Earlier this month it was the third anniversary of the shocking events that took place in Marikana, South Africa. A week of violence around the Lonmin platinum mine culminated on Thursday 16th August 2012 with the South African Police Service (SAPS) shooting down 112 striking mine workers, killing 34 of them. Last year Rehad Desai’s film about what has become known as the ‘Marikana Massacre’ was released. Although availability of the film in the UK has been rather limited I managed to order a copy on DVD from the socialist bookshop, Bookmarks. These are my thoughts on the film. [Update 23.11.15, the whole film is now available to watch online]
Miners Shot Down covers the week from 10th-16th August, 2012 and not just the final denouement, part of which was witnessed on news broadcasts around the world. In doing so, it provides important details surrounding the escalation of events during that week but it is also explicit in linking what happened at Marikana to the broader historical and political context.
One of the central questions raised by the film is whether the then Minister of Police, Nkosinathi Mthethwa, was asked to authorise the approach taken by the SAPS, not least the deployment of 648 police on the 16th August and the order for 4,000 rounds of live ammunition and four vans from the local mortuary.
The film starts with the horrific images of 16th August 2012 and reminds us of how similar they look to those witnessed during the apartheid era at Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976. The National Police Commissioner, Riah Phiyega, is then shown in the initial aftermath suggesting that the police had acted in self-defence. The rest of the film compellingly seeks to undermine such a claim as it recounts the events in chronological fashion.
As you watch things unfold during that fateful week in August three years ago, you get a strong sense of inevitability of what is to come. For me this is one of the key messages of the film. The massacre feels so absolutely inevitable, not only of course because we are watching the film, already primed with the knowledge of what is to come, but also because of the way the demands of the workers appear to have been handled from the outset.
It documents how Lonmin management repeatedly refused to negotiate with the rock drillers over their demands for a rise in wages and how the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) refused to support their members. Cyril Ramaphosa, interviewed for the film, is portrayed as emblematic of the way that elites in the ruling ANC and business have become so close. Rampahosa who is currently Deputy President of the country, was once a leader of the NUM during the apartheid era, but at the time of the massacre was a board member of Lonmin. Ramaphosa refuses to say anything of any real substance on camera, arguing that if he does it might prejudice his involvement in the commission of inquiry. This is not surprising given that it transpires that he sent an email on the day before the massacre encouraging government ministers to increase the police presence in order to quash the strike.
The sheer brutality of the events of the 16th August 2012 make for decidedly uncomfortable viewing. The film highlights how 17 of the 34 workers killed on that day were shot after the initial barrage of fire that was captured by TV news teams. A number of witnesses have testified that many of these were shot whilst trying to surrender. The impunity with which the police appeared to operate is captured towards the end of the film in a brief, but chilling scene where SAPS officers are seen to be bragging about how they shot one of the mine workers and how his ‘muti’ (traditional medicine) won’t help him.
Since the film was released, the Farlam commission of inquiry’s report into the events at Marikana has finally been published. However, many of the questions raised in Desai’s documentary remain unanswered. Decision-makers including the Minister of Police have not been held to account and instead the focus is on the inappropriate ‘tactics’ adopted by the SAPS. The Farlam commission merely recommends that a further inquiry is conducted into whether Riah Phiyega is adequately equipped to hold office.
The film does a good job of giving a voice to some of the Lonmin workers involved. It is clear that underlying their grievance over their rates of pay, are deep frustrations at the way the economic system in South Africa has, for them at least, continued unchanged during the post-apartheid era. The overarching message of Desai’s documentary is that the ANC government in South Africa is working in the interests of transnational capital and not the workers. To many observers this has been clear for some time, but the events at Marikana, which are depicted so graphically in this film, reinforce this conclusion in such a deeply disturbing fashion.