Bloodbath still haunts South Africa’s platinum belt

As anniversary of mass killing of miners looms, violence still rules



In the year since South Africa’s Marikana bloodbath, death has not strayed far from the country’s platinum mining belt, with bodies piling up amid union rivalry and violence against witnesses.

On Aug. 16 last year, what started as just another labor dispute became, for many, the most egregious example of police brutality since the end of apartheid. After days of tense standoff, the police unleashed a volley of 284 bullets that mowed down 34 miners and injured 78 more. In the week leading up to the shootings at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, 12 more miners, unionists, security guards and policemen died in clashes, bringing the toll to 46.

A year on, the inquest launched by President Jacob Zuma has yet to conclude. Lawyers representing wounded strikers have withdrawn over a lack of funding. The police have denied wrongdoing and no officers have been charged for their role in the deadly assault.

And the rainbow nation’s luster — and that of the ruling African National Congress party — has dulled in the eyes of the world. “Their moral authority was eroded,” said Frans Cronje, director the South African Institute for Race Relations.

Despite a 22 percent salary hike, Lonmin miners claim life is unchanged. Most live in the same shacks as a year ago, although some now have communal toilets. They cling to their dream of a 12,500 rand ($1,270) minimum wage.

All the while, tensions between rival unions and in the wake of the inquest have resulted in vicious beatings, stabbings and shootings. At least 20 people linked to the events at Lonmin’s Marikana mine have died, according to a tally, including six of the inquiry’s witnesses.

The latest victim, a National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) shaft leader, was gunned down in front of her house Monday — the second fatality in two weeks.

Mbulelo Nqapo was the first casualty, two months ago. A gang shot the local union leader in front of his NUM office June 3, just a few hundred meters from a Lonmin mine shaft. But his fate may have been sealed a year before.

While many union leaders went into hiding, Nqapo remained visible. His superior, NUM branch secretary Sisa Buyeye, feels it’s just a matter of time before he, too, is picked off.

“I am the target after him. They said, ‘Who’s next after Mbulelo?’ It’s me,” he said.

In the past year, rival union AMCU has upstaged NUM in the platinum sector, but both unions have lost key leaders to violence each blames on the other. Key AMCU inquiry witness Mawethu Steve was slain in a tavern in May before he could testify. His death triggered suspected reprisal hits on two NUM members — twin brothers — the same evening.

Another AMCU leader’s decomposed body was found near an Xstrata mine in the neighboring province of Limpopo in June, with his hands and feet bound. Meanwhile, NUM shop steward Daluvuyo Bongo was gunned down days after pointing out Marikana shooting areas to inquiry head Judge Ian Farlam last October. Four other NUM leaders were also shot or hacked to death, including Monday’s victim.

Other assassinations hint at underworld rivalries and the sad extension of crime in a country that sees around 16,000 murders a year. Alton Joja, reportedly the spiritual medium who had cast a spell that emboldened the striking miners against police bullets last year, was shot dead at his house in the rural Eastern Cape province in March.

According to David van Wyk, a researcher with the Bench Marks Foundation — which mediated an end to the strikes — the killings will not stop until NUM, an ally of the African National Congress, gives up. “The assassinations because of either Farlam or union rivalry will continue until NUM accepts defeat in Rustenburg or defeats its rivals,” he said.

Today, union leaders avoid meeting in person. Witnesses give out false names and refuse photographs. “It brings fear to workers that we can be targeted,” said Mancwando Malala, 54, who survived last year’s carnage but is too injured to work.

In the year since Marikana, suicide is another curse for those linked to the mining unrest, leaving seven bodies in its wake. Four of these were Marikana survivors, traumatized, unable to work and indebted.

Both unions’ national leaders egg on their supporters with belligerent speeches to fight for supremacy. Hoping to tap that seam of anger, firebrand Julius Malema started his Economic Freedom Fighters party to run in next year’s election. “It hasn’t changed social life but it has clearly focused minds of the political leaders around some of the deep-rooted issues in the society,” said Iraj Abedian, chief executive of investment firm Pan-African Holdings.