Story and photos by Gia Nicolaides
It has been exactly two weeks since 34 miners were killed in a bloody shootout with the police at Lonmin’s Marikana mine on August 16. Gia Nicolaides, a journalist with EWN and a former Wits Vuvuzela student, gives us a personal account of her experiences in covering the Marikana story.
When I arrived in the dry and dusty township on the 13th of August 2012, nine people including two police officers had been killed. The policemen had been hacked to death.
It was a group of journalists who found the tenth victim – a miner who was beaten and left for dead in the open veld, near the hill where the protesters had been gathering on a daily basis.
The mineworkers were militant and warned female journalists in particular to stay away, saying it was men’s territory. They threatened to do “unspeakable things” to any woman who went into the area, where they were getting traditional medicine from a sangoma. They were preparing for war and armed themselves by taking ‘muti’, which they believed would make them bullet proof.
For several days police tried to negotiate a truce with the group, pleading with them to hand over their weapons.
Journalists knew police had been given instructions to force the crowd to disperse, but we had no idea the events that would unfold, would lead to such bloodshed and make international headlines.
Police warned us to move back saying they were unsure how the protesters would react. I watched as three water cannons moved forward and started spraying water at the protestors. Despite this, the miners charged the police with spears and pangas.
The next minute teargas and stun grenades were fired by the police and the almost unending sound of gunshots rang out. I felt as though I was in the middle of an action movie.
I was torn between recording the events as they unfolded for our news bulletins, bearing witness to the incident, and getting myself away from danger.
If the protestors continued charging towards the police and got through the SAPS barricade, I strongly believe that I and several other journalists would have been killed.
There were two lines of police – the first armed with rubber bullets and the second with live ammunition. Some of officers jumped into the armoured vehicles when they felt threatened and new footage shows that’s when some of the protestors opened fire with pistols.
Police have been blamed for using maximum force, while they say they were left with no other choice.
The protesters remain defiant two weeks after the tragedy, saying they will not return to work until their pay has been raised to R12,500 per month.
While negotiations between mine bosses and workers continue; operations at the mine remain at a standstill, with Lonmin losing millions of rands per day.
The workers maintain they represent themselves; I believe the unions are to blame for not helping them to resolve this issue from the beginning. Union rivalry is apparent in the mining industry, but that’s no excuse for allowing workers to take matters into their own hands.
44 people lost their lives in what I believe was unnecessary violence to start with.
There are two sides to this story – the one of a poor worker earning a minimum wage and fighting for his right for better living and working conditions and the story of the police officers, who were put in a difficult situation while trying to maintain law and order.
Regardless of who is to blame, this incident has once again cast South Africa in a negative light, with comparisons being made to the violence during Apartheid.
Arguably, this is regarded as the country’s bloodiest shootout in recent history, highlighting the polarization between employers and their workers.