On 16 August 2012, South African police opened fire on a large crowd of men who had walked out on strike from a platinum mine at Marikana, about 80 miles north of Johannesburg. They shot down 112 of them, killing 34.
In any country, this would have been a traumatic moment. For South Africa, it was a special kind of nightmare, since it revived images of massacres by the state in the old apartheid era, with one brutal difference – this time it was predominantly black policemen, with black senior officers working for black politicians, who were doing the shooting.
In response, President Jacob Zuma appointed a commission of inquiry, chaired by a retired judge, Ian Farlam, which eventually sat in public for a total of 293 days, hearing evidence from miners, their bosses and the police, and reviewing video, audio and paper records of the shooting and of the seven-day strike that preceded it.
At the end of March this year, the commission delivered its report to Zuma, who so far has failed to publish its conclusions. Those who may find themselves accused of colluding in the police action include not only senior figures from the ruling African National Congress but also Lonmin, the British company that owns the Marikana mine.
In the evidence before the Farlam inquiry, one particular miner came to the fore. In videos of marches and meetings during the strike, this was largely because he wore a bright green blanket around his shoulders. Beyond that, it was because during those seven days of conflict, he came from nowhere as the leader, making passionate speeches through a loudhailer, negotiating with police, standing in the frontline as the shooting broke out. He died that afternoon, with 14 bullets in his face and neck and legs.
The name of the man in the green blanket was Mgcineni Noki. He was aged 30, and known to his family and friends as Mambush. This is his story. It may also stand as part of the story of what has happened in South Africa since apartheid was voted into the dust of history 21 years ago.
Mambush – a rock-drill operator with no official rank – emerged from the mass of black workers as a rebel leader demanding justice, while some of those who were once the spearhead of the fight against repression acted as a shield protecting privilege, exploitation and extreme violence. It is a story about power changing hands and changing colour but failing, finally, to change the lives of those in whose name that power is held.
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The Lonmin smelter stands like a cathedral of commerce over a bleak landscape, its chimney reaching for heaven, its conveyor belt shuffling a fortune in unrefined platinum. The miners live in its shadow. Their homes are one-room shacks. Some of them are built of breeze blocks; most are patchworks of rusting corrugated iron tacked onto frames of timber torn from local trees. The shacks huddle together in groups of several hundred. There are no roads, only dirt tracks which that turn greasy in the rain. A few chickens peck the mud. Goats stroll by.
As far as the eye can see, pylons march across the landscapelike robot soldiers, bringing electricity to the mines, but most of the shacks have no power (though some steal it on cables that sag among the washing lines). The mines have water, too, to wash the ore. But not the shacks: some of the men share a communal tap (though many of them have been broken for months); some drink straight from milky streams that run nearby.
In one of the shacks lives Mbulelo Noki, a lean, fit man in blue jeans and a Levi shirt, now aged 35. He has a double bed, neatly made; a small table with a plastic cloth; a metal wardrobe with the torn remains of an old ANC sticker on the door. Mbulelo is Mambush’s cousin – their fathers were brothers. Mbulelo and Mambush grew up together in a tiny village called Thwalikhulu, which sits high on the rim of a pale green valley, some 600 miles south in the Eastern Cape.
The two boys were close. Mambush’s father died before he was born, and so Mbulelo’s father helped the bereaved family to survive. As they reached adolescence, the cousins went together into the hills to build a hut and to go through the rituals and circumcision that marked their graduation to manhood. Later they worked together as rock-drill operators, battering platinum ore out of the earth, 5km below ground.
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