Witness to the Lonmin shootings
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
By Siphiwe Sibeko
When people ask if I enjoy my job, I usually tell them: “Who wouldn’t – I always have a different view from my mobile office each day”.
But the view I had on August 16 of the deadliest South African police security operation since apartheid ended will be difficult, if not impossible, to erase from my mind.
I’d been sent to cover a tense stand-off between police and striking platinum miners at a dusty mine northwest of Johannesburg. Little did I know that I would witness a police operation that led to 34 miners shot dead and more than 70 injured.
Earlier in the day, four striking miners sitting on a large rock on a hill dubbed by local media as the “Hill of Horror” called me over. During our casual friendly talk, they joked about the impact the drawn-out strike has had on their sex lives.
One asked me to guess their ages. Pointing to his friends, he said: “Look at us, we all have beards, we look so old, you cannot say we were born in 1982”. They complained that despite the long hours they work every day, they do not earn enough to send back to their families at home, let alone feed themselves properly. They were not prepared to go back to work unless their demand for a salary increase was met.
A few minutes later the police announced over a loud speaker that photographers on the hill should leave. I sensed there was trouble brewing. I had a chat with the only other photographer near me on how to position ourselves, but that plan quickly fell apart as police inyalas (armored vehicles) started to move towards the hill where about 3,000 striking workers had stationed themselves. Police told us they were going to disarm the miners who were armed with homemade spears, sticks and machetes. Police said they also found six handguns.
Around a hundred miners formed a group, singing war songs and brandishing their weapons. Some went in the opposite direction, heeding a police call to disperse but others marched towards the police. At that time I could not see any other photographers except for one from a local newspaper who was behind me.
I positioned myself behind an armored police vehicle, thinking I was sheltered from the miners who were approaching the police. Then I heard a loud bang. I knew it was a stun grenade which was followed by a volley of teargas.
As I leaned forward trying to take pictures I saw a flash coming from the hand of one of the miners running away from the police. I ducked, throwing myself out of the way and thought I had been shot. Shocked, I couldn’t breathe because of the teargas.
I shouted to the other photographer that the miners had firearms and were shooting in our direction. Seconds later, I heard a roar of gunfire from the direction of the police. I managed to get pictures of the miners as they tried to duck away from the police fire.
I could not believe police used live ammunition until everything cooled down and the dust settled. I saw tens of bodies lying on the ground. One had a large head wound; it was clear he was dead.
The police shouted at us to move away, not immediately realizing what they have done. I kept on photographing what was happening and saw two injured miners trying to move. By then some police officers were searching and retrieving guns from the injured and dead miners. All media were immediately escorted away from the scene.
I realized later that during the shooting, I had gone on auto-pilot. I didn’t think about what was happening except to concentrate on taking pictures. The full extent of what happened only started to sink in when I was driving back to Johannesburg after filing my pictures. Some of those killed were fathers and breadwinners.
Two days before the Marikana shootings I photographed schoolchildren walking past the body of a man killed in earlier violence at the mine. He was the tenth victim in the mine dispute.
While I was framing the picture, I thought to myself that this was just not right, young children walking past a body as if was a normal every day event.
It was the first time a police force representing all the people of South Africa used such force against black South Africans.
It was something I could not even try and explain to my own children. I was very embarrassed to be a witness.