Primrose Sonti arrived just before lunch on Monday at the Ga-Rankuwa Magistrate’s Court, where 162 miners would later be released on warnings, after charges of murder and attempted murder against them were dropped. For 51-year-old Sonti, there was hope was that one of those being released would be her son.
“I haven’t seen my son at all, but I hope that he is fine. We heard that the police threatened them, that they beat the miners. There were miners there that were sick but they didn’t get their medication. There were miners there that had wounds and they were not cleaning them. But today in Marikana, people are happy. But only halfway happy because they don’t know who is going to be released, who is going to be left here,” said Sonti.
“But we can just have a hope that they will leave from here. That on Thursday everyone will be home and free. My son’s name is Mishack Mzilikazi and he is a miner from Lonmin. He is a winch driver at the mine, and has worked there for six years. My son went there to the mountain every day during the protest, even on the day of the 16th when that thing happened. He went to the mountain as usual. He just said to me: ‘I am going, Mama. I am going.’ It was early in the morning. So past seven, and that was the last day that I saw him.
“We just heard from the TVs that they are going to be released, and then there was this other lawyer who phoned us,” she added, beaming at the prospect of being reunited with her son again, after what had been 19 agonising days of separation. For the first week after the Marikana massacre on 16 August 2012, when police shot dead 34 miners and wounded a further 78, Sonti didn’t know whether her son was dead or alive.
“When I heard about the shooting I was crying, I was just crying,” she told Daily Maverick. “I went to the hospital but he wasn’t there. I sent someone to the mortuary at Phokeng in Rustenburg, because I was too scared to go there, but they didn’t see him at all. Luckily on Wednesday (22 August) I got news that he is alive, and that he is at Phokeng prison. His friend told us, it took a whole week before we knew what happened to him. You know I was crying really. I thought he was dead. I thought his body was lying at that mountain or somewhere I couldn’t find it, that maybe he was rotting there somewhere and I just didn’t know.
“I have been crying so very much,” Sonti said as she sat and waited for news about when the Marikana miners were to arrive for court, on the day that would see most of them released.
As it turned out, it was a long wait. The miners were initially due to appear in court at 13h00, but this turned to 14h00 and then became 15h00. The miners finally arrived under heavy police guard at 16h50. But not all of them – they were being brought in batches for the legal proceedings that would realise their freedom.
The delay in getting the miners to court was caused by the paperwork. Lists of the names and particulars of all the 162 miners whose addresses had been verified, had to be drawn up. Requisition forms for their release needed to be faxed through to the prisons where they were being held. The police then needed to check these off against their lists, and arrangements needed to be made to gather the miners into groups and bring them to court. This took the better part of Monday.
Just before five in the afternoon, the sound of police sirens alerted relatives and the huge gaggle of local and international media present that the miners were nearing the court building. The back of the court was cleared, and a yellow tape cordoned off an area so the press couldn’t get too close to the miners. A heavy police presence was visible near the court where the miners would arrive, as well as around the courts and at the front gates of the court complex.
The boys in blue were decked out in bulletproof vests, padded gear, pepper-spray and handguns, but a couple carried what looked like shotgun cartridges across their chests. At least one had a semi-automatic weapon. The police mood was fairly tense throughout the day, and when the first batch of miners arrived, the law enforcers had their hands full trying to keep the media in check as the competition for live footage and photos began.
Once the first lot of some fifty miners were inside the court, the Public Prosecutor, Nigel Carpenter, reiterated that the state was dropping the charges of murder and attempted murder against the miners. However, Carpenter asked the state to release the miners on the proviso that they’d be warned not to contravene the Public Violence Act, the Gatherings Act, the Dangerous Weapons Act, or the Firearms Control Act; and further be given notice not to interfere with any eyewitnesses, or any other aspect of the investigation.
Carpenter stated that the miners would still be charged with public violence, and would need to be in court in February 2013 when the case resumed after investigations and the Judicial Commission of Enquiry had been finalised. Magistrate Esau Bodigelo rubber-stamped the warning, but before the miners were released, one of their lawyers, Dali Mpofu, put it on record that the legal team wanted all the charges dropped. He said, however, that he would not contest this, but merely wanted the court to note it so that it could be addressed when the trial resumed next year.
The miners, their lawyers, the public prosecutor and his team, as well as the judge, sat in a court that was sealed off from the media. The media had to watch proceedings on two television screens in an adjacent court room. The screens occasionally flickered and gave up the ghost before coming to life again.
Outside, Sonti was fretting because she had yet to see her son on one of the screens. “I haven’t seen him,” she said. “I am getting so worried now.” Earlier she talked about the mood at Marikana, which she said was optimistic for now. But Sonti said many families were unsure of their future. “Do you know now we are unconscious, we are disappointed, we don’t know what is the right thing we must do. We don’t know. But the main problem is the management of that mine is totally wrong. I say so because it was better to fire those men, not to kill them. To kill them is bad,” Sonti told Daily Maverick.
“And the families that have lost breadwinners, we don’t know if the mine can help them. They say nothing. There is silence from the mine management. They don’t say anything about what they can do. It is just silence.” Sonti added that a fear for many of the families was whether their breadwinners would come back to jobs. “The work is so very scarce, and they can’t just fire these men who are coming back. To fire them will be unfair,” she told us.
“I think the government must take the mines. They must own the mines. These people who own the mines they are too cruel. The living conditions in Marikana are too bad. We stay in the shacks. We don’t have toilets. We don’t have enough water. We don’t have electricity. And even that money they earn it is not enough for their families. My son has two children and a girlfriend,” Sonti said.
Standing nearby Sonti was Clement Poshaeo, who was hoping to reunite with his brother Vincent Poshaeo, 52, arrested on Thursday 16 August after the massacre. “We didn’t hear from him for a long time. From the first time they took the miners we didn’t hear from him, and we didn’t know what happened. That is why we have come here, because we didn’t see him yet and we wish to see him now. He loves the football club, and he loves to watch soccer on television. He came to South Africa from Lesotho to work at the mine seven years ago. He has five children that live back home in Lesotho,” said Poshaeo. “I know that he was paid R4,000. I don’t know if he was angry about this, but it is not a lot of money. He has children to look after. That isn’t enough money to support his children,” he added.
Poshaeo had hardly finished his sentence when there was a flurry as Godfrey Gouwe of Friends of the Youth League tried to burst into the courtroom next door, where the miners had heard they were free to go, but that the police would be transporting them back to the mine. The public prosecutor said this was an unusual arrangement, but it was being done as a ‘special service’ for the miners.
Gouwe was livid because Friends of the Youth League had arranged transport to take their “brothers” back home. “The men are free. The charges are dropped. I am going into the court to demand their release, they can’t be held any longer.” But just as Gouwe pushed open the door in a grand gesture, he bumped up against a massive, burly, blond policeman with a reddened face, twice his size. He was one of the law enforcement officers with what appeared to be shotgun cartridges slung across his chest.
There was a stand-off, and Gouwe became decidedly less animated as the policeman became increasingly agitated. Gouwe was hustled out by the boys in blue. “As Friends of the Youth League, we have gotten transport for the miners so that they can go home very safe. I wanted to ensure that the miners got the instruction that we have already arranged the transport. As our fellow brothers we feel that we must give them the moral support. The police mustn’t take them home. We will take them home.” Gouwe was called back into the courtroom, and within minutes there was a sound of applause and the miners burst out of the building, massive smiles on their faces. Fists in the air, and back slapping, shaking of hands; the miners started singing.
Journalists chased after them as the Friends of the Youth League hustled them out to where the taxis were waiting. Back near the courtroom Sonti was in tears. Her son wasn’t in the first group. She was inconsolable. Daily Maverick phoned Sonti a few hours later at 21h30, and she was still at Ga-Rankuwe waiting for her son. She had stopped crying and was in better spirits. “If he is not in this third group then I know he will come home on Thursday. We must hope. We can’t stop hoping, nê?”
No, Sonti, we can’t stop hoping. That your son gets home. That justice is served to all. We can’t stop hoping, nê?
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.