This Has To Be Remembered

MARIKANA: the word is now part of the lexicon of history: the remote area that saw the bloodiest use of force by the South African Police against the people since the Soweto uprisings in 1976.

Marikana, also known as “Rooikoppies” (Red hills), is a town between Rustenberg and Johannesburg, and forms part of the Bushveld Igneous Complex, colloquially known as the “Platinum Belt”, of South Africa. Through 2 billion years of molten rock being forced to the surface through long vertical cracks in the earth, the area has some of the richest ore deposits in the world – platinum, palladium, iron, titanium, tin, are just some of the metals that are produced here.

South Africa accounts for 80% of the world’s platinum deposits, and because of its scarcity, only a few hundred tonnes are produced annually for commodities as diverse as silicone rubber and gel components, medical prosthetics, and jewelry.

One of the largest mining corporations in the area is Lonmin. Originally formed in 1909 as “Lonrho” – London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company Limited – they split into two companies in 1998 with Lonmin focusing its attention on mining the riches of South Africa, with Marikana their flagship operation. Claiming a commitment to “zero harm and the environment” on their website, that rang false in August 2012.

What began as a wildcat strike became a complicated and violent confrontation – and speaks to a deeper issue that has plagued South Africa, and many other countries, regarding workers’ rights and trade unions.

During apartheid, the organization most involved with fighting the system was the African National Congress. Formed in 1912, and banned from 1960, days after the Sharpeville Massacre, until 1990 (although it and its members, including Nelson Mandela, remained on the US Terrorist Watch List until 2008), the ANC found itself needing a legal partner inside the country. COSATU – the Congress of South African Trade Unions – was an affiliation of 21 trade unions, with 1,8 million workers, and formed part of a strategic alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party to work towards political transformation.

Born in 1952, Ramaphosa had graduated with a law degree, and started work representing the National Council of Trade Unions, and a year after that, in 1982, was asked to form the National Union of Mineworkers. The NUM won a major victory in 1983 by ending job reservation, which guaranteed the higher paying jobs went to whites in the era of apartheid.

As COSATU’s first General-Secretary, his profound skills as a negotiator, strategist, and leader built membership from 6,000 to 300,000 in ten years. His role in negotiations to end apartheid and bring about the first democratic elections in 1994 went a long way towards being considered a possible successor to President Nelson Mandela. Despite being passed over in favor of Thabo Mbeki, his ambitions have never wavered.

As a businessman his interests are wide and global, and he is one of the country’s richest men with a wealth purported to be around $675 million.

He is also on the Lonmin board. And that is important to remember as the events of Marikana unfolded.

I spoke to Rehad Desai, director of the exceptional documentary, “Miners Shot Down”, who told me, “The Trade Unions were indeed a powerful force for motivating change in the move towards democracy, but what we saw is what people have called the “triangle of torment”: communications between union and management are bureaucratized so leaders of the trade unions are forced to discipline their membership to keep them in line with their agreement, in return for the employers holding their line – and in return the employers ensuring that all their side meet the agreement.

“Now, the deeper thing was the – in (South Africa’s period of) transition – the alliance with the trade unions as far as the ANC goes was really premised on the ability for them to tamper wage demands- to ensure that wage demands that were over and above the inflation rates or productivity were not demanded; that trade unions start taking responsibility for an economy which they had no control over. This was the beginning of the problems and so you saw the unions getting very close to management – far too close, particularly in the case of the NUM where they’re labelled by mineworkers as the National Union of Management. They’ve really become an extension of management and not much more.”

I asked Rehad if the changes we saw in Ramaphosa were a result of his being “in the establishment” too long, and perhaps forgetting his roots as a representative of the people.

“I think the issue of Cyril Ramaphosa is a complex one – certainly he’s had huge investments in Lonmin, hundreds of millions of Rands – and he was seeking to protect them, and I think this typifies the arrangements of politically connected individuals and businessmen with these corporations: where they seek out such people in order to provide a level of protection to attempt to guarantee their economic and political interests, and they saw it fit to turn their backs on their workers, to stop negotiating, even though that’s against their own stated policy, and criminalise this strike.

“But there are also political considerations that I think stood at the forefront of Cyril Ramaphosa’s mind and that is the fact that his baby, the NUM, certainly then the most powerful union in COSATU, is an important ally in the alliance – the contrived alliance – with the ANC, and that was being increasingly questioned in the run-up to Marikana. Certainly we’ve seen what’s happened post-Marikana. But the fact that 21 000 workers 6 months prior had signaled their decision to leave the NUM following the strike which happened at the second biggest platinum producer in the world and in South Africa, Implats (Impala Platinum), they were worried that this would happen at Lonmin and spread further on to Anglo American – the largest platinum producer.

“Now in total, this is the Crown Prince of the mining sector and they represent 100 000 workers – that would have seen the loss of 100 000 members from the NUM to the other union on the block – the new kid on the block, so to speak. That’s a third of their membership and represents a severe weakening of their membership and the ANC’s presence inside the trade union movement and I think in hindsight, maybe this was the consideration that was pushing Ramaphosa, rather than simply his money. This is the consideration which allowed him to justify his intervention with the Minister of Police and the Minister of Water Resources – both of them who, in political terms inside the African National Congress, were his juniors.”


On August 10, 2012, rock drillers – the job usually reserved for the unskilled, illiterate, and under-educated – initiated a strike in protest of low wages. Rock drillers were paid an average of aroundZAR12 500 a month, at the time worth roughly $500, and they demanded to meet with mine management to discuss an increase.

Poverty breeds anger and resentment. The Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit, faith-based organization owned by South African churches, lobbies and monitors social responsibility in the corporate sector, basing their standards on the international, “Principles for Global Corporate Responsibility”, commented after the events at Marikana: "The benefits of mining are not reaching the workers or the surrounding communities. Lack of employment opportunities for local youth, squalid living conditions, unemployment and growing inequalities contribute to this mess.”

Critical of the ongoing exploitation and low wages of the miners, they warned about the dangers the workers faced, including significant health hazards, proclaiming “something is very wrong with mining” and warning about the potentially dire consequences of an unequal distribution of wealth.

Certainly, South Africa’s memory doesn’t need to be long to remember what upheavals that can wring from society. Apartheid was a system of inequality and founded originally on economic distribution towards the white Afrikaner, before it extended to whites generally.

Miner and strike leader, Tholakele Dlunga says in the film, “We were complaining that rock drill operators only earn R4 000 a month. We should at least get an increase looking at the work we do. But we know our employer. He won’t have the exact amount we’re demanding. Whatever he offers, we’ll negotiate on that, because we have very little money.”

After being turned away by the company’s security when attempting to approach another mine to encourage workers who belonged to a competitor union, AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) to join the strike, around 3,000 workers headed to the local offices of the NUM, staffed by around 30 union workers, shop stewards, and officials.

A survivor of the massacre, Mzoxolo Magidiwana, explains, “What made us angry as Lonmin workers was the hypocrisy of the union we elected. We were fed up because they were not pushing our demands, especially for wages, and we decided to go sort it out ourselves, as Lonmin workers.”

As the strikers approached the NUM offices, the union staff started shooting at them, without warning, from inside the building. The men dispersed, with one driller testifying to the Commission of Enquiry, “As I was walking through passages of the hostel, I felt my back turn cold. I tried to run and told the guys I was with that I had been shot.” NUM has insisted it was acting in self-defense.

The NUM shooting at its members was shocking enough, but then the politicians stepped in, including Cyril Ramaphosa. For a person with his background, having spent much of his life fighting for workers’ rights, it came as a surprise that when called on to get involved, he instead distanced himself from the workers, calling the strike, “dastardly criminal.”

Between the 12th and 13th of August, 8 mine workers were injured; two mine security officers killed by the protesters; 3 mineworkers killed in a skirmish with police that also leaves 2 policemen killed and 1 injured.

In Desai’s documentary, containing extraordinary footage of the events that unfolded that week, one of the moments that stays with the audience is of the miners returning to the koppie – a small rocky hill they had deemed their sanctuary –armed with their traditional weapons of pangas and sticks. They are stopped by police, led by General Mpembe, the Deputy Commissioner of the North West Province, who pleads with the miners to put down their weapons – never a match for sophisticated arms or bullets, but rather a badge of traditional courage – in order to return to the koppie. The miners are adamant: “We’re not fighting with anyone. We just want to get to the mountain.” One worker points out that when they went to their union representatives, they were shot at.

In a quite remarkable show of submission and respect, the workers, all kneeling or sitting on the ground, their weapons down as the police surround them, a strike leader addresses the General, “My elder, you are genuine police. We are from Lonmin, we are trying to fix our financial problems. We work underground. We are not fighting with anyone. We are just trying to solve something.”

I asked Desai about the inherent, fundamental certainty of the workers at this point.

“It’s clear that the miners were ready to hand over their weapons and cooperate with the police but they wanted to do that at the koppie. Someone says - I think it’s Antonio Gramsci - that everyone is a philosopher whether you’re educated or not. These worker leaders were chosen because they have intuition – they’re naturally intelligent. Education and intelligence don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and yes, they know their rights when it comes to strikes. They knew that they were embarking on a strike – an unprotected strike – which could have seen them dismissed.

“They believed that they could independently achieve more – which they had been doing for over the course of the last years prior to the massacre. Their defiance, their willingness, the bravery that it took to continue that strike, despite the huge numbers of arrests and killings that took place on the 16th, I think, is a standout characteristic of the determination and the courage and human tenacity in the face of a giant corporation, in the face of a hostile government, and hostile majority trade union.”

Magidiwana tells Desai in the film, “Black workers are exploited. We work like slaves, even our fathers were rockdrillers. Either they die or go back home still as rockdrillers.  Poverty forces you to forget your ambition, leave school and work as a rockdriller at the same mine, where your boss will be the son of your father’s boss.”

At this point, Lonmim has spent massive amounts of money on expanding their operations, and is financially vulnerable, so talk of higher wages is seen as a threat to their very existence, and they resist the workers requests to talk. They also could not afford a massive, extended strike, and with no rock drillers, there will be no platinum. On the day of the massacre, Lonmin, in a somewhat tone-deaf statement, complains that it has lost six days of production, or 15 000 ounces of platinum, and will be unable to meet target of 750 000 ounces by year end.

It remains somewhat unclear as to the level of collusion between police, political and union leaders, and Lonmin, with all claiming no responsibility to what happened next.

By August 14, ten people had died, with no clear idea who had the guns, apart from the police.

NUM’s competitor, AMCU, led by Jeffrey Matunjwa, whose members had joined the strike days earlier, stepped in to play a pivotal role in trying to ease the tensions and end the strike, but on 16 August, it all came to a head.

It remains unclear who gave the order to send in 4,000 rounds of live ammunition to the police stationed at the site. Nor was there a clear answer when reporters asked why coroners vans had arrived, but no ambulances were there. To this day, nobody has admitted to giving the order to fire on the workers, but what does seem clear is that the mine, and the police, were determined to bring things to an end.

Police vehicles started to herd the miners marching back to the koppie into a razor-wired temporary corral. And at that point, things went horrible wrong.

One eyewitness says some strikers were crushed by the vehicles, and chaos ensued as the shooting began. Police reports say someone, a worker, fired a gun at them, although it’s impossible to say whether that was proven, or whether such gun was ever found. What is known, and the video evidence is clear, is that the police fired on workers running from charging vehicles, teargas, and confusion, into a hail of bullets.

17 men were killed at the scene, pushed by the vehicles towards the armed police, and into a situation which if managed differently, could perhaps easily have resulted in arrests being made with no loss of life. But the chaos continued, and 17 more miners who had already found their way to the koppie, were later found dead from bullets fired at close range.  The relatively few shells found after the dust had settled indicated that this was not a scene of extended fire, but looked more like the miners had been assassinated, one a time.

The documentary includes almost everything that happened during that week. I asked Desai about the extraordinary amount of footage available.

“Well, we got footage from wherever we could. The police had to, by regulation, film everything. They didn’t or much of the stuff that they did was certainly disposed of – it was not handed over to the Commission of Inquiry, but they had to hand over something, they had to. So, a lot of footage was police footage. Lonmin wanting to distance themselves from this police operation, which in many ways they led, also handed over footage to show policemen out of control – and particularly in the instance of the railway line on the 13th.

“The key footage that shows the mine workers leaving peacefully from the koppie – contrary to the police’s narrative which claimed they were attacked twice - I managed to argue quite vociferously with Al Jazeera to release that to me, which they did and which I then handed over to the Commission of Inquiry and the local and international press. That helped shift the narrative from one of police acting in self-defense to one of a police ambush and plan to violently break the strike. There were other sources of footage from Reuters and SABC – it took some time to get into SABC to get everything I needed.”

The shockwaves that rippled through the country put pressure on President Zuma to appoint a Commission of Inquiry. Retired judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Honourable Judge Ian Gordon Farlam took his seat on August 23, 2012, and for more than 2 years would hear the testimony of all the parties involved, including that of Cyril Ramaphosa, who entered the hall to the cries of “blood on his hands” from the audience. While the Commission cleared him of wrongdoing, easing the now-Deputy President’s way to a possible promotion, the lawyers representing the miners continue to demand he be held responsible, most recently with the attorney representing the miners serving him with a summons, demanding he apologise for the massacre and to compensate those who were affected.

One of the legacies of this event was a closer examination of the decision-making level of the SA government – something Mandy Tomson delves into elsewhere in this publication. One of the major players in the Marikana massacre was Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega, aka Riah Phiyega, the Police Commissioner of the South African Police Service. Appointed to the position in June 2012, Phiyega is but one example – but an important one – of the cronyism run rampant in the current government.  Placing unqualified, or at best under-qualified, people in positions of power played its own role in the catastrophe that was Marikana. With degrees in social sciences and business administration, and a career in the corporate sector, including large banks and transportation, including a stint as “well-being consultant” at the Chamber of Mines, Phiyega had no experience as a police officer. She claimed her background as a manager would serve her well. Despite coming under some scrutiny when she would appear in public wearing full police uniform, decked with an array of medals and honors – many of which were not awarded to police officers who were actually qualified to wear them - her Amin-esque appearance was generally overlooked.

Her testimony to the Farlam Commission, which advised on an investigation into her fitness to hold office, claimed the police had been attacked by the workers, saying, “The militant group stormed toward the police firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons.” It is still unclear where that version originated, since the video evidence show a very different picture. She has also claimed that, as she was only in that position for 2 months at the time of the massacre, it was really her predecessor’s fault for militarising the police, and she had trusted her senior management to handle the crisis.

Phyega was suspended from her position in 2015, following an investigation into her practices as Commissioner by the country’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, aka “Scorpions”, whose job it is to investigate organised crime, economic crime, and corruption cases referred to it by SAPS.  

As of publication date, there is a dust-up between Phiyega and Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko and we will be keeping an eye on how that plays out going forward.


Shortly after the massacre, 17 miners were charged with the killing of the 10 who lost their lives prior to the day of the massacre - charges that were withdrawn pending the findings of the Commission, but in October 2015 were reinstated. The pretrial is scheduled to come before the courts around time of publishing.

The 270 workers directly involved in the massacre were originally charged under the “common purpose doctrine”, but those charges were dropped. Common purpose is a legal doctrine that states all participants in a crime are responsible for the consequences, even if it is not their intention. In a previous high profile case in South Africa – the Sharpeville Six- common doctrine came under fire by the international community as unlawful and racist, with two jurists calling it a “crime against humanity”.

I asked Rehad Desai about the situation for the miners following the Commission:

“Lonmin did go before the Commission, as did the unions. The final report states that there is a case for criminal negligence on behalf of the directors of Lonmin. The parties, whether the state or the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority), will follow up in another question but the legal representatives of the injured and arrested have served papers for private criminal prosecution against Cyril Ramaphosa and it’s also recommended with the Farlam Commission that the NUM – those people who fired at the mine workers - be investigated. Again, whether that happens is a case to be seen.

“The government has asked the legal representatives of the families of the slain miners and the injured and arrested to enter discussions which will be happening at the end of this month.

“I think the willingness of workers to step outside their trade unions; the framework they’ve set up to deal in so-called legitimate manner with workers, was certainly not working for them. The workers went on to win significant increases.”

Lonmin agreed to increase salaries by 22%, with a one-off payment of R2 000 to help cover the weeks they were on strike. The miners got less of an increase they wanted, but as for their actions, and the consequences, as Desai says, “This has to be remembered.”


The extraordinary system changes South Africa experienced through the decades leading up to full democracy in 1994, were as a direct result of grassroots democracy, and the events at Marikana were emblematic of this.  The people, in this case poor, uneducated, and largely illiterate rock drillers, stood up and demanded their rights in a show of strength and certainty one doesn’t often see. How the government chooses to deal with this will reflect whether the establishment is so because it has inherited the systems created by the colonial powers, followed by the apartheid governments… or whether they remind themselves how they got into that position – and whether the people they used to represent will allow them to stay there

Rehad Desai: “I think what’s happened to the African National Congress stewarding party is essentially being captured by black tycoons – created through BEE (the “Black Economic Empowerment” programme created by the government to redress racial inequalities) and therefore they will not act counter to those interests which have become dominant around the sitting President, Jacob Zuma, who is surrounded by a number of securocrats, as they’re labeled, and these tycoons who are now the dominant faction in the ANC. The grassroots activism will now have to come from those outside of the ANC – we can see that happening with the students, in the townships, and it’s often led by the good old freedom fighters. The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (“NUMSA”), the biggest trade union in the country, is now forming a new trade union federation. We also have the United Front, which is composed of 240 civic-based organizations and a few NGO’s, working together with the likes of Section 27 (a public interest law center) and Equal Education (a movement of educators, parents, and community members), as well as other mass organizations, around corruption. These are important developments and they need to be noted.”


Rehad Desai’s film, “Miners Shot Down” has won 21 awards, including an International Emmy. It has featured, and won awards at, nearly 100 film festivals around the world. International screenings number into the hundreds and attention to this issue continues to grow.

To hear the interview with Rehad Desai, please visit the website at