On August 16, 2012, a large group of heavily-armed police gunned down 34 striking mineworkers at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana. As you may recall, the massacre—at least the first half of it—was captured on video, bringing the horrific events to television screens around the world.
In “Murder at Small Koppie: The Real Story of South Africa’s Marikana Massacre” Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Greg Marinovich does a remarkable job relating events of the day and providing context to what transpired. So it’s no surprise that this book won the Alan Paton award, a South African literary award for non-fiction. Marinovich makes the story readily accessible, even to those with only a passing knowledge of South African labor relations and politics.
In a nutshell, the miners in question were woefully underpaid and went on strike in hopes of getting a raise that would provide them a living wage. “In South Africa, [miners] subsist from pay cheque to pay cheque, with little hope of saving anything for life after their time underground,” advises Marinovich. Hence the miners’ demand for a wage increase to R12 000 [per month], up from between R4 000.
It may help to know that income inequality is a thing in South Africa. “The two richest South Africans earn as much as the poorest-paid twenty-six million of their countrymen,” notes the author, and the World Bank emphasizes that South Africa has one of the highest income inequality rates in the world, advising how “the poorest 20% of the South African population consume less than 3% of total expenditure, while the wealthiest 20% consume 65%.”
“South Africa continues to be one of the world’s most physically, economically, socially and psychologically fractured states,” elaborates Marinovich. “The poor are politically, commercially and socially invisible until they force themselves into view. The only way that neglected and impoverished communities ever manage to break the spell of invisibility is when they use sufficient violence to be noticed.” And so the striking miners were not blameless in this instance; they contributed to the escalating tension by killing six people, including two police officers, in the days leading up to the massacre.
But it seems that the decision to attack the miners with lethal force was premeditated; a day earlier the authorities decided to break up the strike, ordering 4,000 rounds of ammunition and four mortuary vans to the site. This perhaps explains why most of the approximately 3,000 miners were “deadly afraid of the police,” on that fateful day. In fact, they were confronted by “200 public order policing members, 165 Tactical Response Team members, 110 [men] from the National Intervention Unit and 22 men from the elite Special Task Force,” writes Marinovich, not to mention a fleet of armored vehicles as well as police and military helicopters.
In the first “scene” from August 16, 17 miners were killed, including Mgcineni ‘ Mambush’ Noki, a 30-year-old driller who was the “face of the strike.” It’s that first “scene” that was captured on video by journalists; hence the video observers are familiar with today. But the other 17 miners were massacred 19 minutes later and a thousand feet away, at “Small Koppie,” [low hill] out of the sight of journalists and their cameras. It’s this part of the story that is most scandalous, as small koppie is where miners sought refuge from the assault. Adding to the controversy, the police subsequently attempted to steer attention away from the fact that there was a second killing site, and also arrested and tortured many of the miners in the wake of the strike.
Incidentally, the strike, which ended 40 days after it started, didn’t lead to a significant raise for the miners. “John Brand, a labour lawyer and mediator, estimated that the six-week strike and the loss of, in total, forty-four lives had gained the miners an increase of just 7.7 percent to the lowest-paid workers,” relates the author. Meanwhile, “the drillers who led the strike received only a 3.3 per cent increase.”
But the saddest fact of all, revealed in the book’s last chapter, is that “those miners are among the top 10 per cent of earners in South Africa, where at least 30 per cent of adults have no job.”