Dreaming of the green blanket

The impact of the Marikana massacre on South Africa’s student movement for free education, and an end to outsourcing, has been overlooked.

Still from Miners Shot Down.

In November 2016 it is scorching hot in the North West town Marikana and community leader and co-founder of Sikhala Sonke (meaning “we cry together”), Mam Thumeka Magwangqana, is mopping her floor:

It seems as if Lonmin does not want to work with us hand in hand. We were there because we wanted to mend things. We are very angry. Goliath has stamped on David [referring to no accountability for the August 16 2012 massacre of miners at Marikana]. They said technically that no one is supposed to live here so there is nothing that they can do.

This is a scene from Aliki Saragas’s documentary film “Strike A Rock,” an intimate account of the poor and determined women of Marikana who question why they get so little in return for the valuable platinum that’s mined there for wealthy, mostly foreign investors. But it is not just foreign powers who benefit from the exploitation of mineworkers.  Our very own trade unionist-turned billionaire President Cyril Ramaphosa who treats his current position  as his side hustle, was a non-executive director and one of Lonmin’s largest shareholders at the time of the Marikana Massacre. Appearing in 2014 at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry (which investigated the massacre), Ramaphosa justified the failure of Lonmin to uphold the conditions of their legally binding Social and Labour Plan saying that, “…this type of a project faced a number of challenges. May I say there were a number of constraints. Financial resources was one of them.” Yet, between 2006 to 2007 revenue actually increased from US$1.8 billion to US$1.9 billion and from 2007 to 2008 increased from $1.9 billion to $2.2 billion. The commission of inquiry also heard that for many years, Lonmin’s South African mines paid “sales commissions,” averaging at that time more than R200-million (about $11.7 million) a year, to a company it had registered in Bermuda. Lonmin told the commission that it only put a stop to this practice in 2012, with a decision it says it backdated to 2008 through creative accounting that can only be motivated by criminal intentions too “complex” to be deemed illegal. The decision to stop was allegedly not made sooner because it was blocked by Lonmin’s black economic empowerment partner Incwala—a company controlled by Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Group.

In May 2015 an extensive report by the Alternative Information and Development Center (AIDC) in Cape Town, highlighted that Lonmin had contributed to rising illicit capital flows from South Africa to the sum of more than R300 billion ($17.5 billion) in 2012 alone. Economist Dick Forslund, the lead author of the report, showed that Lonmin could have honored its Mining Charter obligation to build 5,500 houses for mineworkers over five years. Pleading poverty, Lonmin managed to build just three show houses. These failures spurredt workers at the mine to take industrial action for, among other things, a living wage of R12,500 (USD728).

I was 19 years old at the time of the massacre, it was my first year as a student at Wits University. I do not recall where I was or what I was doing when the news broke but I remember how I felt. In one sense I was filled with sadness and fear for what was to come and for what had happened before our eyes and in another sense anger and motivation to do more. The green blanket entered my dreams and the smiling face of determined miner and 30-year old activist Mgcineni Noki, who lost his life that fateful day, became a significant feature on my Facebook wall.

When the documentary Miners Shot Down came out in 2014, I watched it, and a quote from one of the miners made my eyes sting: “We told him we’re not educated. That’s why we’re rock drillers.” Many in my generation were no doubt conscientized by the striking miners and the growing connection between student and worker struggles transcended the ivory tower of the university. In 2014, a year before #FeesMustFall, I remember quite vividly the outpouring of solidarity for striking platinum mineworkers. Wits University was asked to supply food to Number 1 Shaft at Implats Mine and workers employed by outsourced companies, themselves victims of exploitation, pledged donations. On Wits’s East campus food parcels were being collected, money was being sent to the Human Rights Media Trust and the labor action was being watched closely during the six months in what was the longest strike action in our history. On West campus a familiar indifference lingered in the air. These differences reflected the reactions of society more broadly. Once again, we observed and engaged in progressive circles, relieved to be contributing in some small way.

There may be political analysts who say that Marikana changed nothing. Sadly, there is truth in this because the material conditions and political power structures remain intact. But, the courage of those miners inspired my generation in a significant way. The 2015 #October6 and #FeesMustFall protests for free, decolonized education and an end to outsourcing were a culmination of many issues, but the miners educated us university students and young activists just as much as, if not more than, any professor or class could. They taught us struggle, hope, and unflinching courage.

In our democracy, worker protests and community protests are met with more brutality than student protests at universities. Many would also argue that the different treatment of university students is a class or class-intransit issue. At the height of #FeesMustFall in 2016, Adam Habib, then-vice chancellor at Wits University, said students want their own “Marikana moment.” I could not at the time think of a statement more disgusting than that. Soon after, myself, along with other protesting students were shot at close range with rubber bullets by the public order police.

On the anniversary of the Marikana massacre in 2018 they played the sound of the gunshots that killed the #Marikana miners on the radio. That harrowing sound took me back to the #FeesMustFall protests of 2016. The memory of the Marikana massacre was often invoked by students, linking the struggles around the capitalist exploitation of workers and the commodification and corporatisation of education, but also as a way of understanding and explaining the potential for state violence against protesting students. State violence and repression inevitably was used, in very different ways to Marikana, to quash the student protests. If I were a mineworker, the 13 bullets that tore through my flesh would have not been coated in rubber. At the end of Aliki Saragas’s documentary, a young child from Marikana cries:

The sun has faded on our fathers and brothers,
You promised us freedom
But you brought us rubbish
It’s enough now beautiful Africans
You promised us rights
But you brought us death.

The Marikana massacre was described by the late Advocate George Bizos as “the single most disturbing episode in the history of our democracy.” There are never easy answers when it comes to how we remedy an injustice, a vile and barbarous act. Perhaps this is because the very nature of history is a painful reminder of how scarce justice is, how susceptible accountability can be to the systems that protect power and how the seekers of truth and justice either die martyrs or live long enough to become consumed by compromise, pragmatism, or cynicism. Despite all the evidence that came out at the Farlam Commission there has been little progress towards justice.

In June, 2023, I will be the same age as Mgcineni Noki was when he was shot down. Sadly I feel like a shadow of the activist I was from 2012 to 2016. Hope, a feeling that fueled me comes and goes; I suppose the mental struggle of keeping it alive gets more difficult with age. This massacre on the koppie is not simply reminiscent of state violence from colonialism to apartheid––it also represents the intensifying cycles of social unrest and violent repression at the heart of the spread of global neoliberalism. I pray that David builds up the unflinching courage needed to fight the many Goliaths that stand between barbarism and socialism.

I still dream of the green blanket.

Further Reading

Don’t cede the streets

#FeesMustFall was the most serious challenge to the post-apartheid political order, but didn’t connect to broader working-class struggles. Now, despite police brutality, students are beginning to make those linkages.

Everything must fall

Fees Must Fall (#FMF) brought student activism at South Africa’s elite universities into the global media spotlight. A new documentary zooms in on the case of Wits in Johannesburg.