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Marikana film shows life is cheap in SA

As South Africans go to the polls, “Miners Shot Down”, a new film about the Marikana mine massacre (in which 112 miners were shot by police and 34 died), is screening around South Africa. The timing couldn’t be worse for the ANC.

If you’re looking for a feelgood movie, something to send you home with a smile on your face and a spring in your step, don’t go to see Miners Shot Down, Rehad Desai’s film about the Marikana mine massacre, in which 112 miners were shot by police and 34 died. This is a film that layers inhumanity upon casual inhumanity until your heart can barely feel any more.

All the cheery narratives about the South African victory against apartheid fall away as you see miners attempting to walk peacefully away from police being rounded up by police trucks and gunned down. As you hear that morgue vans were ordered before events between miners and police escalated. And as you watch a white policeman rifling through the pockets of a dead black miner, as his colleagues brag and call the corpse a “pussy”.

Police looking at striking mine workers on the koppie
Police looking at striking mine workers on the koppie

Ultimately, Miners Shot Down is a spare, effective narrative about a chain of people that decided that life was less of a priority than profit. It’s about the ANC, a political party that fought the hardest, longest struggles, only to finally sit back on its haunches and decide that it was time for a rest, time to reap the rewards of its battles, but only for those at the top, those willing to sell out that party’s founding principles. It’s about unions that have disconnected from their membership, and it’s about black African police shooting their brothers because that is what is dictated to them.

It’s a story that has deep roots in South African history, but also one that could play out similarly in other places in the world, as states and corporations collude to share the honeypot of the world’s wealth, and make sure that the poor don’t get a taste of that sweetness.

As South Africa goes to the polls today, disillusionment is rife. The ANC is deemed to have sold out, spearheaded by Jacob Zuma’s antics and the rise of Cyril Ramaphosa (of whom, more later). The Democratic Alliance is seen as the guardian of white privilege in the country, and Agang lost much of its shine via its aborted alliance with the DA. Meanwhile, the charismatic but often problematic Julius Malema is effectively courting the all-important youth vote, like the Pied Piper of Azania.

Many have decided to jettison their vote in protest at the non-options they see in front of them. Musician Tumi Molekane was one (though interestingly he subsequently popped up in this pre-election pro-ANC video), and Rehad Desai is another. He agrees that the options on the table are too poor, and points to a new workers’ party that will be in place by 2016, plans for which are being led by the country’s largest union NUMSA.

That union has been left out in the cold after refusing to give the ANC its backing for the elections, with spokesman Castro Ngobese saying that it would not participate in recent pro-ANC May Day rallies because it could not “tell a lie that there is a good story to tell when there is actually none”. However, Desai says that the gradual re-engagement of the unions with the civic struggle is a sign of exciting times ahead.

Clearly the film Miners Shot Down does not exist in a political vacuum. Desai, from a politically active South African family, was an activist before he was a film maker – he says since he was 13, in exile with his family and became aware of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. These days he is an old-school socialist and knew many of those involved in the Marikana massacre before it happened. (Appropriately enough for someone who is so pro-miner, he is the antithesis of Margaret Thatcher – whereas she was the ‘iron fist in the velvet glove’, he is more of a velvet fist in an iron glove. Tough professionally and politically by necessity, he actually gives the impression of being fundamentally kind-hearted.)

In the end, the story chose him, rather than him choosing the story. For an activist film maker, an event of this import happening in your backyard is not something you can ignore – but the thing is, the more Desai dug, the more he found out, and the more genuine shocks he received at the scale of the complicity.

Mgcineni 'Mambush' Noki, also known as the man in the green blanket, talks to a police hostage negotiator, before later being killed by police
Mgcineni ‘Mambush’ Noki, also known as the man in the green blanket, talks to a police hostage negotiator, before later being killed by police

What started as a group of miners wishing to negotiate better salaries with the management of the UK-owned Lonmin platinum mine at which they worked became an entrenched battle of wills. On the one side, the miners, who would not accept that they should be valued so low, and on the other mine management, who met them with closed doors and aggressive security, and eventually also the police and the state, which chose the safeguarding of corporate interests over the safety of its own citizens.

Particularly disheartening is the involvement of Ramaphosa, probably South Africa’s next deputy president. As a former union leader turned elite businessman, he is seen by many as being a sellout, and the film shows Ramaphosa’s transformation from people’s champion to a zealous defender of the handful at the top. In an email exchange revealed at the Commission, ANC deputy leader Ramaphosa writes about getting the police to act in a “more pointed way”, setting the tone for the way in which the miners were eventually ‘handled’. “Let us keep the pressure on them to act correctly,” he says of the miners, who are in fact shown in Desai’s footage to have acted peaceably, albeit inconveniently for mine management.

Making the film was a big job, marshalling all the evidence and convincing broadcasters to release footage to him because it was in the public interest. It was deeply necessary because of the poor media coverage at the time, which gave the public a distorted perception of how things unfolded at Marikana. Desai also had to be careful because the players in the massacre he was spotlighting had all sorts of ammunition at their disposal if he put a factual foot wrong.

“You had a sense of embedded journalism, everyone was reporting from behind police lines,” says Desai. “People weren’t talking to the workers, they bought into the discourse that the ANC… and Lonmin have been pushing, that the miners were a bunch of uneducated, uncivilised, chauvinistic, tribalist vigilantes. It was just a strike, but they were demonised, because without that there was no way to justify the cold-blooded shooting.”

Desai isn’t finished – having shined a light on what actually happened at Marikana, next he would like to look at the fallout of the massacre, the fact that nobody has been brought to justice for the deaths (the Commission of Inquiry into the massacre has just been extended by Zuma), and that 270 miners face the bitter pill of facing heavy prison sentences. Justice is being written on the hoof by the rulers, and not only are they not sorry, they’re still going after the miners they didn’t kill.

As the ballots are counted today, and the ANC likely beds in for another stretch, a failure to address what happened at Marikana could have implications for how the state – and the corporations it is in thrall to – judges the rights and protections of its citizens.

Miners Shot Down is being screened around South Africa during May, as well as at Cannes in France, and is screened at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival in June. For more information on the film, and how you can organise local screenings and support it, visit the website.

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