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Story Publication logo September 24, 2014

South Africa: 'We Were Being Killed for Something We Didn't Even Know'

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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Striking miners gather at a rally at Wonderkop Stadium in Marikana, 29 April. Image by Jason Larkin. South Africa, 2014.

The moment Lungisile Madwantsi realized he was going to be murdered came days before the bullet hit him. It was on Aug. 13, 2012, and, along with several other workers in the South African settlement of Marikana, Lungisile was making a journey back to "Marikana mountain," a hardscrabble mound of boulders and scrub on which striking miners employed by the British platinum giant Lonmin had set up camp. Before the group could reach the mountain, they were intercepted by police.

"We explained to them that we were not fighting with you guys, and we asked them to open a way for us to pass," remembers Lungisile. "They told us to hand over our weapons, our knobkerries and pangas, and that if we didn't they would count to three and then open fire." The miners insisted they needed their traditional clubs and machetes, and the police line eventually parted to let them through. "We got a few meters past them, and that's when the helicopter threw teargas at us and the officers started shooting. We ran for our lives."

In the commotion that followed, Lungisile wasn't hurt but many others were: two miners and two police officers died in the fighting. It would be another 72 hours before a police round penetrated Lungisile's skull as security forces dispersed the miners' protests, but even then -- before one of the worst massacres South Africa has ever seen -- the 33-year-old felt certain of his fate. "I realized we were being killed for something that we didn't even know," he says, shaking his head slowly, disbelievingly.

* * *

This weekend marks the second anniversary of the day when the six-week long Marikana miners' strike, a dispute that brought South Africa's post-apartheid fault lines to the surface and shocked a nation, finally came to an end. Miners returned to work having secured promises of a new pay package from Lonmin; it marked a powerful victory for organized labor, in spite of the violence meted out by the state.

Two years on though, like the bullet still lodged in Lungisile's head, the legacy of Marikana remains embedded in South Africa's body politic, both present and painful. Last week, arguments over the massacre spilled over into the country's Parliament, prompting accusations of murder against the deputy president and a walk-out by some MPs. Meanwhile, industrial unrest has continued to roil across the platinum belt in South Africa's North-West province, the narratives crafted by police and government about the strike have continued to crumble under judicial examination, and massacre survivors like Lungisile have continued to live with a sense of deep injustice about the violence they were subjected to, and the economic realities behind it.

Lungisile's story is etched onto the underbelly of South Africa's fabled transition from apartheid to democracy, two full decades of which is being celebrated by the Rainbow Nation this year. Born in Libode, in the Eastern Cape -- one of South Africa's poorest regions, where youth unemployment currently tops 50 percent -- Lungisile followed a well-trodden path north in his early 20s, up past Johannesburg and on to the land covering the Bushveld Igneous Complex, a five-mile thick stretch of rock beneath the earth's crust that contains most of the world's known platinum reserves. For the major corporations granted drilling rights in the region, the early years of the new century were boom times. Mineral wealth beneath the soil has contributed to a tripling of South Africa's GDP since Nelson Mandela first took office, and leading members of the ruling African National Congress, many of whom had personal business interests in the mining industry, saw their fortunes spiral.

But for Lungisile and the many others ferried into the mines through a system of migrant labour that has changed little since the days of apartheid, the statistics behind South Africa's dazzling economic successes ring hollow. Initially employed through a sub-contractor at Anglo American Platinum, he gradually progressed up the career ladder to become a rock drill operator (RDO), the most elite rank of manual laborers in the mines, and moved to Lonmin.

Yet higher job status did not bring with it any noticeable improvement in living conditions. As an RDO, Lungisile continued to live in one of the many shack settlements scattered around the mineshafts, just as he had as an unskilled worker. Many homes in the area lack electricity and running water; groups of shacks usually share outdoor long-drop toilets, and waterborne diseases are common.

Despite issuing regular glossy reports on their ethical values, platinum mining companies have been repeatedly criticized by community groups and human rights monitors for failing to provide decent and safe accommodation for their workers. "'Sustainability' loses all meaning when the corporation does as it pleases and there are no consequences," concluded a 2013 investigation into Lonmin's corporate social responsibility policies by Bench Marks, a South African church-based monitoring group. "What we find in practice is a company intent on extracting minerals at the cost of communities' health and welfare." In response, Lonmin admitted that some of the data in its sustainability reports was inaccurate but insisted that they were complying with both the law and global best practice. The company declined several invitations to provide any comment for this article.

In the summer of 2012, frustration at low pay -- RDOs typically drew a basic monthly salary of less than $400, out of which many also had to support family members back home in the Eastern Cape -- led to workers demanding a meeting with Lonmin management. That meeting was never granted, setting in motion a chain of events that would end with 34 mineworkers killed at the hands of police, many of them in front of rolling television cameras.

* * *

"We weren't looking to fight with anyone, but from there we thought we would be able to defend ourselves," Lungisile tells me. He and I are standing amid a clump of rocks and small trees just north of the main koppie, a small hill, on the spot where he was felled. It's the first time he has returned here since the shooting, and for a long time he simply stares at the landscape in silence. "But then on the morning of the massacre, I saw the police pulling razor wire around us at the base of the hill. I saw that the number of police hippos [armored vehicles] was increasing, and I saw the officers putting on their bullet-proofs like they were gearing up for a war."

Contrary to the official reports issued immediately after the shooting, which attributed the violence to the miners, evidence that has emerged from the government-appointed Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the killings and footage unearthed by a documentary filmmaker has shown that security forces began their attack as workers were moving peacefully away from police lines, towards their homes. A group of miners ran down one side of the hill, where they were met by a volley of police bullets. Another group, panicked, ran the other way -- towards a second, smaller koppie, their route flanked by police vehicles and tracked by police helicopter. Lungisile was among them. "We were many, but as we ran I saw other workers shot around me. There was so much commotion happening, you could hear gunshots from all directions, and a big [water cannon] that was splitting us up. I kept running, but as I ran I could see people sleeping [dead] everywhere."

When he first sensed a pain in his head, Lungisile thought he'd been struck by a stone. Then he found himself falling to the ground. "When I realized 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." What followed was a nightmare half-hour of fear and confusion, as police continued to comb the area and refused to provide the injured with immediate medical help. "I could hear people screaming as they were beaten up, and I could hear gunshots, there was torture all around," says Lungisile. "They [the police] were lighting their faces up, shining flashlights into their eyes to see if they were dead or not. I saw many dead around me, there were so many people dead here."

Seventeen corpses were eventually found at the second koppie. Evidence submitted at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Judge Gordon Farlam, into the massacre suggested that some unarmed workers were killed while fleeing or attempting to surrender to police. Some appeared to have been shot in the head at close range.

* * *

South Africa is home to the richest mineral deposits on the planet. Since the latter half of the 19th century -- when the country's mining revolution began in earnest -- the industry devoted to the extraction of those minerals has shaped the country's social and political contours. Under apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) declared that the wealth below South Africa's soil belonged to the people and vowed to eject white monopoly capital from the mines. Once in power though, the party's rhetoric shifted dramatically. Although many well-connected black South Africans have joined the boards of major mining corporations, the traditional structure of the industry has remained intact and become part of what some critics say is "co-dependent comfort zone" of power and wealth in the new South Africa, melding together certain business, political, police, and trade union interests in support of a lucrative -- for some -- status quo.

Transcripts of private emails and telephone conversations that took place in the run-up to the massacre and have since been published by the Farlam inquiry revealed both panic behind the scenes at the potential political implications of a strike victory for workers, and a shared determination to end the strike before any such victory materialized. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa labeled the strikers as "dastardly criminal" and resolutions were made by police chiefs and Lonmin management to "kill this thing." All government, police, and Lonmin witnesses called to the inquiry have denied any premeditated plan to attack the striking miners, but others disagree: "They drove these guys to the death line where the police were waiting to mow them down like rabbits," claims Ronnie Kasrils, a former ANC minister.

Before he was eventually transferred to an ambulance, Lungisile says he lay in the earth wondering what the miners had done to deserve this. "I think there are people in this country that are against workers getting what they want, and they came to the conclusion we should be killed," he claims. "As a young person, I had a lot of hope that the end of apartheid would bring change. Now in the new South Africa, the democratic South Africa..." he breaks off. "I don't even have words for it."

Lungisile now walks with a crutch. He will never be able operate a rock drill again. In the weeks and months following the shooting, he watched the political fallout from the Marikana strike from his hospital bed. One of the men who died was a close friend of Lungisile's from the Eastern Cape, and the fact that he was unable to attend the funeral still angers him. Back in Libode, he has four young children; the oldest is 12, and in a few years they will have to start thinking about employment -- including whether or not they should follow their father's footsteps to the platinum belt, as most of their peers will.

"I'll never allow it," says Lungisile, firmly. "I never want them to see the suffering that I'm in, and the conditions that I'm living in. The thing is that I always wanted to work for them to provide a bright future, and now everything is ruined. I won't be to do that for them."

Last week, the Farlam inquiry called its final witnesses. Counsel will now retire to prepare their closing arguments, with a verdict on the killings expected later this year. Whatever the outcome, it is likely to inflame rather than dampen South Africa's many political tensions. Despite re-election in May, President Jacob Zuma remains deeply unpopular within mining communities, who believe it is not only the policemen who pulled the trigger, but South Africa's cosy relationship between government and big business that is on trial today. For Lungisile, the prospect of the state that shot him facing some accountability holds only a thin sliver of comfort. "I've lost a job, and I've lost optimism for the future," he says, quietly. "I still have a bullet in my head. No court case is going to change that."






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