News | History - Labour / Unions - Participation / Civil Rights - Southern Africa Marikana: An Intergenerational Trauma

Niren Tolsi on the grief, strength, and dignity of the families of Marikana



Niren Tolsi,

2014: A Pastor outside the church near the cattle-kraal at the Nkaneng/Marikana shack settlement where 17 mineworkers were shot dead by South African police during a wildcat strike in August 2012.
2014: A Pastor outside the church near the cattle-kraal at the Nkaneng/Marikana shack settlement where 17 mineworkers were shot dead by South African police on August 16th, 2012.

There are things that change in ten years: some piles of discarded rocks around Marikana on South Africa’s platinum belt have grown from the height of a man to taller than 12-storey apartment blocks. New banks of stone with the appearance of sun-bleached skulls have distended from the earth towards the sky, confirming that platinum group metals (PGM) continue to generate billions of rand. The loud blasts of further exploration shake the air and the corrugated iron shacks of communities living close by. Mine-dust coats everything.

Niren Tolsi is a Johannesburg-based journalist. His book After Marikana, co-authored with Paul Botes, will be published next year with all proceeds going to the Marikana families.

However, there are things that have not changed: mining profits remain concentrated in the bank accounts of mine owners like Neal Froneman, the CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater, who earlier this year drew the ire of striking workers at the company’s gold-mining operation — and the astonishment of most South Africans — when it was revealed that his remuneration package for the 2021–22 financial year was 300 million rand.

The revelations came at a time when Froneman was refusing to end a three-month strike at the company’s gold-mining operations where workers had been demanding a thousand-rand increase to their monthly wages. This obstinacy was against the backdrop of Sibanye-Stillwater’s revenue for the 2021–22 financial year increasing by 35 percent to a record of more than 170 billion rand, driven by a 20 percent increase in the group’s PGM production from South Africa.

Wounded and Traumatized

In 2019, Sibanye-Stillwater bought the Marikana platinum mining operation owned by the multinational corporation Lonmin. Seven years earlier, a wildcat strike at the mine — situated in a small town in the North-West province — had left 44 men dead. Ten of those men — striking and non-striking mineworkers, security officials, and two police officers — were killed in the week leading up to the police massacre that left 34 mineworkers dead on 16 August 2012. The wildcat strike’s demand was for a monthly salary of 12,500 rand. Some workers at that stage were earning as little as 4,000.

For the families of the men murdered at Marikana, change is, like the fluctuations of the stock market, never in a straight line. The same is true of their search for closure to their grief: justice from the knowledge of who killed their loved ones and under whose orders, proper reparations for their loss, and a simple apology from the government and the mining company remain elusive.

Eighteen-year-old Ndikho Bomela feels this acutely when he returns from boarding school near Marikana to his grandfather’s home in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape. Bomela’s father, Semi Jokanisi, was one of three mineworkers killed by police on 13 August 2012 in a skirmish, after police confronted a group of about 50 mineworkers who were returning from a mineshaft they had intended to close down.

The shaft had already stopped production and the mineworkers were returning to the koppie (hill) they had congregated on every day since 9 August when they had decided to lay down tools. Forensic evidence at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the deaths confirmed that police had, unprovoked, triggered the deadly skirmish that left three mineworkers and two cops dead.

When Bomela stays with his grandfather, Goodman Jokanisi, they sleep in the same bed. At night, he hears his grandfather’s nightmares and senses his sleeplessness. The old man lying awake and staring at the ceiling, the quiet of night punctuated by deep sighs: “Marikana destroyed my family. My grandfather is still traumatized and he is still angry and feels the pain of all the deaths we suffered”, says Bomela.

Goodman Jokanisi had been a mineworker since 1980. His father was a migrant labourer before him. Both would only see their family two or three times a year. Goodman had arranged a job for his son, Semi, at Lonmin in 2005. They shared living quarters, working at Karee mine, where the first hand-written posters calling for 12,500 rand as a “living wage” appeared in May 2012. Father and son would pass each other in the cages transporting mineworkers into or out of the earth, and usually caught up between shifts at a meeting point under Karee Four’s belt-shaft. After burying his son, Goodman returned to work for Lonmin, and with Semi’s spirit, until he retired in 2017.

Sturdy and soft-spoken, Goodman had cautioned his son against going to the frontline. Semi was shot in the spine, incapacitating him immediately. He was too far away from either of the dead police officers to have been attacking them. This contradicted police testimony that he had been shot to protect their fallen colleagues. Yet this forensic evidence has provided little succour for the family. Goodman Jokanisi believes the massacre claimed not just the life of his son, but his wife, Joyce, and grandson, Ayabonga Qekeka, too.

Fifteen-year-old Ayabonga Qekeka’s suicide was methodical. On the second morning of the new 2016 school year, he left the boarding establishment in Kokstad in KwaZulu-Natal and went to a nearby builder’s shop where he bought water, rat poison, and a length of rope. Qekeka then headed to a patch of trees usually used by the homeless and handbag snatchers on the outskirts of Kokstad’s town centre. He drank the bottle of water mixed with rat poison before knotting his T-shirt and fastening it around his head, with the balled cloth in his mouth. Looping one end of a nylon rope around his neck and the other around a sewage pipe, he tightened them before jumping to his death.

His was an intergenerational trauma still felt by the children of the dead. A few months later, Sandisa Zibambele, whose father Thobilise was killed by police on 16 August, took her own life.

Qekeka’s grandmother, sixty-seven-year-old Joyce Jokanisi died in December 2020. She had been on anti-depressant medication since her son’s death eight years earlier. Her grandson Ndikho Bomela believes she would have lived longer had she not been so grief-stricken, if she had known who had killed her son, if his brother had not taken his own life.

Loss, But No Conviction

Eighteen-year-old Bomela is a soft-spoken and deliberate young man. He takes time to reflect before venturing an opinion on anything, from football to politics or a theatre production. He tells me often that he feels the loss of his father all the time. When he needs advice, he leans on his uncles who are “very supportive”, but remains painfully aware that this was his dead father’s job. He has shied away from learning to drive a car, because it is something he feels he should learn from his father.

Whenever he reflects on the vacuum in his life, on who will teach him “to be a good man”, Bomela returns to the fact that no one has been convicted for his father’s death. The case related to the events of 13 August 2012 has dragged on for two years already, with little prospect of it being finalized any time soon.

South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority have assigned only three prosecutors to deal with all the criminal trials related to the Marikana massacre. They have other cases to deal with, too, and there has been no Marikana-related convictions for any of the 2012 deaths in the past decade.

Bomela wants to be a lawyer, a decision clearly influenced by his world changing forever ten years ago: “Every time my father not being here gets into my mind, I think, ‘Damn, there are people who have done this to my dad, they have done this and they are walking around scot-free, they are still out there.’ So, I’m saying that for them going to jail, maybe that is my project.”

Ndhiko tells me this during a conversation with Amina Fundi and three other children of men who died at Marikana. Amina’s father Hassan Fundi was a security official at Lonmin when he was killed by striking mineworkers on 12 August 2012.

The Farlam Commission found that, despite being aware of the escalating violence at Marikana — much of it ramped up by indiscriminate shootings at gatherings of men on mine property by white Lonmin security officials — the mining company had not properly briefed Fundi and his colleagues about the level of danger they potentially faced. Nor had Lonmin, in light of the threat of violence, provided its staff with proper hard-shell vehicles when they were deployed that Sunday.

The Anger Persists

The conversation with the youth is in preparation for an inter-generational panel discussion about Marikana hosted as part of an exhibition and public engagement programme I directed and produced at South Africa’s National Arts Festival in Makhanda (Grahamstown) earlier this year.

Both 22-year-old Amina and Ndikho participated in the panel, and as we workshop topics for discussion we talk about how the lack of police reform in South Africa has led to the continued death of innocent people in protest situations, including the murder of 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies in 2020 during a protest in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg. Julies, who had Down syndrome, was standing in his parent’s yard, eating biscuits, while watching community members protesting against poor government services in the area when he was shot dead.

We talk about the kind of moral conscience and principles required to be a police officer. We talk about the effects their fathers’ deaths have had on their families and how their mothers and grandmothers have held it all together for those remaining — and the constant demand that women remain resilient after the violent, fatal actions of men.

We talk about Cyril Ramaphosa — then a non-executive director at Lonmin and deputy president of the governing African National Congress, now president of the country — and his role during the strike, which sought to protect his private capitalist interests rather than the lives of people. “If he can do that to our fathers and to our mothers and to us, then what is he doing to our country?” asks Amina, after a discussion about all their disillusionment with mainstream politics. One thing becomes clear: for these youngsters, the minimum for justice to be done is for them to know who killed their fathers and why this happened. That the murderers end up in prison.

Teasing and playfulness flow through our meal of pizzas and milkshakes at a local restaurant, but at some point Ndikho’s eyes become steely. The realization that they may never know who killed their fathers or see the murderers convicted has hung over our conversation. He says, “The police pulled the trigger, they couldn’t care less. Those people were flies to them, not people. They were doing their jobs, but also… my dad had another job, which was to be a dad in my life. It’s either the police go to jail or I would order someone [to kill them]. I would order someone. Jail is a better solution for them, but if that doesn’t happen, then, for me, I will be forced to find my own closure. Then I can go to my dad’s coffin and tell him, ‘Listen dad, the people who put you here, they are also here.’ You get me?”

An outsider eavesdropping on the conversation would be surprised by the sentiment. Ndikho is not the kind of child one would imagine hiring hitmen. He is circumspect and thoughtful, and his school principal has asked him apply to be considered for the head prefect position in his school for next year.

When Lonmin promised to pay for the education of all the children of their dead employees, it turned into a double-edged sword. Coming from poorly resourced rural schools, many had problems adjusting to language, education levels and integrating socially. All were traumatized, and many were teased about their father’s deaths.

Ayabonga Qekeka’s suicide was the most extreme consequence of this. Many other children have dropped out of school or asked for transfer after transfer, incapable of assimilation. Ndikho, however, was one of the few who managed to flourish. Yet anger borne from injustice resides within him.

From Marikana 2012 to Marikana 2022

Many things have changed slowly for the families and the mineworkers most directly affected by the fatal week in August 2012. At Makhanda, where the “Marikana, Ten Years On” exhibition and public engagement programme was held, there were 28 family members and mineworkers present for a week of panel discussions involving them, activists from other mining-affected communities, lawyers involved in the Farlam Commission, progressive economists and researchers, and a Constitutional Court judge.

The exhibition combined photographic work and text from my decade-long slow journalism project with photojournalist Paul Botes with artworks made by family members in art-making workshops conducted by Khulumani Support Group and forensic evidence submitted to the Farlam Commission.

During the festival, I witnessed old wounds slowly heal. I witnessed the rapprochement between Aisha Fundi, Amina’s mother, and Mzoxolo Magidiwana, one of the leaders of the strike. Ten years ago at the Farlam Commission, Fundi had accused Magidiwana of killing her husband and had wished him dead. In June, they talked through each other’s hurt and reconciled. I saw Amina Fundi hanging out with Refilwe Ntsenyeho, whose father, Andries, was another strike leader killed on 16 August. I cried when watching them dance together on stage during one of the free evening concerts the festival organizes daily.

I saw people moved to tears in the exhibition and two nine-year-old white girls painstakingly spending an hour drawing rainbows and trees with the words “Black Lives Matter” with crayons on art paper in the audience response room we had set up in the gallery.

I saw all 28 family members and mineworkers emerge from a theatre production of the 1980s play Asinamali! (“We have no money!”) singing and dancing the theme song in response to the lives of labour and unresolved trauma they continue to endure.

I remembered Ntombi Mosebetsane telling me almost six years ago how the widows had been forced to take job offers at Lonmin to replace their husbands because of their financially precarious position: “When my husband was alive, my children came from a single-parent home [because of the nature of the migrant labour system]. Now that I have taken this job, they are orphans”, she said at the time. In Makhanda, she reiterated that cleaning toilets in a mine was not justice or proper reparations. Mosebetsane then echoed the view of every widow: that they want to be allowed to return to their rural homes and should be paid a monthly grant by the company and government to have their agency returned to them.

We encountered the inter-generational fight for justice at a screening of a film about the Craddock Four (activists who were abducted, tortured, and murdered by the apartheid state in the mid-1980s) made by Lukhanyo Calata, the son of Fort Calata, who was one of the four. After the screening, Lukhanyo’s mother Nomonde (who had visited the exhibition earlier that day) addressed the families of Marikana, “widow to widow”. She talked of the pain of not knowing justice after almost four decades. She told the widows that “not a day goes by that I do not think about my husband” and that “your pain in my pain” but “you must keep fighting for justice. Never give up.”

There was not a dry eye in the house.

The last ten years of documenting the consequences of the Marikana massacre on the families, mineworkers, and communities from which they come have been the bleakest and darkest of my life as a journalist. Yet, there were shards of light and hope recouped from the threat of nihilism. There was dignity restored to a group of people criminalized by the state and largely ignored by those with influence in both the public and private sectors.

On 10 and 11 August this year, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, which represents 36 of the 44 men killed, held a two-day programme for the families of Marikana. A pop-up version of the exhibition accompanied it. This was the first time since the Farlam Commission that all 44 families had come together in one room.

They addressed government officials concerning their current situation and the view that proper compensation had not been paid out because the state has been intransigent on settling Constitutional damages related to loss of dignity, life, and so on. All 44 families were united in a single belief: that none of them felt properly recognized by either government or capital for the loss they suffered. That justice was yet to be done — but they would never give up their pursuit.