SHEPI MATI remembers Marikana, 16 August 2012
I had left the Cape Peninsula University of Technology Bellville Campus early that day. As I drove down Forest Drive in Pinelands, listening to SAfm, I could not believe my ears.
A staccato of machine-gun fire rattled me out of my comfort. And, grabbing me by my ears, threw me into the middle of a gut-wrenching experience I will never forget.
I had to pull over. I went through an emotional roller coaster in quick succession — shock, disbelief, and then anger. How could a democratic government, elected through a popular mandate, turn its guns against those who produce the wealth of our country. Yini! Mawethu! Konakelephi? Molato keng?
Even in the most difficult days of the Struggle for freedom, sasingayicingi om te sê ’n ding soos die ingehla one day when we had defeated the monster of apartheid. I can still see Murphy Morobe facing a forest of television cameras and asserting with deep strength of conviction: “We don’t want to find our fingers weak and hesitant one day when we point them accusingly at the henchmen of apartheid because we ourselves carry skeletons.”
Such was the moral character, such was the force of example we tried hard to live by in those difficult times. We were convinced the new society must begin to emerge from the old. We must reflect the values we want to see in the future society. And to massacre mine workers whose only crime was to ask to be paid decently for spending the better part of their lives, in those “dark dingy tunnels”, Hugh Masekela so aptly captured in Stimela, “digging that elusive gold-bearing rock” to enrich generations of men who in all likelihood never set foot underground.
As I thought of those mineworkers mowed down on that koppie, I remembered as a child growing up how our elder brothers and uncles would leave school, forced by circumstances of dispossession and oppression, to go and enlist with the Employment Bureau of Africa (Teba), as contract workers in the mines of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State for between six and 12 months at a time. They would save just enough to take themselves through initiation to manhood.
And as newly graduated men — amakrwala — they would take back to the road to eMshishi — as Johannesburg was known — kwandonga-ziyaduma, kwanyam’ ayipheli, kuphelizinyo lendoda. They would go on doing this routine of exploitation through marriage, raising families apart and in absentia, only to return as old men in the evenings of their lives. “Ama-tshipa” they were called. Those who were transformed from rural dwellers to migrant labourers.
They’d bring to their families peanuts of wages on the one hand, and silicosis and black lung disease on the other. And in the heydays of the Struggle against injustice, we used to say “our geniuses are underground, digging gold” to create the wealth of our continent.
Today, it is clear that we seem to have not only forgotten those geniuses but have turned the guns against them as we swim in the amnesia of opulence.
But perhaps it is not too late to look at ourselves in the mirror to see if we had not stepped into the shoes of those who exploited generations of working men and women of our southern Africa to enrich themselves whilst barricaded behind the steel of racism. Today the steel may have given way to boom gates and high walls and the lily-white exploiters show up in a tan as they are joined by some of the freedom fighters of yesterday.
As I listen to speakers reflecting on the massacre I cannot but only think of this mining town as a microcosm of our ravaged continent and of our continent as one big Marikana. This is a continent still stuck in extractive economies and as a supplier of raw materials and primary produce to Europe, North America and China.
I remember in the 1980s when Thomas Sankara decided that the cotton they produced in Burkina Faso was not going to be exported overseas for Europe to make clothes but was going to be transformed into textile and clothes inside the country to add value and create jobs. And when he appeared at the next OAU meeting, he proudly boasted of his cotton suit, made in Burkina Faso. For daring to turn his back against the exploitation of his country, he was assassinated, with the collusion of the local compradors.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only shocked us out of our slumber in the way we relate to one another as human beings but also in the way we relate to nature with all her abundance of resources. We could still find our way to that dream of social justice and a new society based on social solidarity, dignity and caring for which so many gave so much.
As we remember Marikana today, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to reimagine ourselves, our neighbourhoods, our communities, our country and our continent.
This article first appeared in The Daily Maverick
About the writer
Shepi Mati is a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. He has a passion for community journalism and specifically audio as a medium to promote citizen agency and reflect a diversity of voices in community development. You can contact him at: email@example.com