By Gugu Ndima
I watched the bodies drop, I was hoping at some point it would stop. The news reader had cautioned the footage was graphic. Men dropped like bricks on the soil of Lonmin grounds. I teared up and gasped. It was as if I was watching a documentary of a massacre from the 1980s. Innocent men lost their lives at the hands of merciless law enforcers. The deaths in Lonmin leave much to be desired. I had to watch a woman frantically asking a news reporter on sight where her husband might be. Hopeless and evidently frightened, she was hoping the newsreader would give her answers.
As union leaders, political spokespeople and analysts attempt to justify what happened and point fingers, dozens of men lost their lives gratuitously. They have been portrayed by some as irresponsible, some blame the unions and the classic excuse has been that a police officer was shot at therefore they were within their right or mandate to shoot back. Now from the little understanding I have of the situation, the men decided to organise a sit-in on a mountain, signalling they would not budge until their demands were met. The union leader addressed the crowd urging there shouldn’t be any bloodshed and requested the police to give them time. It’s as if, he sensed, this would happen.
From the visuals, it seems the workers were frightened at the sight of police officers surrounding them, getting ready to disperse the crowd (workers) on the hill and hence the tragic outcome.
But no amount of justification will bring back the lives of those brave men. The crux of the matter is that these were not criminals, they stated very clear why they were there and police officers, assumingly, are properly trained to deal with protests. We have seen violent protests across the country recently and there is yet to be a report about deaths. The fact is that no life should have been lost. This was not a game of “bullet for bullet” and it’s iniquitous to assume the workers intended to attack police officers, perhaps they felt they needed to carry weapons for protection as there was no security visible and it was not a protected strike.
One is tempted to believe that just maybe these men were victims because they were not members of a recognised union, stripping them of their right to organise themselves as they deem fit. The situation could have been handled better and bloodshed avoided. It’s disappointing to see leaders are avoiding taking responsibility and merely pointing fingers as to who might have been the instigator. The noble thing in this horrific hour is to honour these men by going to their families. We should ask ourselves what happens to the families that have lost breadwinners, fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, pillars. What happens to the children robbed of a decent future, mothers that have now become single parents overnight. Lonmin and the unions must take account and ensure all these families are compensated and a decent burial is given. A worker’s life unfortunately still remains subhuman as we’ve witnessed.
These men were on that hill for hours, probably starving, tired, scared and anxious. However in their spirit of determination they braced the dangers ahead of them and stood resolute on what they believed in, ill-informed or not. Leaders must account for these deaths. Lonmin will in the next week or two probably forget about this as if it never happened, but the families will forever despair, their lives distraught and poverty knocking to remind them of their stark reality. The life of a worker is incalculable, he breaks the rock which sustains this economy, he feeds the children of the elite while his wait for crumbs back home in the mountains of Lesotho, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.
His strength is taken by mine shafts yet his spirit carries him to the next day. Salute to all of you, fathers, men of honour and workers who carry this economy. All you ever wanted was a decent wage to put food on your family’s table. This was your only crime.
I dedicate these few lines to all of you who lost your lives so tragically.
“Sisebenzel’ emgodini kanzima, sisebenzel’ imali’ncane uzoyenzani
Sisebenzelémgodini kanzima, sisebenzeímali encane uzoyenzani
Kulikhuni, kunzima, sisebenzelímali encane uzoyenzani”
May you find peace in the heavens and hopefully take comfort that you no longer serve the greedy white man on your own land.
Descendant of the working class and poor.
Gugu Ndima is the media and communications officer of the ANC caucus in the Gauteng legislature.