demands and bombarding employees with text messages urging them to return to work, Lonmin and the other mining houses had announced this would be the day the strike was broken. Police mingled with private mine security officers and rolled out razor wire near the mine's main entrance; they wore dark sunglasses, so it was often difficult to tell the two groups apart.

One of the speakers at the rally was the lawyer Jim Nichol, who urged employees to continue their struggle for a living wage in the name of those who were gunned down in 2012. Nichol is the son of a Tyneside miner. "It doesn't matter where you come from," he told me later, "when you go down the pit you come up at the end of your shift, you are black. We are all the same, and we are all exploited by the same people."

In spite of the fear of police violence, the mineworkers at the stadium that morning voted to press on with their strike; the shafts of Lonmin and its rivals remained dormant.

After the rally had ended and dusk had fallen, fires appeared on the roadside in the nearby settlement of Mmaditlokwe, where residents – who had been forcibly relocated there from another platinum mine – were protesting at their lack of services. Sharp cracks echoed over the surrounding scrubland as security forces fired rubber bullets into the air to disperse the crowd. Police also patrolled a few miles to the east, in the small towns of Bapong and Majakaneng, where uprisings against economic deprivation had erupted several times in recent weeks; residents say a three-month-old baby died in the unrest after inhaling tear gas fired by police. Meanwhile, back in Nkaneng, Lonmin's strikers marched around the edge of the settlement, vowing to maintain their fight.

The vote by workers at the stadium to continue their strike was a turning point. In late June, the mining houses finally signed a deal with Amcu which will see most staff achieve the R12,500 basic wage demand over the next few years and provide for salary increases of up to 40% for their lowest-paid employees.

This victory promised to become a catalytic moment. "This is the first big action taken by a non-ANC force [the Amcu] in which black people were in the van that led to very real change," wrote Stephen Grootes, political correspondent and talk radio host. "The ANC is maybe at the height of its power; it is unlikely to ever again control so many parts of the country, through government and the allied unions. Without the power it used to have on the mines through the NUM, things are certain to change."

There is already talk among other anti-establishment unions of building an alternative political movement to the ANC. "This strike was about the lack of change, a lack of trust, and a lack of something to lose," concluded Grootes. "Workers and their families lived with no money, believing this was a fight they had to win for the future. It was funded by their hope for change."

Writing about another famous miners' strike more than a half a century ago, the late anti-apartheid activist Ruth First claimed it was "one of those great historic incidents that, in a flash of illumination, educates a nation, reveals what has been hidden, and destroys lies and illusions." After two full decades of post-racial democracy in South Africa, the ongoing unrest in the platinum belt – from the massacre in 2012 to the dramatic industrial showdown this year – has once again provoked awkward questions. The story of Marikana's violence and poverty has prompted many South Africans to ask themselves what other establishment narratives might merely be illusions. The tale of the Rainbow Nation that successfully liberated itself from the shackles of apartheid has been an inspiration to humans on every corner of the planet. But if you shift the camera angle very slightly, what does liberation really look like? And could strike victory on the platinum belt open up the possibility of a renewed liberation struggle to come?

"Marikana is at the centre of a rage driven by exclusion and the contempt that such exclusion brings," says South African film-maker Rehad Desai, who has made a documentary exposing the official version of the Marikana massacre as lies. Marikana is already a byword for resistance. In the past couple of years, at least four other settlements have renamed themselves after the platinum belt's most restive region as a mark of solidarity. Meanwhile, we all carry a bit of platinum in our pockets – the metal is in every mobile phone – and chances are at least some of it will have come from this region. In a globalised world increasingly attuned to economic injustice, perhaps Marikana could yet resonate far beyond South Africa's borders .






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