A Short Story by Abongile Bonani

January 13, 2024
20 mins read

Marikana? What is That Please?By Abongile BonaniSaturday, October 5, 2013The room was dark. He had not pulled back the drapes from the windows since the phone call. The conversation had been in Afrikaans, a language he had not heard in almost a year. And he had spent the time since remembering instead of forgetting, the latter he had tried to do for more than a year. Since that call he had not had visitors and had refused to take other calls or respond to messages left in his phone. Before plunging the apartment into the dimness of memory, he had placed his digital recorder on the desk beside the bottle of Morpheus extra aged brandy, two tall drinking glasses and a stainless steel ice plate with a small pool of water from melted ice cubes. He only became aware of Nozipho long afterwards. He could not remember her joining him, nor hearing her leave the bedroom, where she spent most of her time since  they came to Nigeria. Their life together had not been perfect. But it had been quiet and it had helped them try to forget each in his or her own way. Now someone far away, half a continent away was asking him to remember. Asking them to remember. He sighed and reached towards the recorder and instead felt his fingers close around the bottle of brandy. The sloshing sound of liquid against glass stopped when he raised the neck of the bottle from the rim of the glass. He set the bottle back on the desk where defrosted water had formed a small puddle on the wooden surface. He picked up the glass and raised it to his lips. By this time he was not aware yet that Nozipho had joined him and that he was no longer alone so he poured only a glass for himself. She watched him from the darkness across the desk. He sipped delicately at the liquid fire and felt its wrath race down to his stomach. The shadows gathered around him as he reached for the digital recorder. The plastic buttons felt cool to his touch and even in the darkness he could tell one from the other. Then he pressed down gently…  …Record…For the sake of this deposition, my name is Abongile Bonani. My friends have called me anything from Gile to Nani depending on who was calling, where and why. I was born on the twenty-seventh day of April 1978 in Madikwe outside of Rustenburg. Before leaving South Africa for Nigeria, I had worked as a reporter and the presenter of South Africa Today, a networked television programme produced by Grootsvelt Studios in Cape Town. I am the first son and first child in a family of five. My parents were both Xhosa. I speak English, French, Afrikaans and Xhosa fluently. And since I have been here in Lagos I have picked up a smattering of pidgin and Yoruba, the latter sounding so much like Xhosa spoken backwards.  On the tenth of August 2012, I was driving back to the studio from a location shoot at the Townhall Hotel and Conference Center where I just finished an interview with a visiting statesman from the SADC when I got a surprising phone call. I was surprised for two reasons. The first was that it came from Brian Dieser, my producer who at the moment of the call was at Grootsvelt. Brian knew I was on my way back to the studio. He only had to wait a few more minutes for me to get there. The second was the question he asked me and the conversation that followed. I feel the need to repeat this conversation as part of my defense to the accusations leveled against me in certain sections of the South African media that I had been biased in my reports on certain people in South Africa especially since the Marikana incident. I have no idea why this is so important to me now. I have been accused of bias before. Anyone working in the media has that to live with. Except if they never filed a report in their entire lives. I was wondering why Brian wouldn’t wait for me to get to Grootsvelt when he asked the first question.“Have you heard about Marikana?”“Marikana? What is that please?”“No, not what. It is where.”“Okay, where is that?”“It is where I want you to be right now.”“I copy that, but where exactly is this?”“It is a village, a town. I don’t really know.”“You don’t know?”“Yes.”“And you want me to go there?”“Yes you will be thankful to me that you did.”“Okay, where is it?”“Somewhere in Rustenburg.”Before that call from Brain, I had no idea where Marikana was and may never have. I am from Madikwe, in Rustenburg. Yet I had never heard about the town. I knew Lonmin though. Any reporter who had covered South African politics and economy was aware of London Mines and how intricately connected to the ruling party it was. Brain told me something big was going on between the miners’ unions and the company. The South African mining industry had a history of wildcat strikes by the men who worked deep inside the earth. They always wanted better conditions of service. They never got them. And they never gave up asking either. Their lives were testimonies to the squalor and poverty of the townships and the mining towns and to the barely concealed truth that nothing much had changed.Brain had asked me to call Mokela. The name had sounded familiar but it was after I looked at the number he sent over SMS I recognized he was a freelance cameraman Grootsvelt used on short notice and when its own cameramen could not got to locations fast enough. Mokela was already standing by with a crew, awaiting my arrival in Marikana. He told me in a gravelly voice over the phone that the workers were demanding that their pay be increased from five thousand rand to twelve thousand five hundred rand.  There had been clashes between two miners unions – the National Miners Union, NUM and the Association of Construction and Miners Unions, ACMU. Moleka told me they were rivals. The ACMU was formed by people who thought the NUM no longer looked out for South African miners. The NUM has also been accused of having ties with the ANC.I got into the Bojala Platinum District and the Rustenburg Local Municipality by mid afternoon. Fighting the temptation to make a detour to Madikwe I made my way to Marikana. The atmosphere I met that first day was tense to say the least, though it would get worse over the next few days. The leaders of the unions had gone into hiding after the shooting incident a day earlier in which miners were hurt. Mokela was on his way. The miners had gathered on Nkaneng Hill singing and dancing to Zulu war songs and waving pangas, spears and a variety of knobkerries in the air. The police units clustered together, seemingly deliberating on how to handle the situation. I had never seen more policemen gathered together at one place apart from national events or sporting meets. Several units of Lonmin security also patrolled the area on foot, but kept away from where the striking workers, numbering at a glance at least a thousand chanted and danced a hazy cloud of dust into the air. Once or twice, a miner or two broke the ranks, and darted towards the watching police and Lonmin security, shrieked and waved a panga, a spear, or a knobkerrie in the air above their heads. But they never crossed invisible line separating the miners, the police and Lonmin security. The police watched them impassively. Most of them were dressed for a riot situation wearing Kevlar rests over their regular uniforms and helmets instead of the usual beret. They also carried rifles and stun grenades clipped to their belts. I saw one or two canisters of tear gas, but no one had used weapons though they had been in full view from the first day.  Mokela arrived with Sandike and Theo at this time and I asked them to come and join me close to Nkeneng Hill. I also told Mokela not to come with the big HDTV camera and boom microphones. The police may not let us film. The smaller hand held camcorder was easier to conceal, so I told him to come with that instead. They joined me and we watched the miners smoking tik and whoonga in thick wraps that were passed from hand to hand. Perhaps it was the cold of the veldt, or the need for courage that made each miner drag greedily on the passed tik and whoonga. The coloured smoke from slightly flared nostrils that screened their faces momentarily, masking the yelps of drug induced ecstasy. Then they continued singing and dancing and waving whatever weapons they carried in the air……Pause…He heard a faint scraping sound. Or he thought he did. So he looked into the gloom where Nozipho sat nestled among the shadows on another high backed chair. She was barely visible in the black clothes she had taken to wearing after she watched her husband topple over like a drunk in the midst of his dying and dead colleagues and friends. There was just enough light to make out her unmoving outline. If she had not moved then what sound had he heard? And where had it come from? He reached for the glass on the desk. His eyes were on Nozipho’s outline, half expecting her to reach for the second glass. She did not move. He took a sip of the brandy then reached out towards the recorder…… Record…    Marikana. Also called Rooikoppies. Red Hills. I had remembered this as I watched the miners, the police and Lonmin security. And I had thought of blood. I did not know why at that time. It had been just one wildcat strike among many others. South Africa had always had wildcat strikes, especially in the mining sector. Someone was always never satisfied with what they were paid. So why I had thought of blood as I watched the scene slowly unfolding before me among the red hills was not immediately clear. Perhaps there was a link between the present and the future that allowed us to see what would be, though not in obvious and concrete images. Maybe in feelings and premonitory glimpses of events we could not explain. I did not know, but I thought of blood. And I also realized why the name Marikana did not ring a bell immediately after Brian mentioned it over the phone. I had always known the town by its Afrikaans name. Rooikoppies. Red hills. Someone had once called it blood hills. Before I got to Marikana, I was undecided whether to work on this story or to pass it on to some of the younger presenters. It did not matter much what Brian said. I had earned the right of first refusal. My indecision was made worse after Mokela hinted that this was not just another wildcat strike and that political interests were involved. He had even hinted at certain names. I had drawn political flack before, especially after the interview with Julius Malema. The police units disbanding to form containment lines and the miners singing Zulu and Xhosa war songs; waving pangas and knobkierries in the air, created an impending sense of doom that also portended the historic. That day, I filmed only with the camcorder … … Pause…    His breathing was heavy as he remembered. Once the gates of memory were opened, they came like a flood. It was difficult to control what one saw and heard once again in the mind. So instead of trying to control them, he allowed the images flooding through his mind in an endless torrent to overwhelm him. But at the same time he tried not to think. That he knew would come with pain. He did not need the pain now. He did not want it. There had been other times when it was necessary, when he had needed it. Then, he had allowed it. He had thought about what he remembered. He was still battling to remember without thinking when the sound came again. He was certain now there had been a sound. Nozipho had sniffed. She had either been crying and tried to stop, or she was trying very hard to keep from starting and failed. The sound came again. And again….…Record…    The events that unfolded between the miners, officers of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Lonmin security between the tenth of August, when I got to Marikana and the fifteenth had been thoroughly exhausted in my articles, interviews and even on South Africa Today show. And every time I had been asked about those days, those who asked only wanted to know two things. The first was the number of people who died. The second was who killed them and how. And they are questions I do not like answering. How does one describe one man pointing a gun at another and pulling trigger while other people watched? Or a group of men hacking the face off another man and yet others watched, sang danced and waved pangas and knobkerries in the air? For those of you who would listen to this, who would make decisions that would change other peoples’ lives, I say one thing – there is no way. Just like no number of convictions or acquittals can heal the nation of the horror Marikana was and will ever be. But to satisfy the morbid curiosity on the part of justice that now forces me to remember, I will state this which to the best of my knowledge is true. Between the twelfth and fourteenth days of August, eight people died among the red hills of Marikana – two members of the SAPS, four miners and two security gauds. There has never been any satisfactory explanation of why and how these men had died. There had been accusations and counter-accusations. Endless fingers, from the thumb to the last on both hands had been pointed in all directions. Yet no one, not the police; not the National Union of Mineworkers; not the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Unions; not even Lonmin security and management had been able to explain what happened. I therefore cannot claim in this deposition to know what and who killed the men during those days. I only came afterwards to record the grisly aftermath of whatever fury scoured the fields among the red hills…… Pause…    Nozipho had stopped crying. He knew because the sound had stopped insinuating itself into his consciousness. But in the deep silence he became aware of other sounds. Rain fell outside, beating out a tatoo of tunes and strange rhythms on the aluminum roofing sheets. The sound of traffic- car engines, blaring horns and squealing tyres filtered into the apartment through the cracks around the edges of closed doors and draped windows. It was darker in the room now than when he had placed the bottle of brandy, the glasses and the digital recorder on the desk. He could no longer even see Nozipho’s outline. He only knew she was there by the sound of her slow measured breathing and her pervading presence that even the darkness and the shadows could not dwindle. He pushed thoughts of Nozipho out of his mind. Dwelling on her now meant thinking. There would be time for that and other things later. Now, he would only remember. The glass on the table was empty when he pressed its rim against his lips and sucked gently. He picked up the bottle of brandy and tipped it over the rim of the glass and was rewarded with a prolonged sloshing sound that only stopped after he set the bottle down on the desk. He waited for the burning sensation to stop in his throat before he reached out probing the darkness with his forefinger……Record…    The morning of the sixteenth started like all the other mornings since we arrived among the red hills of Marikana. I had woken up in my hotel room to the sound of the striking miners chanting war songs. Stretched out on my bed and trying to shrug off the final shrouds of sleep, I could easily imagine the earth shaking beneath their feet and nothing else. At least not blood. Not the streams of ochre that would soak the already red earth. They were on Nkaneng Hill, with their pangas and knobkerries; and long stiff joints of tik and whoonga. Somehow, and for whatever reasons no one yet understands, Nkaneng of all the hills in the area, had assumed some special meaning for the striking miners. They had gathered there with sunrise every day since we arrived in Marikana. With the sunset few of them went back to their shabby dwellings in the shanty town bordering the platinum mines operated by Lonmin. The rest stretched out on the hill to embrace the night, chant to the moon and the stars and stretch out on the cold earth like logs. They rose every morning to welcome the sun and their colleagues returning from brief sojourns with their families and to continue their demanding, singing and dancing. I must admit that suspended in that moment between darkness and sunrise listening to the voices rising in rhythmic cadence, sometimes mournful other times aggressive and demanding, I felt some compassion for these men who worked so deep in the bowel of the earth.     The police had also come to Nkaneng Hill. Stopping well away from where the striking miners sang, danced and smoked, detachments and formations of the South African Police Service, SAPS, were reforming into containment lines. There seemed to be a no man’s land of several hundred metres between the two groups. Armored personnel carriers with ugly looking water spouts patrolled the no man’s land. The violence of the last the days had made everyone wary.    Someone knocked on my door. I turned away from the windows and the unfolding drama on Nkaneng Hill. Mokela stood outside in the corridor flanked by the cameraman and the sound technician. They were dressed and ready to go. Mokela looked tired. He had been up all night filming my interview with the leaders of the National Union of Miners and the Associated Construction and Mining Union. I turned away from them to pick up the field jacket I had draped around the back of a chair after I came back last night. We were upbeat as we walked towards the doors of the hotel, not knowing that outside among the red hills, history was waiting to make itself.    A lot had been said and written about what happened on and around Nkaneng Hill Marikana, Rustenburg Municipality in the Bojala Platinum District on the seventeenth day of August 2012. And a lot of them were conflicting reports from colleagues and friends in the media. And especially the police, who had tried to persuade me to change some parts of my report to fit in with their version. I think it is important to point out now that I left Cape Town, and finally Johannesburg for Lagos because I became tired of such pressure. I have listened to police commissioner Mangewashi Phiyega claim that the police, numbering close to five hundred, were attacked by armed miners. Another report this one from the BBC suggested that the shooting began after a group of striking miners armed with knobkerries and pangas rushed at a formation of well armed policemen. Poloko Tau from The Star said the police maintained that they had been fired on first but that he had not seen this first hand. And there was Simphiwe Sibeko taking pictures for Reuters and who had been present at the scene. Sibeko maintained that he saw at last one of the protesters shoot a pistol before the police opened fire. I think also that your commission needs to look again at what Greg Marinovich said after examining the scene and found that the majority of victims “appear to have been shot at close range or crushed by police vehicles.”  Greg pointed out that some victims were shot in a “koppie”, where they were cornered and could have been arrested. And the theory that they died in a hail of bullets was not supported by the truth that few bullets were found in the surrounding area. And Marinovich’s last words “it is becoming clear to this reporter that heavily armed police hunted down and killed the miners in cold blood.”     I mentioned these views of what happened on Nkaneng that day because I had come to the point in this deposition where I must tell what I saw and the disturbing questions that had plagued me since then.    The morning had been cold, the way only the veldt could be when it extracted vengeance on intruding humans. Apart from the massed body of miners singing on Nkaneng and the formed line of policemen and Lonmin security facing them, other members of both groups moved about freely. Some of them even talked to each other. The almost collegial atmosphere put a lie to the issue of race raised by some people after the dust settled on the broken bodies of the dead and the dying. Among the police and Lonmin security had been blacks. The truth be told there were more blacks than there had been whites or coloureds or any other people for that matter. So more bullets were fired by black held guns than any other.    I came upon the first group of miners at the foot of the first slope. They were singing and dancing to an old Zulu war song that had been popular during the resistance against Apartheid. I had listened with half an ear to the rhythmic rising and falling cadence of their voices as I pointed out to Mokela and Sandiwe and Theo, the camera man and sound technician respectively where I wanted the equipment set up. Nostalgia rolled over me in waves. The look of discomfort on the faces of some of the policemen showed they felt the same way. Perhaps like me, they had fought Apartheid as teenagers. I turned towards the singing and dancing miners seeing no face that I knew, but recognizing them all at once. Theirs was the singular face of resistance and protest against anything that takes away the humanness in all human beings. Theirs was the singular quest for a better existence that was both universal and individual at the same time. I was still looking at them, marveling at how they remained ensconced in their separated world of protest and yet managed to touch me and of course Mokela, Sandiwe, Theo and even some of the policemen and Lonmin security. Mokela started opening his mouth to say something but I never heard him.    A loud bullhorn interrupted him and we all turned towards the sound. A SAPS captain was walking slowly towards the largest gathering of singing and dancing miners asking them to pay attention to what he had to say. Mokela, Sandiwe and Theo were beside me, their equipment in their hands, on their shoulders, on their heads or wherever on their bodies they could find a hold and some space for them. The air was thick and charged with tension and an impending sense of doom portending the historic. With sideways glances I confirmed that Mokela, Theo and Sandiwe felt it too. The miners ignored the captain at first and just kept singing and dancing and waving knobkerries and pangas in the air. Then by sections they slowed down, stopped singing and dancing and turned towards the captain who asked them to surrender the weapons they carried. The miners watched him, like I thought for that moment they watched the rest of the world, with the cunning look of trapped animals. Then two of them stepped forward towards the policeman. I remember them clearly and for no reason I had at that time. Later, I was able to pick out their bodies from among the dead and dying. The one who spoke wore a green sport shirt with a fist raised in protest printed on the front. He was a big man easily a full head and half taller than his colleague. He carried a long knobkerrie in his left hand. The big head of the club hung loosely against his left calf. He told the captain that the miners needed safe passage to the point on Nkaneng Hill, where they had gathered the day before and where they had gathered every day since the strike started. The captain repeated that the workers surrender their weapons. The big man and his colleague turned away and walked back towards the group of watching miners. They were going to discuss the captain’s demand.      At that point I also turned and asked Sandiwe to change the angle of coverage. What happened next has continued to defy my attempts at explanation until this day. And at first it had taken several precious seconds to understand that the loud sharp cracks that sounded like oversized firecrackers were gunshots. I spun first towards the line of police, who stood with rifles held against their hips and shoulders. Then towards where a huge cloud of dust had enveloped the miners. It was difficult to see what was going on through the haze of rising dust. Then the firing stopped. I can’t tell, even now how long it lasted. I only knew that it stopped as suddenly as it had started. But the cloud of dust did not dissipate as suddenly. It took its time, seeming to reveal of its own volition the carnage that had taken place in panoramic slices to protect the mind from feeling from the sheer enormity of the event. But after it cleared the earth around Nkaneng Hill was littered with bodies. The giant who had spoken with the SAPS captain sat in the middle of a sea of his dead friends and colleagues. His huge upper body weaved back and forth in spasmodic jerks. His green shirt was stained in several places by blood oozing from holes in his body. Other miners fled in every direction, shouting in Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans. My attention was riveted on the injured man sitting among the dead and the dying. Sandiwe’s camera was trained on him too. Theo stood beside me cradling the large boom microphone against his body. His hands were shaking. Everyone seemed to be screaming, and above the noise I heard Mokela saying “Oh my God”, over and over. Then the big man toppled over backwards and slightly to his left. He twitched once and lay still. The world went blank. Much later I would learn that his name was Mphoteli Mahala and that he had worked deep in the earth scraping    platinum for Lonmin. And also that his wife Nozipho Mahala had watched him die through Sandiwe’s camera lenses.    I am sorry that you have come to me with questions looking for answers. Answers you thought could be found in the things I saw; the things I heard and perhaps in what the eyes of Sandiwe’s camera showed the world. I know that your questions are supposed to make me remember. But what I remember may not be of much help to you. Except if you want to do some soul searching yourself as individuals and as a nation. Why did Marikana happen in the first place? Why did those miners die? Did they have to die? Could their deaths have been avoided? Who failed at Marikana? I can answer the last question. We all did. The government failed. The company failed. The police failed. The miners failed. Yes, we all failed. And we all lost a lot for it. Once again I am sorry that I may not have given you the answers you seek. But perhaps if you can find answers to the questions I asked here you may find the solutions you seek. I have made a new home in Nigeria. I do not intend to return to South Africa, but Rustenburg would always be my home. I will always be bound to it by what I witnessed that day among the red hills. Thank you so much…… Stop…    Nozipho was standing beside him. He had been so preoccupied with the words he poured into the tiny microphone of the digital recorder that he did not notice she have left her seat. She placed a hand on his right shoulder and squeezed gently. He reached upwards and backwards, placing his left hand over hers. He did not want her to see the tear marks on each side of his face. They would make love again tonight, like they had every right since they came to Nigeria. They found solace in each other’s arms.  That kept the ghosts away. And afterwards long after she laid beside him asleep he would think about those who died on Nkaneng Hill. And he would think about the giant that had sat among the dead and the dying in a green T-shirt stained with blood and drilled with holes. Then he would cry himself to sleep.   Abongile Bonani  lives and writes from Port Harcourt , Nigeria.

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