The guns of Marikana
Secret rituals may have led striking miners to believe they were invincible, writes Lucas Ledwaba
Every morning, a group of men gathered on a hill on the outskirts of Nkaneng informal settlement near the Karee mine in Wonderkop.
There, under the instructions of a medicine man who allegedly hails from Eastern Cape, they stripped naked, stood in single file and waited for their turn to be sprinkled with herbs.
The medicine man used a razor blade on some of the men, making small incisions on their foreheads before smearing a black, gel-like potion on them.
These procedures, it is believed, were part of a process to prepare for battle: to make the men invincible against the enemy.
There were stories doing the rounds that on Monday, mine security guards had tried to fire on the striking workers, only for their guns to jam as a result of the rituals conducted on the hill.
“That man over there is unbelievable,” said a young man in Setswana, referring to the medicine man behind the rituals on the hill.
“There are men who sleep on that hill at night. They never go back to the hostel or their homes. They say at night you can’t see anything there because that man has made the hill to be invisible at night.”
We stood at the entrance to the Nkaneng informal settlement on Tuesday afternoon.
A crowd had gathered there, opposite the Wonderkop stadium, to watch a huge, intimidating convoy of armoured police cars make its way into the area towards the hill where the body of a man had been found a few hours earlier.
Police identified the man as a senior mine supervisor. Pangas were used to hack his face and head, and he was left for dead on a footpath.
A picture taken by the police shows the man’s mangled body lying face up, one eye wide in death, and a cow’s skull on his chest.
People, including children walking from school, walked past the man’s body throughout most of Tuesday.
The strikers apparently sought the services of the medicine man to prepare for battle against any and all enemies: foremost their employer Lonmin, the third-biggest platinum producer in the world; what they termed “hit men” from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM); and, it seems, against anyone else they deemed a hindrance to their goal of a monthly salary of R12 500.
It is not clear how and when the decision to go on strike was taken, but last Friday, more than 3 000 rock drillers – the men who earn just R4 000 a month digging for platinum underground for eight hours every working day – downed their tools.
By late Monday, two mine security guards, two police officers and four mine workers who apparently refused to join the strike had been hacked to death with pangas, stabbed with spears, shot and – in the case of the two security guards – their bodies set alight.
Three of the striking miners were killed as police dispersed the armed strikers, who had managed to infiltrate operational areas and intimidate workers.
The battle lines were drawn. It was now a case of being either with or against the armed men.
There were already thousands gathered on and around the hill when we arrived in Wonderkop, a settlement near the town of Marikana, on Tuesday afternoon.
There seemed to be a hierarchy of some sort in the sitting arrangement.
The seemingly more militant group that numbered a few hundred sat at the bottom of the hill, flanked by thousands of others on the hill to their right and thousands more to their left.
The militant group, under the command of a tall, dark man draped in a green cape, looked like disciplined warriors.
They were armed with pangas, spears, clubs and sharpened steel rods, and were clearly in control of proceedings.
We learnt that there were strict rules governing this gathering: no hats, no jewellery, no mobile phones, no cameras and, above all, strictly no women.
And the workers were warned not to be seen to be speaking to strangers (meaning the media), which explained the stoic silence and nasty looks from some of the men walking to the hill when approached for interviews.
An elderly man walking past the informal settlement of Nkaneng towards the hill said in a hushed tone that he was merely joining the group because if he did not do so he could be harmed.
“This is the life here. There is no other way. A man must think about his children,” he said.
Police had warned journalists that the strikers were hostile, armed and dangerous.
So when a group of us approached the hill on Tuesday afternoon, we were met by a man in a green cape who signalled for us to stop a distance away and walked calmly towards us.
He spoke in a calm but firm voice, demanding to know our intentions and emphasising that the group was “not fighting anyone” – they were merely fighting for their rights.
As we spoke, a younger man who looked to be on a high of some sort charged at us, demanding to know why we were there.
The man in the green cape, who seemed to occupy a position of authority, calmed him down and he walked away.
A deal was made that three volunteers would be made available for interviews, which were carried out in full view of the thousands gathered there, with the strikers speaking through a loudspeaker.
All three men were from Eastern Cape and spoke in a combination of isiXhosa and Fanakalo.
They made it clear it was R12 500 a month or nothing.
By midday on Thursday, it was becoming clear that the strikers were not going to leave the hill after numerous attempts by police and union officials from both the Association of Mineworkers and Constructution Union (Amcu) and the NUM to negotiate a truce.
Amcu was at least given an ear by the strikers, but NUM officials were heckled away and forced to retreat.
It was becoming clear, too, that the gathering was not going to end peacefully.
“If they want to kill us they may as well do so,” said a man addressing the strikers as more police reinforcements arrived on the scene.
“But if these men kill us, they must know that in this life someone in their family will also wear a mourning dress at some stage,” said another, as it became even clearer that a peaceful solution was becoming a distant dream.
“No one is going to die for someone else. We will only leave this hill if we get R12 500. Management must come and talk to us, then we will go underground,” said the man to loud applause, with some rising to do impromptu war dances, brandishing weapons.
“We must not be afraid of death because everyone who works underground is as good as dead. The mine is
just a grave that can bury you at any time.
“It’s not Amcu or NUM that said we shouldn’t go to work – it’s us, the workers, not the unions, so they are not going to tell us what to do. We want money, that’s all.”
As the clock approached 4pm on Thursday, the man in the green cape walked towards a police Nyala with hands raised.
He stepped on to the front of the vehicle and spoke to a police officer through an opening in the window.
It was not clear what was being discussed, but soon a police Nyala began rushing northwards, dropping barbed wire in its wake to prevent the workers from advancing towards the police.
The men on the hill scattered towards the west, while the warriors, led by the man in the green cape, marched alongside the police Nyala, chanting war slogans.
The police tried to channel the crowd to
wards an open field away from the police cars and dozens of journalists eager to capture the commotion.
But just then, the warriors, led by the man in the green cape, turned towards the police near a cattle kraal, charging with spears, pangas and sticks.
One man was seen firing at the police. Police officers returned fire with rubber bullets at the advancing men.
But the men kept coming, charging, sending the men in blue running into a Nyala nearby.
Then it happened. “Papapapapapapa!” A staccato of shots burst from police R5 rifles into the advancing army.
The force of the bullets sent men flying into the air, their bodies landing in the dust to leave spreading pools of blood on the ground at Wonderkop.
It took only a few minutes, but when it was over 34 men lay dead.
As night fell, huge crowds gathered in disbelief in the dusty streets of Nkaneng, wondering if their loved ones had made it out alive.
Journalists sat in shock, wondering if what they had just witnessed had really happened.
Some of the men still lay writhing in pain in the dust, their limbs moving slowly as they clung to life.
But it was the actions of the men who charged at the police with spears and pangas that had surprised many.
Why, when they were seemingly no match for the police with their weapons and armoured vehicles?
Perhaps the answer lies in the statement made by Lieutenant General Elias Mawela at a media briefing on Friday.
“We were dealing with people who looked possessed, or believed the bullets would not work on them.”