Nick Davies uncovers the story of "the man in the green blanket", who died trying to broker peace, and reveals the complicity of the powers that be.
On August 16 2012, South African police opened fire on a large crowd of men who had been on strike at a platinum mine at Marikana in North West Province. They shot down 112 of them, killing 34. In any country, this would have been a traumatic moment. For South Africa, it was a special kind of nightmare, because it revived images of massacres by the state in the old apartheid era, with one brutal difference – this time it was predominantly black police officers, with black senior officers working for black politicians, who were doing the shooting.
In response, President Jacob Zuma appointed a commission of inquiry, chaired by retired judge Ian Farlam, which sat in public for a total of 293 days, hearing evidence from miners, their bosses and the police, and reviewing video, audio and paper records of the shooting and of the seven-day strike that preceded it.
At the end of March this year, the commission delivered its report to Zuma, who so far has failed to publish its conclusions. Those who may find themselves accused of colluding in the police action include not only senior figures from the ANC but also Lonmin, the British company that owns the Marikana mine.
In the evidence before the Farlam inquiry, one particular miner came to the fore. In videos of marches and meetings during the strike, this was largely because he wore a bright green blanket around his shoulders. Beyond that, it was because, during those seven days of conflict, he came from nowhere as the leader, making passionate speeches through a loud-hailer, negotiating with police and standing in the frontline as the shooting broke out. He died that afternoon, with 14 bullets in his face and neck and legs.
The name of the man in the green blanket was Mgcineni Noki. He was aged 30, and known to his family and friends as Mambush. This is his story. It may also stand as part of the story of what has happened in South Africa since apartheid was voted into the dustbin of history 21 years ago.
Mambush – a rock-drill operator with no official rank – emerged from the mass of black workers as a rebel leader demanding justice, while some of those who once spearheaded the fight against repression acted as a shield protecting privilege, exploitation and extreme violence. It is a story about power changing hands and changing colour but failing, finally, to change the lives of those in whose name that power is held.
Cathedral of commerce
The Lonmin smelter stands like a cathedral of commerce over a bleak landscape, its chimney reaching for heaven, its conveyor belt shuffling a fortune in unrefined platinum. The miners live in its shadow. Their homes are one-roomed shacks. Some of them are built out of breeze blocks; most are patchworks of rusting corrugated iron tacked on to frames of timber torn from local trees. The shacks huddle together in groups of several hundred. There are no roads, only dirt tracks that turn greasy in the rain. A few chickens peck in the mud. Goats stroll by.
As far as the eye can see, pylons march across the landscape like robot soldiers, bringing electricity to the mines, but most of the shacks have no power – though some steal it on cables that sag among the washing lines. The mines have water, too, to wash the ore. But not the shacks: some of the men share a communal tap, many of which have been broken for months; some drink straight from milky streams that run nearby.
In one of the shacks lives Mbulelo Noki, a lean, fit man in blue jeans and a Levi’s shirt, now aged 35. He has a double bed, neatly made; a small table with a plastic cloth; a metal wardrobe with the torn remains of an old ANC sticker on the door. Mbulelo is Mambush’s cousin – their fathers were brothers. Mbulelo and Mambush grew up together in a tiny village called Thwalikhulu, high on the rim of a pale green valley in the Eastern Cape.
The image of the ‘man in the green blanket’ will always be associated with the Marikana tragedy. This graffiti is by Tokolos Stencil. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
The two boys were close. Mambush’s father died before he was born, and so Mbulelo’s father helped the bereaved family to survive. As they reached adolescence, the cousins went together into the hills to build a hut and to go through the rituals and circumcision that marked their graduation to manhood. Later they worked together as rock-drill operators, battering platinum ore out of the earth, 5km below ground.
Mbulelo recalled that Mambush nearly missed the strike. The two of them were there as it was launched, on Thursday August 9 2012, when hundreds of rock-drill operators gathered on the parched grass of the Wonderkop football stadium, near the administrative buildings at the centre of the mine complex.
They had heard that the rock-drill operators at the Impala Platinum mine, in nearby Rustenburg, had emerged from a long and sometimes violent strike with new pay rates, whereas they remained on R4 000 to R5 000 a month, and they were angry. They demanded R12 500 and agreed they would not turn up for work the next day.
On the Friday morning, the two cousins got a message that their uncle – the younger brother to their fathers – had died of tuberculosis at the Impala mine. On the second day of the strike, they set off to retrieve his body, so they missed the first signs of violence.
It happened on the Friday evening. Small groups of strikers had gone to two of the shafts where some men were still working. The strikers toyi-toyied, urging them to join them. Some waved sticks. Lonmin security men asked police who were watching to disperse the strikers. The police reportedly said the strikers were not causing any trouble. Lonmin security then opened fire with rubber bullets, firing more than 40 rounds at the strikers. Two were seriously injured and hospitalised.
Much later, the Lonmin logbook that contained a record of this event was submitted to the Farlam inquiry – with all reference to the shooting deleted. Another copy was later discovered in police archives, containing detailed references to the shooting. A Lonmin manager later admitted making the deletions.
The previous evening, Barnard Mokwena, then Lonmin’s executive vice-president, had written an internal memo, later disclosed to the Farlam inquiry, advising that the company should not tolerate demands that were “outside the collective bargaining structure”. The strikers were rejecting their own union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), accusing it of supporting the bosses. As the union was not involved, the company could choose not to recognise the strike and not to negotiate. Mokwena urged that, instead of talking, the company should sack the strikers and call in the police to deal with them.
By Friday night, Mbulelo and Mambush were back from Impala and arguing about their next move. Mbulelo wanted to leave to arrange their uncle’s funeral; Mambush was determined to join the strike. That night, Mambush called his wife, Veronica, who was living with their two-year-old daughter, Asive, in Carletonville. This was the town where he had first worked as a miner, in 2004.
In 2008, he injured his shoulder in a rock fall and went to the medical station where Veronica was an administrative assistant. They started a relationship that continued even though Mambush soon moved to Marikana, where the pay was better and the rock was harder and safer to mine than in Carletonville.
Veronica had not known Mambush to get involved in a strike before, though she knew that he was angry with the NUM. Sitting on the old plastic chairs under the tree at the back of her house, he had often talked to her and her father, Ephraim, about how the NUM shop stewards were taken out of the mine and given pay rises, cars and cellphones by the company, and how very soon they stopped speaking up for the people who had elected them.
“The NUM is a sellout,” she remembered him saying. She also recalled one time when she was visiting him in Marikana, when he disappeared for an hour to register with a new breakaway union – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).
Striking miners on the march at Marikana. (Paul Botes, M&G)
He had talked often about struggling to get by on R5 000 a month. He was sending most of it back to his family in the Eastern Cape, then paying for rent on his shack and food for himself. Often he would have to borrow to get through to the end of the month, sometimes from friends, sometimes from microlenders who specialise in payday loans at interest rates as high as 50% a month. Veronica had told him not to worry about sending money to her and Asive. She had a brick-built house, and with a college education she was earning enough to get by. “Let’s deal with other issues,” she told him. “I will take care of the baby.”
On the Friday night, he told her the strikers had to hold out. “The money is so little. It’s a must.” Veronica said that there was no way they would get the raise they were demanding, but she was not worried about him. Not just then. Over the following three days, though, the strike tumbled into a vortex of violence.
On the morning of Saturday August 11, the strikers gathered in the football stadium and decided to march to the NUM office to protest that union officials had been touring the shacks, urging their members to go to work. Some of the strikers were carrying sticks and chanting aggressively.
The Farlam inquiry later heard that an NUM official gathered 30 union members in their office and gave them long panga knives and at least one gun. As the strikers approached, they heard gunfire and turned and scattered. NUM men pursued them. Some strikers were beaten and cut. Two fell with bullet wounds and were hospitalised. They survived, although at the time the others thought that they were dead.
The strikers abandoned the football stadium as a meeting place, because it was too close to the NUM office, and began to assemble on a koppie that stood on a wide plain of wasteland near one of the settlements. They collected cash and sent for a local sangoma in the hope that he could protect them from violence.
Then others joined the strike – not just the rock-drill operators who had started it, but also other Lonmin workers who were furious when they heard claims that the NUM was colluding with the company and had shot two of their comrades.
One of the new recruits was a friend of Mambush, a short, muscular man named Xolani Nzuza, then 27, who managed a football team in which Mambush played. Xolani had come to Marikana eight years earlier to finish college, aiming to become a social worker, but ran out of money. In 2006, he turned to the mine for income. Like Mambush, he had abandoned the NUM and joined Amcu. He was outraged by what was happening.
As he said later: “The people who should be negotiating for us were shooting at us.” Clever and articulate, Xolani was to become Mambush’s deputy at the head of the strike.
The violence escalated. The following day, Sunday August 12, a group of about 150 strikers marched from their new base on the koppie to the Lonmin office. There were scuffles. A striker threw a rock. A security guard fired a shotgun. The strikers massed forward. Some of the workers were now carrying pangas and used them with deadly force, slashing one guard from armpit to hip and hacking two more to death. One of the bodies was burned beyond recognition. Over the following 24 hours, two miners were killed when they tried to go to work in the hours of darkness.
Looking back at these events, the Farlam inquiry uncovered fault on all sides: the opening violence by Lonmin and the NUM, a complete absence of investigation of that violence by the South African Police Service (SAPS), barbaric behaviour by those strikers who had killed people who defied them, and an apparently callous decision by Lonmin.
As counsel to the Farlam probe put it: “It appears that it was possible for Lonmin to close the mine in order to protect its workers but that for business reasons it elected not to do so.”
Veronica says that Mambush was worried, telling her in phone calls: “This is so messy. This is getting too violent.” She pleaded with him to come and stay with her, but it was at this point that he decided to try to take the lead, to steer the strikers away from violence and back to their real aim, to negotiate a pay rise.
The shacks the workers occupy in the shadow of Lonmin. (Paul Botes, M&G)
By early the next afternoon, Monday August 13, he was at the head of some 200 strikers who marched from the koppie to picket at one of the mineshafts, where they had heard NUM members were still working. When Lonmin security barred their way and told them no one was working there, Mambush simply turned the march around and headed back towards the koppie, only to be stopped by the police who insisted that they must give up the sticks and pangas they were carrying.
Police video caught Mambush, with Xolani by his side, reasoning with them: “Please open the way for us. That’s the only thing we are asking for. We are not fighting with anyone. We just want to go to the koppie.” Soon, the strikers had agreed that if the police would protect them from attack by NUM members they would surrender their weapons when they reached the safety of the koppie. The senior police officer on the scene appeared willing to accept this until – as the video shows – he took a phone call.
At that moment, the provincial police chief, Lieutenant General Mirriam Zukiswa Mbombo (who this week announced her retirement from the SAPS), was sitting with Lonmin managers, monitoring the strikers on closed-circuit television. Mbombo had joined the police in 1980 and had risen quickly through the ranks after the end of apartheid. She set up a joint operations centre in Lonmin’s office, where, according to evidence at the Farlam inquiry, her officers were working not only with the company but also with NUM officials who were helping them to identify strike leaders.
When his phone call ended, the senior officer was no longer willing to compromise. He would count to 10, he said, by which time the strikers must surrender all their sticks and pangas. The strikers replied by chanting in isiXhosa: “No matter how big you make your balls, you are nothing.” And with that, crouching low to show they planned no attack, Mambush at the fore, they began walking slowly towards the koppie.
Police video shows that all was peaceful for several minutes – until some officers lobbed teargas and stun grenades at the strikers. Nobody has ever established whether they were ordered to do this. The result was disastrous. The miners started to run. Police ran after them. Two officers were surrounded by strikers and cut down and killed. Strikers stole their guns.
In the melee, some of the dead men’s colleagues then turned on their own senior officer, blaming him for the deaths and threatening to kill him. Other officers pursued the fleeing strikers. Several miners were shot. Three died. None of them was carrying a firearm. One was shot through the head from an assault rifle at a distance of more than 70m.
That evening, photographs of the hacked bodies of the two dead officers are said to have been circulated among police officers across the country.
When Mambush and the others straggled back to the koppie, his cousin Mbulelo was there. He heard Mambush speak to the crowd, reporting the deaths. That evening, Mbulelo called Veronica and begged her to come to Marikana. “I tried to talk to him, told him he must come back, but he doesn’t want to listen to me,” he said. “He will listen to you. Please come.”
But Veronica could not come. She was working and had no money to get to Marikana. All she could do was warn Mambush: “If police officers are killed, this is a very, very dangerous situation.”
She says she was thinking he would get arrested and put in jail but that he seemed to have something worse in mind, telling her: “If anything happens to me, take care of everything, take care of my family, because I trust you.”
“Why? Where are you going?”
“If anything happens to me, be strong for my baby.”
Power of life and death
When Nelson Mandela took power in 1994, he was backed by the tripartite alliance of the ANC, trade union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party. What Mambush and his wife did not know was that his act of rebellion spat in the face of that alliance. Worse, members of the alliance were in contact with two of the most senior police officers in the country, who wielded not only political power but the power of life and death. There was a lot of activity behind the scenes.
On Monday evening – at about the same time as Mambush was talking to his wife – Albert Jamieson, the chief commercial officer of Lonmin, was writing to the minister of mines, Susan Shabangu, urging her to “bring the full might of the state to bear on the situation”. Shabangu had previously been deputy minister of safety and security. Notoriously, in April 2008, she had addressed a meeting of police officers with advice about dealing with offenders: “You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or your community. You must not worry about the regulations. That is my responsibility.”
A family photo of Mambush Noki.
On Tuesday August 14, as hundreds of strikers on the koppie were being given rites to keep them safe by the sangoma’s two sons, Lonmin executives met secretly with the provincial police chief, Mbombo. The meeting was recorded. The transcript shows Lonmin’s Mokwena making the bold declaration that the company’s priority was not negotiating or settling the strike but “getting people arrested”. Even bolder, the transcript shows that Mbombo stepped outside the conventional role of a police chief, encouraging the company to take a hard line.
Central to Mbombo’s thinking was the role of Cyril Ramaphosa – founder of the NUM, one of the founders of Cosatu, a man who had helped to write the new South African Constitution, one of the great heroes of the anti-apartheid movement. Like other ANC leaders, he had also been one of the beneficiaries of black economic empowerment.
By August 2012, through his company, Shanduka, Ramaphosa was reckoned to be worth some $700-million, with shares and directorships in numerous companies –including Lonmin. The former NUM leader’s company now owned 9% of Lonmin’s shares and he sat on its board as a nonexecutive director. National police commissioner Riah Phiyega had given Mbombo a strong hint that she had been coming under pressure from Lonmin representatives.
Mbombo explained to the Lonmin executives that Ramaphosa had been directly involved in expelling Julius Malema from the ANC. Now leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Malema had turned up at the platinum mining strike at Impala a few months earlier, and had taken the credit for making peace. If Malema turned up and did the same at Marikana, she said, it would look as though he was in charge of the mines. The situation, she said, “has a serious political connotation that we need to take into account”.
And there was another alliance player to consider. Mbombo advised the Lonmin executives that they must be careful not to favour Amcu over the NUM. Mbombo was worried, she said, that by settling their strike, the Impala management had looked like allies of Amcu, and that generally trouble was erupting because the mining companies wanted to replace the NUM with the new union.
Mbombo was uncompromising. She would give the strikers a chance to surrender their weapons, she told Lonmin executives, and if that did not work: “Then it is blood.” She went on to qualify that, saying: “I do not want a situation where 20 people are dead. This is not what we are here for.” Lonmin’s Mokwena appeared not to understand this. During the meeting, he discussed the resources that were available to police, adding: “The ones that impress me – the snipers.”
But he and the police chief agreed on the central point. “We need to act such that we kill this thing,” said Mbombo.
“Immediately,” replied Mokwena.
The following day, Wednesday August 15, Ramaphosa was busy. From his position on the board of Lonmin he could have argued for negotiation, or even for a better deal for the workers. Instead – as a chain of emails released to the Farlam inquiry disclosed – he argued for the police to move in. In a message to fellow directors, he wrote: “The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such … There needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”
Mambush and the 4 000 men who were then on the koppie knew nothing of this. Indeed, they were hopeful. They had formally elected Mambush, Xolani and three others to speak for them. From the safety of an armoured car, officers had agreed to talk, with Mambush standing on their front bumper and leaning towards the windscreen to make sure they understood the one thing they wanted – negotiation.
Mambush Noki was laid to rest at the family home in Mqanduli outside Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. (Paul Botes, M&G)
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa came to the koppie with a welcome message: a Lonmin executive had told him that if they would go back to work, the company would address their grievances. This looked like an agreement to negotiate. The strikers, who had not all joined Amcu, said they needed time to think and agreed that Mathunjwa should return to them at 9am the following morning. Mathunjwa told a senior police officer: “I believe that tomorrow will be a day of joy for everyone.”
That evening, in Johannesburg, the police’s national management forum was made aware of the Amcu leader’s initiative and its potential for peace. Yet, as an official minute recorded: “After deliberations, the meeting endorsed the proposal to disarm the protesting masses and further indicated that additional resources must be made available.” Mbombo’s phone records show that immediately after this meeting, she called two Lonmin executives. If police were ending the strike, Lonmin no longer had any reason to negotiate.
At Marikana that Wednesday night, more than 550 police officers gathered. Their leaders ordered 4 000 rounds of live ammunition and requested mortuary vans with berths for 16 bodies.
Early on the morning of Thursday August 16, Mathunjwa met Lonmin executives to sort out details of his plan for the strikers’ return to work. Unaware of the moves behind the scenes, he ran into a dead end: the company now refused to discuss anything. On the koppie, the strikers saw 9am pass with no sign of the Amcu leader.
At 9.30am, Mbombo held a press conference at which she said nothing about Mathunjwa’s plan and declared simply: “We are ending the strike today.” At 10.30am, still waiting for the Amcu leader, Mambush saw police rolling out barbed wire in front of the koppie and angrily called on them to take it away. At noon, Mathunjwa came to the koppie, told the strikers he was getting nowhere and then went back to try again.
Mambush tried to raise morale, talking to the strikers through a megaphone, his left hand beating the air, urging them to stay until Lonmin agreed to negotiate: “We are tired of being captive. We will decide who will remain here – either the police or us. You cannot have two bulls in the same kraal.” At 1.30pm, senior police met to discuss their plan to “disarm and disperse” the strikers. Ten minutes later, the Anglican bishop of Pretoria, Johannes Seoka, unexpectedly came to the koppie. Xolani says they asked him to send food and to urge Lonmin to speak to them. Xolani took his mobile phone number.
In the Lonmin office, Mathunjwa tried to speak to Mbombo and was told she had left the building. He offered Lonmin a compromise deal on the strikers’ wage demand, but representatives of the company declined to meet him.
At 3.30pm the Amcu leader came back to the koppie and spoke to the strikers with passion, at one point dropping to his knees: “Comrades, the life of a black person in Africa is so cheap … They will kill us, they will finish us and then they will replace us and continue to pay wages that cannot change black people’s lives. That would mean we were defeated and that the capitalists will win. But we have another way. We urge you – brothers, sisters, men – I am kneeling down – coming to you as nothing. Let us stop this bloodshed that the NUM allowed this employer to let flow. We do not want bloodshed!”
As he finished, hundreds of striking miners began to walk down from the koppie. Xolani was at the top and had been watching what looked like preparations for war: firearms being handed out, police vans with racks of coiled barbed wire, three helicopters circling. He called Mambush, who was in a small group at the foot of the koppie, on his phone to warn him.
One of those alongside him was Mzoxolo Magidiwana, known as Mzo, a burly locomotive driver aged 24. He knew Mambush from village football games in the Eastern Cape. He said that Mambush decided to lead the strikers away, saying: “Don’t run. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
Noki’s brother Mbulelo has a moment alone with the coffin before the burial. (Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters)
Mzo stayed close to Mambush as their group set off on the walk to the nearest shack settlement some 400m across the wasteland. Video of the scene shows hundreds of armed police officers moving around them. As the group approached the settlement, a police van raced across in front of them, uncoiling barbed wire, which blocked their path.
Mambush led them to the left around a small animal enclosure, made of bushes and blackthorn trees. But as they reached the far side, with the settlement in front of them, more police vans blocked their path. There was teargas. A water cannon opened fire. And then bullets, from behind and to their left.
Mzo remembered them running to their right through a small gap between the enclosure and the settlement – straight into yet more bullets, this time from in front of them. He felt three bullets pierce his left side – in the buttock, ribs and elbow. He fell, saw others fall, saw Mambush go down, felt a fourth bullet in his right thigh as he squirmed on the ground. He lay still on his back. He said his legs would not move. The firing had stopped. Then two or three police officers were standing over him.
They started asking him about the sangoma whose sons had performed the traditional rituals for the strikers – who he was, where he was – and when he told them that he didn’t know, he says they shot him again in the right side of his ribs. They asked more questions, and then, he says, one of the officers kicked his legs apart and they shot him twice in the groin. Through the dust he could see Mambush, lying face downwards, the green blanket tangled around one shoulder, his mouth slightly open, dust on his tongue.
From the top of the koppie, Xolani had watched the attack begin. At first he was going to follow Mambush. He remembered hearing the shooting, running into a miner called Liau, saying he could not see Mambush any more and that now they must go in the other direction, where there were a few smaller koppies to hide in. But Liau ignored him and ran towards the settlement. He was shot in the chest – one of 17 men who died there. Xolani went in the opposite direction, tearing off his jacket as he went, in case it identified him as a strike leader and a target.
For 15 minutes, there was no firing. Then two groups of officers closed in on one of the two smaller koppies. Several dozen strikers were now hiding among its rocks and bushes. Police opened an explosion of intense fire – 295 bullets, many aimed from the top of the koppie down at the shapes of men huddling below. Seventeen more men died there. Police in one of the helicopters were lobbing stun grenades at fleeing miners.
As Xolani zig-zagged through the chaos, he pulled out his phone and called the number of the bishop of Pretoria. “Father, they are killing us.”
High over a valley in the Eastern Cape in March this year, 20 of Mambush’s family and friends gathered in a rondavel. They had come to talk to me and Jim Nichol, a veteran campaigning lawyer from London, who travelled to Marikana after the shootings and volunteered to represent the families of the 34 dead men. They talked about Mambush’s funeral, there in the village where he grew up, about how many hundreds came down from Johannesburg in coaches, and how they were joined by the local clan chief and by ward councillors. Even the police had tried to send representatives, but the villagers told them they were not welcome.
Mzo was not there – he stayed in hospital for three months. But Mbulelo was, carrying the coffin, as was Xolani, who was still involved in the strike. It held out for five weeks after the killings before Lonmin finally agreed to negotiate and to pay 7% higher wages. Veronica also came, with Asive. Tucked into her bag, she carried a green blanket stained with blood, which she burned as a kind of sacrament.
Nichol told them the latest from the Farlam inquiry, which not only explored the strike and shooting but also uncovered evidence that, when the killing was done, police officers planted weapons on some of the dead bodies and then set about “reverse engineering” a false story to justify their actions. Counsel for the inquiry accused six senior officers of giving false testimony and found that the police had concealed video and minutes that contradicted their story and fabricated other material to try to support it.
Mambush’s family talked about life in the village and about what has changed since 1994. The ragged old rondavels, which housed the junior school nearby, were torn down and replaced with new brick buildings. The government delivered a new tar road to the village, a new bus to take children to the high school (in his day, Mambush had to walk the 5km there and back) and a new health clinic.
And yet, they said, things have not changed so much. They still live in the three rondavels that formed the heart of their village, most of them sleeping on the ground. They still have no electricity. They cook over wood fires and use paraffin lamps for light. They still have no mains water supply and still drink from the same stream as their cattle. For some reason, they said, the new bus stopped running after less than a year. And the health clinic is too far to reach.
Above all, they said, they still have no real income. Since 1994, they had become better off. They have social grants – modest but nonetheless important state funds for pensioners and the sick. And at school there is a feeding scheme – porridge at the beginning of the day and a proper meal at lunchtime. But the reality is that now, as for decades, they still have to rely on menfolk, like Mambush, to migrate north to work beneath the ground and send home enough to keep them alive. Somewhere along the line, the engine of progress has stalled.