Leaving the Koppie
The Killing Kraal
The Killing Koppie
Nearly a decade ago, the police slaughtered 34 men at Marikana, erasing parents, life partners and breadwinners. We dare not forget.
It was a day from which all days since have taken their arrangement. The North West veld was burnt dry by the winter. There was enough sun to throw shadows, from scrubs and bushes, from the knobbed wooden poles of livestock kraals and the tall concrete ones carrying power lines over shack settlements to the nearby platinum mines. But the sky was a brown blue and more hazy than clear.
On 16 August 2012 at 3.53:50pm – numbers now etched in infamy in South Africa’s long ledger of atrocities – the shooting began. A tactical response team from the South African Police Service (SAPS) mowed down 17 men. All but one were striking mineworkers. Most were crouched in submission. Various police units then followed other workers trying to escape, killing 17 more, some of whom were trying to surrender, in and around a rocky outcrop that became known as the “killing koppie”.
These were complicated men. Men who were there to work. Men building homes and families. Troubled men. Men in debt. Men in love. Some were the latest in generations of toilers underground. Others were the first. And a few did not work on the mines at all.
The attempt to break their strike was jointly organised between the state and their employer, Lonmin. The mining giant assisted the police strategically and provided them with helicopters and detention facilities. One of its board members at the time, President Cyril Ramaphosa, called the strike “plainly dastardly criminal” in emails to mine management a day earlier. He lobbied close Cabinet connections to increase police action to bring an end to the strike.
After a commission of inquiry that failed to put the massacre into its broader social, political and economic contexts, deferred justice for the dead mineworkers and their loved ones left behind, and years of shamelessly vulturine media attention, the families of the men gunned down at Marikana have started to rebuild their lives. Moving on is a dignity they deserve. But remembering is a duty the rest of us must bear.
Piecing together evidence submitted to the Farlam commission of inquiry and other expert reports, New Frame constructed an interactive map of the massacre to show some of the lives erased on that day, and the key moments just before and after 3.53:50pm that resulted in their deaths.
On a wildcat strike for better wages during which 10 people have already died, thousands of mineworkers sit atop a previously anonymous rocky outcrop on the platinum belt. For the last time, Joseph Mathunjwa, the head of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, speaks to the workers. “The life of a Black person in Africa is so cheap,” he tells them. “They will kill us, they will finish us, and then they will replace us and continue to pay salaries that cannot change Black people’s lives.”
Credit: Felix Dlangamandla/Foto24/Gallo Images
After Mathunjwa has spoken, some miners leave the koppie and are allowed to proceed down the road to Nkaneng, the shack settlement where many of them live. Most stay behind.
Police vehicles begin slowly laying down barbed wire to the south of the koppie. The workers can see they are readying to break the strike. What they cannot know is that 4 000 rounds of live ammunition arrived earlier that morning, along with four mortuary vans.
Mgcineni Noki – the man in the green blanket – begins leading the remaining miners off the koppie. The workers try to go around the police – there is no barrier between them at this stage – and make for Nkaneng, along the same route that workers were allowed to pass a few minutes earlier. There are no police blocking the road and no indication that the men will not be allowed to take that route.
But, as they near a small kraal and the Nkaneng road, the police rapidly deploy more barbed wire to head them off. Their access to the Nkaneng road is thus cut off. The miners are forced to access the road via an alternative route, moving around the kraal instead. At this point, the media is told repeatedly to “go away”.
As the workers move around the kraal, a line of officers from the police’s tactical response team is moving into position ahead of them. The line is invisible to the workers.
A stun grenade explodes behind the workers, causing the group to splinter. A lead group of 37, attempting to escape the source of the explosion, is funnelled into a channel created by public order policing vehicles, barbed wire and the fence of the kraal. Tear gas and rubber bullets are also fired behind this group of workers, further channelling them towards the police line. None of the 250 rubber bullets is fired from in front of the workers.
Once inside the channel, the miners’ path to the southwest is blocked by the kraal. Their escape to the northwest is blocked by tear gas and rubber bullets. Their escape to the northeast is blocked by a line of public order police unit members. They cannot stand still because they are being shot at with rubber bullets.
Credit: Felix Dlangamandla/Foto24/Gallo Images
So, facing the ground with eyes blinded by tear gas, their arms and blankets covering their heads, they run south. Towards the line of the police’s tactical response team.
Over the course of 12 seconds, 48 of these police shooters, gathered in a single line, fire a barrage of 305 rounds of live ammunition. Their crackling shots light up against the kicked-up dust like tom thumb firecrackers on Guy Fawkes. Some of them appear to aim at miners trying to run away, others continue shooting after calls to cease fire.
They kill 17 people.
They shoot Khanare Elias Monesa, 36, nine times. His wife is nine months pregnant at the time and falls ill on hearing of her husband’s death. She is later hospitalised and the baby dies a few days after its birth.
They kill Andries Ntsenyeho, 42, a leader of the strike from Sasolburg whose deepest desire is to see his five children go to university.
They shoot 48-year-old Jackson Lehupa 11 times. They shoot him in his shoulder and his buttock. They shoot him in his groin, thighs, calves and feet. They shoot him in the back. The breadwinner leaves behind a wife and six children in Mount Fletcher in the Eastern Cape.
Eighty kilometres north of Mount Fletcher, in the shadows of the southern Drakensberg Mountains, is the village of Jabavu where Bongani Mdze, 28, is from. He is shot three times from behind. One of the three high-velocity shots hits him in the back of the head, but his lawyers later say he would have survived if the police had allowed emergency personnel to treat him where he lay in the dust. Instead, Mdze bleeds to death.
They kill Thembinkosi Gwelani, a 27-year-old who is not employed at Lonmin but has come to the koppie to bring food to his striking cousin, Musa Gwelani. After Thembinkosi is shot, Musa cradles him but cannot lift him. He is forced to leave his cousin lying in the dust when the police advance.
On the southeast sides of the higher rocks on the koppie, they kill Anele Mdizeni. The easy-going 29-year-old from Elliotdale in the Eastern Cape wants a better life for his two children and for the third one with whom his wife is pregnant.
They shoot Siotelega Meric Gadlela, 50, twice in the back. The father of 11 from Dvokolwako in eSwatini, who has worked for Lonmin for more than two decades, is one of 11 workers slaughtered in “the killing zone” – an area the workers assumed would be their safest refuge. Another one is Telang Mohai, 37, from Maseru, who is in his 10th year of working at the mine. He is shot twice in the back. At least one of these shots is fired from above. He later dies in hospital.
Nkosiyabo Xalabile is another victim of the “killing zone”. Like Mdizeni, killed only a few metres away, the 30-year-old is from Elliotdale. He is shot at close distance by police officers positioned on the rocks above him. He and Lilita Xalabile have been married for little over a month.
Following the slaughter at the killing kraal, the workers flee west, trying to escape to the security of a hostel and other shack settlements.
Nearly 300 of them gather behind a small koppie to the north of the bigger one they were sitting on not 10 minutes earlier. Some police vehicles move out from the killing kraal and form a line in a standoff with these workers. Others take a route around an electricity substation in the south to head the miners off in the west, where they now seek shelter among the rocks and bushes of a final rocky outcrop – the killing koppie.
Police from various units – public order officers from the north, a national intervention unit from the east, a tactical response team and K9 units from the south and a tactical response team unit from the west – approach this small koppie, encircling the workers.
Fifty-seven of them fire 295 rounds of live ammunition. Virtually no “less lethal weapons” are used. In killings that last not 12 seconds but 11 minutes, they shoot and kill a further 17 workers.
Ballistic evidence reveals that one of the two highest-ranking police officers at the scene, Major General Ganasen Naidoo, is among those firing a weapon. There are credible allegations that at least some of the workers are killed while surrendering. It is unclear whether any of these deaths are executions.
Credit: Brendan Croft/Foto24/Gallo Images
The police plant weapons on six of the corpses. Apparently encouraged by senior members of the SAPS, police officers later adapt their accounts of what happened to fit the official version.
Justice for Marikana has been slow. In the years since, in which the police have continued to kill on average one person every day, none of those responsible for the slaughter that started at 3.53:50pm has been prosecuted.
The workers at Marikana – the survivors and the murdered – were more than victims of the worst state brutality since the end of formal apartheid. They were, and are, the makers of their own worlds. They were, and are, fathers, sons and brothers. In bringing to an end any illusions about the innocence of South Africa’s post-apartheid order, they have also been founding authors of a new political grammar.
The idea of “a living wage” – a demand now at the heart of most working-class struggles – took on its most sophisticated and concrete articulation in the Karee shaft and elsewhere in the weeks before the bloodshed. In their courage lay the seeds for the longest strike in the history of South Africa’s platinum belt two years later. Among the most widespread names for new land occupations since the massacre – from Durban’s hills and the flats around Cape Town to the shacklands of the East Rand – is Marikana.
The loved ones of the murdered workers should be allowed the dignity of putting Marikana behind them. The rest of us should not. Theirs are deaths we dare not forget.
Story and concept: Dennis Webster
Photo editing and video footage: Madelene Cronjé and James Oatway
Design and video editing: Ryan Honeyball
Illustrations: Anastasya Eliseeva
Development: Aragorn Eloff