The World Sees Us as Boys and Savages

By Gillian Schutte · 6 Nov 2012

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Picture: Gillian Schutte
Picture: Gillian Schutte

I met Marikana community member, mineworker and activist, Tsepo M, at a coffee shop in Melville. He had some business to attend to in Johannesburg and a colleague set up the meeting for me to discuss the current situation in Marikana.

A man in his late 50’s, Tsepo’s face bears the markings of years of hard work and struggle.

He tells me that he has been attending the Farlam Commission – an intense situation, which is infused with painful moments and trauma. In addition to the struggles of the community members and witnesses in getting to the commission, many are the victims of the psychological and physical warfare being waged on the participants by the police. 

He describes one such incident when he and a group of about 40 residents were coming back home from the commission. When they reached their village they were ambushed by a group of armed policemen who forced them all to lie on the ground. What followed after was what seemed like an hour of taunting and abuse as policemen threatened them by holding guns to their heads and whispering in their ears that they would end up like those massacred in September. They were told not to look at the faces of the police and kicked and slapped. Their identity books were checked and their names recorded.  The message was clear – they were being watched – they were being tailed and no one is safe in Marikana.

Tsepo suggested to the group who were with him when this happened that they go to the police station to report – but almost all said they were too terrified to do this.

“It is happening intermittently,” He says.  “We never really know when they will pounce on us.”

This is an ongoing war on the people of Marikana – to weaken their resolve. “It is terrifying, ” Tsepo tells me. “We are living as if we are back in the days of apartheid – constant fear. Women are terrified. They do not escape the intimidation, physical and emotional, dished out by the police. To us it is clear that they work on behalf of the capitalists.”

I ask him if he is able to verify the rumours that women were being raped by the police in Marikana. He answers that this is the most difficult thing to verify because women are mostly way too afraid to speak out. He did hear these stories and one woman who spoke of it eventually fled the village. “It is the whole matter of the community shame. Once you have been raped the community will treat you differently. How will they look at your husband? Even those women whose husbands were shot will not talk about it if they were raped.”

“Women have a very hard time of it in communities like ours. They are vulnerable to rape and exploitation. There are cases of sexual contracts between men and unemployed women and sometimes daughters are sold for sex. It is sheer economics and poverty that drive women this far. Also the rates of literacy are very low on this mine so women have few options for work. Those who go underground also become vulnerable to abuse. You know and this all leads to unsafe sex and a high prevalence of HIV.”

Tsepo tells me that the literacy rates on mines are low. “This is because of the history of migrant labour. If you bring in men from other provinces you do not have their families to look after so it suits the mine owners to not employ from the local area. They just have never bothered to change anything since then. It is clear that families live around the mine but they still have not built a crèche or a school. The one local school in Mooi Nooi is really for those in supervisory positions and our kids do not get to go there. It is a real procedure to get into the school and it depends on who you know.”

I ask Tsepo about the experience of living with no services. His face darkens. He tells me that there are some services at the hostels but that is all. There are about five toilets to every eighty men. The toilets are door-less. I enquire as to who removed the doors and he tells me that there were never any doors. “It cuts costs to have no doors – but for us it tells us that they think we are not the same as white people – that we do not need privacy like them.”

I feel my heart shrink. There are times when I hate my own kind and what they have done to the indigenous people of South Africa. I want to know from Tsepo what it is like to know that there is so little value placed on the life of a black worker in South Africa. He looks me in the eye and describes the pain. “It hurts you know. Really it hurts. It is like they think we have no ambitions – that we accept and deserve to live like dogs…or maybe they think we do not notice or mind that fact that we live in shacks. That is not true – we have needs like any other human. We want a better life for our children. We want to live a decent life of our own. We want toilets with doors, access to water and housing.”

“As it is we can only fetch water at midnight because the mine is using the water up until then and we have no pressure. You will see little children walking to taps far away from their homes to collect water at this time. Here it seems that human rights do not apply.”

I tell him that if I were him I would see the white man as the main enemy – yet I never heard the terms “white” in any of the struggle songs sang during the strike.

“No, they were there – we refer to them as the employers and we all know who the employers are.”

I ask how the community feels about Cyril Rhamaposa’s betrayal of them. “We are very disappointed that he has never even bothered to interact with us. When he was given shares he should have come to us and asked what we needed. He could have put plans and pressure in place to help us with education and infrastructure. But he did not. Instead he gave the order to deal with us like animals going to the slaughter.”

Tsepo and other workers from mines are currently organizing into worker support committees. “This is what will create solidarity with all workers around South African mines and give us autonomy. You know, we took it for a long time but the anger was building and building inside us. That is why the strikes happened. We are still angry and we will never accept this treatment again. It is the workers who will stand up for their own rights now through our autonomous structures. We are human beings and we demand to be treated as such. I know that the world sees us as boys when it suits them and as savage men when we stand up for our rights. We are human beings. We are fathers. We are men.”

**The name of the interviewee has been changed to protect his identity for fear of further police intimidation.

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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6 Nov

Powerful Stuff

Thanks Gillian. This is powerful stuff. What has been lacking in much of the discourse thus far are the voices of the miners. We need a lot more of this sort of reporting.

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Barry Saayman
6 Nov

Agree that Nobody Is a Perpetual Victim/Villain

"We are still angry and we will never accept this treatment again. It is the workers who will stand up for their own rights now through our autonomous structures. We are human beings and we demand to be treated as such. I know that the world sees us as boys when it suits them and as savage men when we stand up for our rights. We are human beings. We are fathers. We are men."

Labour legislation should be amended to accommodate the reasonable aspirations of the, according to Mr Patrick Craven of COSATU, "super-exploited workers" of South Africa.

I think that 50% plus one of the a work-force should be given the legal power to order, if necessary and after prescribed minimum requirements were met, through e.g. the CCMA, the temporarily closure of non-essential operations/services at a particular workplace, mine, factory, office or shop until a mutually acceptable settlement between the parties has been concluded.

This will reduce the dehumanization of workers that now intimidate others or resort to violence to make them heard. This culture is counter-productive. It suits only the communist drivers of the racist, Stalinist inspired and seditious NDR that thrive on violence and anarchy.

Such an arrangement will protect co-workers, duty-bound police officers, property and the public at large.

We cannot afford another Lonmin massacre. Neither can we afford that the image of nor the trust in South Africa's workforce tainted further by violent strikes and serious crimes such as murder.

"I feel my heart shrink. There are times when I hate my own kind and what they have done to the indigenous people of South Africa."

Hate is a strong emotion and will not solve anything - healthy sustainable progress is almost always process driven.

Don't teach people that they are victims and you are in the wrong if you need to villainize evil employer/politicians or fellow South Africans in a generalized fashion to sustain your construct of reality.

All these people (you own kind as you say) are most surely not evil nor are they employers or capitalists. Many are actually also (exploited?) members of the working class.

The simpleminded roles that the perpetual victims and all the short-sighted rescuers (especially journalists, some clerics and NGO's) of South African society play in terms of the Karpman Triangle are equally destructive.

The conditions of employment, access to health services, better education for children and adults as well as the quality of the general living conditions of mine workers and their families will clearly have to be upgraded to a much higher standard even if it is done only in the interest of the children involved.

If this will dramatically increases the cost of extraction or doing business in SA, so be it.

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9 Nov


"We are human beings and we demand to be treated as such. I know that the world sees us as boys when it suits them and as savage men when we stand up for our rights. We are human beings. We are fathers. We are men."

Absolutely! It is a sad fact that the human propensity to categorise others into a less than human category is naturally exacerbated if the others are poorer than ourselves. If we want a healthy society we have no option but to work for greater income equality.

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10 Nov

Living In Utopia

A recent Rapport story highlighted the income disparity and living standard of an average white male and his black counterpart and described the former "living in utopia" because it's unprecedented even in Europe today. The average white male earns R365 000 compared to his black counterpart who earns R60 000 and is exposed to only 5% unemployment. This income disparity was actively forged by the white male through violence and dispossession that started during colonization and then Apartheid. The despicable behaviour of men like Cyril Ramaphosa and the BEE brigade is the corruptive nature of such power. In this story the writer shows her compassion and empathy for the condition of the Marikana workers and rightly denounces what the white male has caused in this country. Through her words and humanity the writer is not constructing a version of reality or seeking to glorify victimhood but is trying to make sense of the inhumanity of Marikana. Because Marikana is not an aberration of our socio-politico landscape, but the symptom of a deep schism in our South African society.

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