Seven years since Marikana: Justice now!
Analysis, narration, and photographs by Elias Korte.
South Africa was unfamiliar to me prior to the events at Marikana in 2012. At that time, it was inconceivable to me, a young left political activist in Germany, that something like this could happen in a country still in the process of reconciliation with its extremely violent past. On the 16th of August 2019, thousands of workers and local residents gathered for a day’s memorium where the shooting took place. I attended to see with my own eyes what happened to the promises of the mine operator, Lonmin (Now Sibanye Stillwater), the promises of the government, to understand how the massacre is remembered by those most closely affected by it, and to express my solidarity with the Marikana community.
A few kilometers before Marikana, the tar road ends and continues as gravel. The first impression I get is about a broken promise. I arrive in the settlement near the mine, which belonged in 2012 to the British company Lonmin. There is not much to see of the bricks and mortar houses that were promised by the company after the massacre, which leaves the impression that promises were made simply to temporarily appease the community, rather than to actually achieve some form of justice. Lonmin operates several mines in the North West Province and was the third largest producer of platinum before the takeover by the South African mining company Sibanye-Stillwater in June 2019. Mostly, houses here are only made from corrugated iron. The environment points to a very quiet place on normal day, but everyday life seems to have been interrupted today. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) mobilized hundreds of members from other provinces and branches. Numerous coaches and cars populate the poor village. I’ve counted more than 60 buses.
Everywhere I look, I see people in green t-shirts, members of AMCU. The Marikana residents set up food stalls. They are joined by vendors selling workwear as well as merchandise of AMCU and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF have a very strong stance on this massacre: For them, the Marikana massacre is both a symbol of the African National Congress’s betrayal of the black working class and the founding myth of its own party.
Most of the people I meet here don’t make good references about the governing ANC party. One worker told me in private that he has a membership with the ANC, and that if he would show openly his support for the ANC, “people here would kill me“. Of course apart from sharing the same solidarity with the workers killed, the other unifying aspect seems to be opposing the ANC. The ANC is considered by many here as either the perpetrator or as being complicit in the act. Here, it doesn’t appear to matter which opposition party you support or belong to. The neoliberal Democratic Alliance (DA) and the left-wing EFF have found common ground here. President Cyril Ramaphosa, as expected, isn’t present at the commemoration event for the miners who were gunned down seven years ago. Although his presence would certainly not please those here, his absence also seems to cause anger. President Ramaphosa is in Tanzania attending a meeting with other SADC heads of States. Here, he is accused of having ordered the massacre. The real role and responsibility of President Ramaphosa and many other actors in the massacre still remain unclear. For the survivors, and for the community, it’s important that those who were behind the structures that led to the killings are held to account or at the very least answer for what happened. For the future, mechanisms are necessary to avoid a repetition of these events.
My goal is to engage as much as possible with the people close to me at the small hill where the massacre occured, while the stage in front of us is dominated by fierce speeches of union leaders and music groups that have shown up to the event. It’s easy here for me to engage with others. Often I’m asked whether I’m a journalist or miner. I presume many are mainly interested in me probably because I stand out for being the only white person attending the event. I decided to speak with a widow of a killed miner. She carries a poster demanding justice for her late husband. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her to have lost a husband so tragically, shot down in the course of demanding rights that should have been afforded to him in the first place. I also talk to some survivors, residents of the Marikana community, and AMCU members who have come here by bus from Mpumalanga. Throughout the course of the day, I struggle to comprehend the reality that the bloodied struggles for workers’ rights that I only know from a century ago at home, are still so current here in South Africa. I find myself thinking about what it must have looked like here when the police guns fired at striking worker at that tragic moment exactly seven years ago. It truly feels surreal to stand on the very same ground that seven years ago was soaked with the blood of the gunned-down miners.
Disillusionment with the ANC government feels very high here. This is clear from my conversations and from the way I see people here fervently mobilizing against it. I am told that the Government and the families of the dead miners still have not agreed on an amount for compensation. Since 2012, only eight houses have been built for the families, although the previous mine operator Lonmin had promised houses for all who suffered a loss from the events of 16 August 2012. Sibanye-Stillwater, the new operator, promised again to build houses for all the families of the victims, after it took over Lonmin. Every year at Marikana and throughout South Africa as well, there is commemoration of the massacre, and I just imagine that those awaiting justice must simply feel used and neglected. It’s nice that mine workers receive a day off from Sibanye-Stillwater, but what should be seen is concrete justice and reparations, on the road to actual improvement in socioeconomic conditions for the Marikana community.
While it’s true that, socioeconomically, very little has changed here, it’s also undeniable that the Marikana massacre has certainly changed the political landscape of the entire South Africa. From my perspective, the ANC has lost its moral sanctity, and this loss has brought about a new dynamic into South African politics. For the first time in the recent history of the country, with the emergence of the political party EFF, the ANC and its Tripartite Alliance are being challenged by a left-wing opposition party. NUMSA, once the strongest single union within COSATU, is no longer involved in the ruling alliance, since having been expelled. I have no doubt that as a result of these developments, the scope for political change in the country has increased.
Only the progressive forces of the country will decide whether Marikana will, in the official historical narrative, stand out one day as a turning point in the South African history and the trigger of much needed struggles for economic emancipation of the majority of the population. My participation in the commemoration provided me with a profound lesson on how dealing with such tragedy still causes a lot of anger towards the authorities, but judging from my own experience on the ground, seven years after this low point in the young democratic history of the country which abruptly ended the lives of 44 people, Marikana remains a place of struggle.