Murder at Marikana

In a tumble of boulders quite near the hill called Wonderkop, yellow spray paint defaces the ancient granite. This is not graffiti, yet something far worse than vandalism took place here, at the spot locals dismissively refer to as Small Koppie.

One rock, encompassed closely on all sides by solid granite boulders, is the letter ‘N’. N refers to the 14th body of a striking miner found at in this isolated place by the police forensics team.

The thick spread of blood deep into the dry soil shows that N was shot and killed right here. It would have been outside of the scope of the human body to crawl here bleeding so profusely. There is no trail of blood leading to where N died.

Approaching the spot N from all possible angles, it is clear that to shoot N, the shooter would have to be close. Very close, almost to within touching distance. It does not take too much imagination to believe that N might have begged for his life on that winter afternoon.

The death of miner N happened far from the prying eyes of media and their lenses. The killing of 34 and wounding of 78 mineworkers at Marikana is one of those few bitter moments in our bloody history captured by the unblinking eye of the lens. Several lenses, in fact, and from various viewpoints.

This has allowed scrutiny of the actions and reactions of both the strikers and the police in ways that undocumented tragedies can never be. Thus, while the motives and rationale of both parties will never be completely clear, their deeds seem to be quite apparent.

This has allowed a dominant narrative within the public discourse to develop. The police, various state entities, and many among the media have guided this narrative. The main thrust of which is that the strikers provoked their own deaths by charging and shooting at the forces of law and order.

Indeed, the various images and footage can be read to support this claim. The contrary view is that the striking miners were trying to escape police rubber bullets and teargas when they ran at the heavily armed police task team (our version of SWAT). An alternate reading of the available footage and stills can also support this opinion.

It took several days for police to release the total number of those killed. The number 34 surprised most of us. The footage showed no more than a dozen dead. Where exactly had the remaining miners been killed?

Yet most journalists and others among us did not properly interrogate this. The violence of the deaths we could watch, over and over, was enough to contend with. The police certainly did not mention what happened outside the view of the cameras. They were content to express the opinion that pangas, sticks and a few pistols were a threat to our most highly trained police task team armed with assault rifles.

According to strikers interviewed, many of the other deaths occurred at a nondescript collection of boulders some 300 meters behind Wonderkop.

From the outside of the jumble of granite at Small Koppie, the weathered remains of a prehistoric hill, it would appear that nothing more brutal than the felling of the straggly indigenous trees for firewood occurred here.

Once within the outer perimeter, narrow passages between the weathered rocks lead into dead-ends. Scattered piles of human faeces and toilet paper mark the area as the communal toilet for those in the miners’ shack community without pit toilets.

It is inside here, hidden from casual view, that the rocks bear the yellow letters methodically sprayed on by the forensic team to denote where they found the miners bodies. The letter N appears to take the death toll at this site to 14. Some of the other letters are difficult to discern. Many have used the site for their toilet in the days after the killings, obscuring the markings on sand and grass.

One of the striking miners caught up in the mayhem, let’s call him ‘Themba’ though his name is known to us, recalls what he experienced once the police began encircling their hill with razor wire.

“Most people then called for us to get off the mountain and as we were coming down, the shooting began. Most people shot near the kraal were trying to get into the settlement – the blood we saw is theirs. We ran in the other direction, as it was impossible now to make it through the bullets.

“We ran until we got to the meeting spot and watched the incidents at the (small) koppie. Two helicopters landed, soldiers and police surrounded the area. We never saw anyone coming out of the (small) koppie.”

The soldiers he refers to were, in fact, part of the police task team dressed in camouflage uniforms, and in a brown military vehicle. On being quizzed about this, Themba added that he believes that people who ran to the killing koppie were hiding there when police went in and killed them.

The University of Johannesburg Chair in Social Change and Professor of Sociology researcher, Peter Alexander and two researchers interviewed witnesses in the days after the massacre. Researcher Botsong Mmope, spoke to a miner Tsepo* on Monday August 20th.Tsepo witnessed some of the events that occurred off camera. Botsong relates the discussion. “Tsepo said many people at the small koppie and it had never been covered (by media). He agreed to take us to the small koppie, because that is where many, many people died.”

After the shooting began, Tsepo relates that he was among many who ran towards the small koppie, and as the police chased them someone among them said ‘Let us lie down, comrades, they will not shoot us then.’

“At that time there were bullets coming from a helicopter above them. Tsepo then lay down. A number of fellow strikers also lay down. He says he watched Nyalas drive over the prostrate, living, miners.

“Others miners ran to the koppie and that was where they were shot by police and the army** with machine guns.”

When the firing finally ceased, Tsepo managed to escape across the veld to the north.

The yellow letters speak as if they are the voices of the dead. The position of the letters – which denote the remains of once sweating, panting, cursing, pleading men – tell a story. A story of policemen hunting men down like beasts. They tell of possibly tens of murders at close range.

Person N for example, died in a narrow defile surrounded on four sides by solid rock. The soil below the letter is soaked in copious amounts of blood. His is not the type of wound that would allow the victim to run or crawl to sanctuary; but rather he had to be shot at that spot. His killer could not have been further than two meters away from him – the geography forbids any other possibility. Did N plead, or was he defiant?

N’s murderer could only have been a policeman. I say murderer because there is not a single report on an injured policeman from the day. I say murderer because there seems to have been no attempt to uphold our citizens’ right to life, and fair recourse to justice. It is hard to imagine that N would have resisted being taken into custody when thus cornered. A ring of police, on foot, in aroured vehicles, in helicopters and on horseback surrounded the men. They had no chance of escape.

Other letters denote equally morbid scenarios. G and H died alongside each other. They too, had to have been shot at close range, and had no route of escape. Other letters mark the rocks nearby. A bloody handprint stains a vertical rock surface where someone tried to support himself once wounded. Other rocks are splattered with blood as miners died on the afternoon of Thursday August 16th.

None of these events were witnessed by media, or captured on camera. They were barely reported on at all.

In the days after the shooting, Themba visited friends at the nearby mine hospital, “Most people who are in hospital were shot at the back. The ones I saw in hospital had clear signs of being run over by the Nyalas.”

“I never got to go to the mortuary but most people who went there told me that they couldn’t recognise the faces of the dead (they were so damaged by either bullets of from being driven over).”

It is clear that heavily armed police hunted down and killed the miners in cold blood. It is a minority that was killed in the filmed event where police claim they acted in self defence. This is murder on a massive scale.

Why did this happen?

Let us look back at the events of Monday, August 13, three days prior to these events.

Themba, who is a second-generation miner from the Eastern Cape, was present then too. He was part of a group of some 30 strikers who were delegated to cross the veld that separated them from another Lonmin platinum mine, Karee.

It was at Karee mine that other rock drill operators had led a wildcat strike to demand better wages. The National Union of Mineworkers had not supported them, and management took a tough line. The strike was unsuccessful, with many of the strikers losing their jobs. The Marikana miners figured that there were many miners there still angry enough to join them on Wonderkop

The strikers never reached their fellow workers; instead mine security turned them back, and told them to return by a different route from the one they had used.

On this road, they met a contingent of police. Themba says there were some ten Nyalas and one or two police trucks or vans. The police barred their way and told them to lay down their weapons. The workers refused, saying that they needed the pangas to cut wood as they lived in the bush, and more honestly, that they were needed to defend themselves. The Friday before, they say people wearing red National Union of Mineworkers t-shirts had killed three of their number.

The police line parted and they were allowed to continue, but once they were about ten meters past, the police opened fire on them.

The miners turned and took on the police.

It was here, he says, that they killed two policemen and injured another. The police killed two miners and a third was severely wounded, from what Themba says was gunfire from a helicopter above them. They carried the wounded man back to Wonderkop, where he was taken to hospital in a car. His fate is unknown.

Police spokesperson Captain Dennis Adriao, when asked about the incident by telephone says that public order policing officers were attacked by miners, who hacked the two policemen to death, and critically injured another. He further said that the police had arrested eight people so far for that and incident as well as the other ten deaths prior to Thursday, 16thAugust, “Two are in custody in hospital who were injured in the attack on the police.”

The police version of how this event took place is quite different from that of Themba’s, but what is clear is that the police had already arrested people they considered responsible for the murders committed thus far. Why then the urgency to confront those among the thousands camped on Wonderkop?

Let us return to the events of August 16th. The South African Government Information website still carries this statement, posted on the day of the Marikana massacre:

“Following extensive and unsuccessful negotiations by SAPS members to disarm and disperse a heavily armed group of illegal gatherers at a hilltop close to Lonmin Mine, near Rustenburg in the North West Province, the South African Police Service was viciously attacked by the group, using a variety of weapons, including firearms. The Police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defence, were forced to engage the group with force. This resulted in several individuals being fatally wounded, and others injured.”

This police statement says the police acted in self defence. This is despite the fact that not a single policeman suffered any sort of injury on August 16t

And as we discussed earlier, it is possible to interpret what happened in the filmed events as an over-reaction by the police to a threat. What happened afterwards, 400 meters away at Small Koppie is quite different. If police armoured vehicles did indeed drive over prostate miners, that cannot be described as self defence, nor as any kind of by-the-book public order policing.

The geography of those yellow spray painted letters tell a chilling and damning story. They lend credence to what the strikers have been saying. One miner on the morning after the massacre, August 17th, told Daily Maverick that “When one of our miners passed a Nyala, there was a homeboy of his from the Eastern Cape inside, and he told him that today was D-day, that they were to come and shoot. He said there was a paper signed allowing them to shoot us.”

The language reportedly used by the policeman is strikingly similar to that used by police spokesperson Captain Adriao early on the 16thAugust, and quoted on “We have tried over a number of days to negotiate with the leaders and with the gathering here at the mine, our objective is to get the people to surrender their weapons and to disperse peacefully.”

“Today is D-day in terms of if they don’t comply then we will have to act … we will have to take steps,” Adriao said.

A little later he commented: “Today is unfortunately D-day. It is an illegal gathering. We’ve tried to negotiate and we’ll try again but if that fails, we’ll obviously have to go to a tactical phase.”

Speaking to the possible intention of the police, let us look at how the deployed police were armed. The weapons the majority of the 400 and some police on the scene was the R5 or LM5, an assault rifle designed for infantry and tactical police use (a licensed replica of the Israeli Galil SAR). These weapons cannot fire rubber bullets. The police were clearly deployed in a military manner – to take lives, not to contain possible riotous behavior.

The events three days previously set the stage for the police to exact their revenge. Police who have increasingly been accused of brutality, torture and death in detention. What is unclear is how high up the chain of command this desire went. The Human Rights commission is investigating the police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, for the instructions she issued for the events on August 16th.

There has been police obfuscation and selective silence, in a democratic society where the police are theoretically accountable to the citizenry; as well as to our elected representatives. We live in a country where people are assumed innocent until proven guilty; where summery executions are not within the police’s discretion.

Let us be under no illusion. The striking miners are no angels. They are as violent as anyone else in our society. And in an inflamed setting such as at Marikana, probably more so. They are angry, disempowered, feel cheated and want more than a subsistence wage. Whatever the merits of their argument, and the crimes of some individuals among them, over 3,000 people did not merit summary and entirely arbitrary execution at the hands of a paramilitary police unit.

In the light of this, we could look at the events of August 16thas the murder of 34 and the attempted murder of a further 78, who survived despite the police’s apparent intention to kill them.

Back at the rocks locals dub Small Koppie, a wild pear flowers among the debris of the carnage and human excrement; a place of horror that has until now remained terra incognita to the public.

Note: We have put these questions to the police and they state that they are unable to comment as to what happened at and around Small Koppie, as well as more detail on Monday 13th. The IPID has also not responded othe than to say this is speculation until the Inter-Ministerial Commission has done its work.

*not his real name

** References by several witnesses and speakers at miners gathering to the army (or amajoni) actually refer to a police task team unit who wore camouflage uniforms and carried R5 semi-automatic files on the day.

Greg Marinovich

Greg’s Blog