‘I cant believe this. 18 protesting mineworkers shot dead by the sa police yday?’ This is what a good friend of mine posted on her Facebook timeline the day after the massacre at Lonmin platinimum mine in Marikana, South Africa. The image that accompanied the post was of armed policemen approaching a group of seemingly lifeless bodies sprawled on the ground in front of them. More posts quickly followed. Friends, acquaintances, former colleagues – all equally shocked and outraged by the horrific footage and news reports they were seeing. We needed to know why. What had happened? How could something like this happen? Now! 50 years after Sharpeville; more than 30 years after Soweto. Now! Under an ANC government. It was almost too impossible to imagine: 34 miners confirmed dead; shot down at close range by the police.
Slowly, a narrative began to form. History’s first draft, as Alistair Sparks calls it. And it went something like this: Yes, but…the miners were armed. They’d killed two policemen earlier that week. There’d been acts of intimidation and criminality. Self-defence. Unruly mobs. Factionalism. Power struggles. Etc. Etc. As always, the ruling party gave its inevitable and predictable response: now is not the time to ask questions (it never is); now is a time for mourning, to heal open wounds and settle old disputes…Etc. Etc. But the questions did not go away; the wounds did not heal; the disputes continued, until they too became blips in the media white noise that surrounds us.
Rehad Desai’s film Miners Shot Down comes as a powerful corrective to the numbing-dumbing effect mass media coverage of the event has had on us. This is the intervention we’ve needed. Using a combination of interviews, news footage, and recordings by police and security personnel, Desai reconstructs the fatal events of 16 August 2012, and the days leading up to it, with forensic precision. This is documentary as substitute trial: personal, impassioned and cathartic. Its mandate absolutely clear: to hold South Africa’s political elite to account for the role it played in bringing about the deaths of 34 miners. On this, Desai’s judgment is never in any doubt:
The South African state colluded with Lonmin, a British mining company, to protect its commercial interests during a potentially damaging labour dispute over the salaries of rock drill operators.
I admit: as I started watching the film, the unwavering certainty with which Desai presents his case against the State made me uncomfortable. He seemed too sure of himself. I am naturally sceptical of anything resembling a simplistic judgment. And, moreover, the documentary cut against the received narrative about a group of wild-cat miners who broke away from the ANC aligned National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), employing intimidation and deadly violence to get Lonmin to meet their demands for a 60% rise in salaries. He who avers must prove. And early on in the film I hadn’t yet seen enough to be convinced. But as the film unfolded with the inevitability and spell-binding intensity of a Shakespearean tragedy, sceptism gave way to disbelief and then anger under the mounting evidence that it could have been avoided and should never have happened in the first place.
The turning point for me was a brilliantly edited sequence in which Dumisa Ntsebeza – an advocate representing the families of the dead miners (well known to South Africans as a former commissioner in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) – comments on police footage taken three days prior to the massacre. With restrained irony, Ntsebeza describes the standoff between miners and the police, led by the second highest ranking official in the provincial police structure, Deputy Commissioner Mpembe. The police try to disarm the miners, who, for their part, plead the case that they have been attacked and are only carrying spears and pangas to protect themselves. After intense deliberations, the miners offer to give up their weapons on condition that the police escort them to the mountain where they have been on strike, waiting for Lonmin to resume negotiations with them. Just as it seems that the Deputy is reaching a compromise, he receives a phone call. Its a tense moment , and the heightened suspense produced by the insertion of Ntsebeza’s ironic commentary is typical of Desai’s skilful manipulation of pace throughout. The caller’s identity isn’t clear; nor the content of their conversation. What we do see, however, is a clear shift in the Commissioner’s attitude towards the miners. He refuses to budge; they ignore his call to disarm; and march – peacefully – towards the mountain in an organised column. Then, without any provocation, or posing any threat to the police at all, the miners are fired at. In the ensuring skirmish, three miners and two policeman are killed. My jaw dropped; my heart sunk; and, from then on, until its violent, heart-rending crescendo, I knew unequivocally which side I was on.
Responsibly, but also somewhat frustratingly, the film leaves key questions about the event unanswered – questions that are still under investigation by the judge-led Commission of Injury into the massacre. What it does brilliantly though is to bring the miners’ perspective to the fore – something, a recent study by Jane Duncan has shown, made up only 3% of the sources of information for press coverage at the time. The film also poses important questions about the role, motives and culpability of senior ministers and police officials. Cyril Ramaphosa – former leader of the NUM, ANC stalwart and Lonmin shareholder – comes under particular scrutiny. Ramaphosa’s decisive intervention helped shape the police’s response to the strike and ensured Lonmin direct access to the Cabinet. Desai’s portrait of him throughout is filled with bitter disillusionment. Where, he asks, is the man I marched alongside? Who stood side by side with Mandela? Who decried the fascist tactics of the mining companies? Thankfully, it avoids any suggestion of bad faith or conspiracy on his part (though the same it is now clear is not true of the police). The implied judgement is that Ramaphosa placed the strategic importance of South Africa’s platinum industry, which produces 80% of the world’s supply and generates billions in export revenue and taxes, above those of poor and illiterate rock drillers. It is right that these individuals should account fully for their actions. It is right to ask questions about how such excessive use of force can be limited in future. It is right to reflect on the State’s callous response to those who survived. For all these reasons, and so much more, Miners Shot Down is essential viewing.