The short life and times of Bhele Dlunga of Marikana

Amid the violence of August 2012, one positive feature that stood out was the resilience of the autonomous organization of workers and independent trade unions in Marikana.

Bhele of Marikana. Still from Miners Shot Down.

The history of mineworkers in South Africa is littered with violence, ethnic conflict, clashes with mine security and police. And it did not abate after Apartheid. One such moment came in the early 1990s on the Northwest Province’s platinum belt where a series of political assassinations marked violent clashes — with some workers killed — between the National Mineworkers Union (NUM), which dominated mine worker unionism, and the Worker Mouth Piece Union, which tried to unseat the NUM. Many invoke this memory to describe the rise of inter-union rivalry — sometimes deadly — once again at Marikana since 2012 when police murdered 34 striking miners.

Five years later, there has still been no justice for Marikana. There is much talk about memorializing the people who have been killed and reparations for their families, but there is no talk of justice or who should take responsibility for the massacre. Rather, as Johannesburg based researcher David Bruce has written, the key framing argument of the Farlam commission of inquiry – which held public hearings into the causes the Marikana massacre – has been that violence by the strikers “created” the situation at Marikana.

One positive note in the midst of this multifaceted violence and political competition, has been the barely audible resilience of the autonomous organization of workers and independent leadership in Marikana. One of the leaders of this workers’ movement was Tholakele Dlunga, better known as Bhele for his clan name.

Tholakele Dlunga’s biography reads like most of the workers at Marikana, including those murdered in 2012. Bhele was born in Libode the Eastern Cape on 27 June 1978. He migrated to Rustenburg to look for work like many others from the Eastern Cape. Bhele became a rock drill operator (RDO) at Lonmin Mines in Marikana, in the North West province of South Africa in the early 2000s. In 2012, he was one of the independent strike leaders who led the workers at Marikana and was on the mountain when police opened fire on the mineworkers resulting in a massacre. Some people say he was chosen to be a leader, like all the members of the mountain committee, because of specific characteristics: being firm but understanding and a good negotiator, which, some suggest stemmed from the fact that he was a pastor in a Zionist Christian Church in Libode.

When I first met Bhele in 2012, one of the women from the women’s movement, Sikhala Sonke, in Marikana had organized for him to speak to me. The sociologist Luke Sinwell writes that, on August 7th, Bhele together with other RDOs, many of whom were also from the Eastern Cape had met with RDOs from Western Mine and Karee, and then “proceeded to speak to the management to request basic monthly pay of R12,500.” That’s about $1,250. In Rehad Desai’s film about Marikana, Bhele appears on camera, holding a loud speaker and addressing workers outside the Lonmin office, explaining that the management would not meet with them. Four days after making their wage demand, the workers approached their union, the NUM, with their grievances. As they approached the office, two NUM officials opened fire on the group of workers. When Bhele shared with me the photos from the day of the massacre he told me it was on that day that they knew they would have to go it alone. At the time of the strike, he still a NUM member and safety officer for the union a position he had held for two years at the time.

Bhele relayed to journalist Greg Marinovich how police had banged down the door of his shack at 5:30am on the 25th of October, 2012, just over a month after the massacre and put a black plastic bag over his head to suffocate him while they beat him. They took him to Phokeng police station, after they found his unlicensed gun. Over the next six days he was repeatedly beaten even after he was transferred to another police station. I can’t imagine what his reaction might have been when the trauma of the massacre was still fresh in his mind and whether even as a strong and fierce person who often got impatient and restless during our interviews he would have even attempted to fight back. His was not an isolated experience, Lantier reports that of the 270 mineworkers arrested on murder charges by the South African state under the apartheid Common Purpose Act that 150 reported that they were tortured in prison.

When I saw Bhele again in 2014, many things in Marikana had changed, the central dirt road leading into the settlement had been closed off, barring the entry of vehicles. A community trauma counsellor told me that people were so angry, depressed and paranoid that police were no longer allowed to go into the community of Nkaneng shack settlement, where most of the mineworkers live, because they would probably burn down the van. Everyone was suspicious of everyone. There were other changes too. Bhele had become a shaft steward for Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers Union (AMCU) and the chairperson of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) branch in Marikana. Both movements are significant: after the massacre the mineworkers at Marikana had joined AMCU en masse and the EFF was formed in the massacre’s wake.

Bhele had also moved onto the property of Ma Nomzekhelo Sonti, one of the founders of Sikhala Sonke who was now a member of parliament for the EFF. There were also many people in Marikana who now wore AMCU and EFF t-shirts. The political newcomers had quickly managed to capture the dissatisfaction of the Marikana residents who felt betrayed by the NUM and the ANC.

The second last time I saw him was in Marikana last year, on the anniversary of the massacre. There was a huge gathering of people and a big stage where EFF Commander in Chief Julius Malema and AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa, addressed the people. I wormed my way into the VIP section because I wanted to see some of the women of Sikhala, a few of them were on the stage already. I found Bhele outside the tent, in a plain formal shirt. We greeted and chatted only very briefly. I wanted to talk more, but he was going back into the crowd. I wanted to ask why he wasn’t on the stage or in a t-shirt of some sorts but I didn’t get the chance. On the night of October 17th, 2017, he was shot in his shack in Nkaneng, for reasons we are still unaware of. In the last three months, there have been six deaths at Lonmin alone, but the figure for the total number of deaths since the start of this conflict has not yet been recorded and some say many deaths are not reported to the police.

The mineworkers who communed on the koppie in August 2012 had organized themselves. They had become critical, for some time, of the NUM and its status as a “sweet heart union.” For the NUM the trouble in Marikana started with Steve, the Chairperson of the NUM branch in Marikana in 2011 who was not reinstated as chairperson after his term ended. This caused mineworkers at Karee to down their tools and embark on an unprotected strike in protest. The NUM said he was trying to amass a following around himself without adhering to the constitution of the union. Bhele and others thought Steve was an honest man who spoke up for his fellow workers and cared about them. After his dismissal, Steve joined AMCU as a recruiter but was killed in 2013 before he could appear at the commission of inquiry.

Violence has become an all too familiar companion to political changes.  The Moerane commission which is responsible for the investigation of political killings in KwaZulu Natal, where more than 90 people have assassinated since April 2014, suggests a worrying trend in South African politics where dissent and disagreement are fiercely policed.

The discourse of the “third force” – once pervasive during apartheid to describe shadowy government death squads and proxy armies – permeates the language on all sides of the debate. The third force is always an outside agitator that threatens the unity of the political structure. The result has been a constant deferral of the real political questions about abuses of power, lack of representation, and an unhealthy obsession with consensus. Bhele, one hopes, will be remembered for his independent thinking.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.