What it was like working on the film Miners Shot Down…
(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a weekly regional newspaper in the Western Cape province in South Africa, on Sunday, 11 May 2014)
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
I’m doing a lot of thinking right now.
Today is the national elections day and I still need to vote, but also, there’s this deadline. I have to write a personal account of having worked on the film Miners Shot Down for this newspaper, and I’m just not finding a suitable way of starting this piece while knowing I need to get to a voting station.
I thought about starting it like this: Shortly before sunset, walking across the Marikana field where Lonmin mineworkers were killed felt weird.
Or like this: With so much at stake, and a commission of enquiry underway, it was not that easy to make a film detailing what happened when police officers murdered mineworkers.
But I keep coming back to the elections and the shadow Marikana casts over our freedom in South Africa and our democracy.
All of that takes me back to October 2012. I was travelling with colleague Jeanne Hefez through the North West mining towns of Marikana, Rustenburg and Mooinooi, documenting the living conditions of mineworkers for Amandla magazine.
We would see Desai in the area from time to time. We also ran into Bang Bang Club photographers Greg Marinovich and one-legged Joao da Silva, still chasing conflict with their cameras. And that set off the next part of my involvement in the attempt to document and make sense of what happened at Marikana.
At one level what happened is well known: on 16 August 2012, the South African Police Service opened fire on Lonmin mineworkers who were demanding a wage across the board of R12,500 a month.
In the ensuing period, mines such as Lonmin and others in the North West province became a free-for-all breeding ground for chaos.
These are the brute facts. But in themselves they tell us very little about the human dimension of the tragedy, and we, as journalists, were trying to redress that balance to get under the skin of the news.
In the first place we sought access to the mining grounds. Mineworkers showed us their dormitories. Mothers like Laura Mokhutle-Flepu showed us her one-bedroom house where she, her mineworker son and the rest of the family live.
We went into townships that had sprung up around the mines, housing cheap labour exploited for the benefit of multi-national industries.
The living conditions of mineworkers have long been contentious, and with the Marikana killings and salary protests, they came again into focus and the responsibilities of mining companies into question.
Desai called me a few months later: “Can you move to Johannesburg to work on my film?” And so my role as production manager and researcher on his award winning film Miners Shot Down began.
The idea was to pack in as many interviews into February. A shooting schedule went up on a white board at Desai’s Uhuru Productions office in Kensington.
Working with me as a production assistant was Philane Brown and as a researcher, Sarraounia Samuels. It was time to reconnect with some of the people that I’d met on my trip to mining towns and in Johannesburg a few months earlier.
We called on Marinovich, who appears in the film, to bear witness to events. Getting comment from public officials did not happen: police minister Nathi Mthethwa, police commissioner Riyah Piyega and others refused to grant interviews on the grounds that the Marikana commission was underway. It was all, conveniently sub judice.
Cyril Ramaphosa, leading ANC figure with Lonmin mine interests, was available after a number of reschedules.
Even Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema was available. The phone call setting up the interview was classic Malema.
“We would like you to be in the movie,” I said.
“But me, I’m not an actor,” retorted Malema.
I explained again: “It’s a documentary film. We would like you to be yourself in the film.”
“Here,” he said irritated. “Speak to Floyd Shivambu.”
It was a month of pushing through tons of research and interviews. Desai was a dream director to work with. If one interview fell through, I’d made sure there was something else to film.
Well, Desai did stress that film production costs money and the hired crew would still charge for the day even if our interviewees cancelled. So there had to be back up plans.
During our status update meetings, we would talk about characters that could or should still be interviewed for the film. This led us into reflecting on what really happened and what it really means.
Desai revealed his activist side. This is where we differ: I’d prefer to remain just a storyteller, but Desai from the onset was running a campaign that would support mineworkers. His film was an expression of an activism that continues to find expression on his website.
His views were cogently expressed after he won two film festival awards in March. Desai received The Václav Havel Jury Award in Prague and the Camera Justitia Award in The Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, the jury “praised the film for its conceptually clever and very accessible approach, reporting on how the State – supported by a foreign multinational that has a stake in the matter – abruptly wields intense and deadly violence to put a stop to a situation that has become inconvenient”.
In response Desai described his film as a “tribute to the courage and resilience of people who used their fundamental rights to stand up for themselves, and who had to see their intransigence answered with lethal force”.
He added: “Winning the Camera Justitia Award will mean a lot to the tens of widows and to the hundreds of miners who still face charges. It is critically important for the campaign for justice that those charges are dropped, that the police are prosecuted.”
The persecution of mineworkers simply should not have happened. It is painful as a South African, to witness the terrible living conditions of mineworkers who work so hard for so little monetary gain. And that they could be slaughtered for asking to be treated fairly is nothing short of disgusting.
It angers me that this mining system continues to exploit poor South Africans to enrich chief executives benefiting from this inhumanity. That is, bluntly put, how I’ve come to understand this affair.
So we pushed through production and afterwards I was back in Cape Town.
Some months later Desai showed us a rough cut of the film at a small gathering of activists, journalists and a few other interested individuals. We weren’t in contact much after that and I soon travelled to Brazil to work on my own documentary film, Imagina na Copa, which documents protests against the upcoming Fifa Soccer World Cup. Marikana was by then somewhat off my radar.
So post-Brazil and back in Cape Town, I was at the official launch of Miners Shot Down at the Cape Town International Convention, before an audience of radical lawyers, activists, politicians and the general public. The screening hall was packed.
I’d previously viewed, in the production phases, the footage Desai obtained, via the Marikana commission and TV broadcasters, police opening fire on mineworkers. But watching it with an audience when the film finally screened was surreal.
Nobody in the hall could believe that so much evidence of the police killing existed. Foreign lawyers wondered aloud: “Why are you having a commission? You should arrest these police officers”.
It is still shocking to see that footage. One can’t believe that it happened. The uniformed public servants – from the police service and not the police force – killed mine workers, who should have had the right to protest.
The film is traveling. It has, like all films, gained a life of its own. I’m in Johannesburg this month to show my own film at various venues. Like Desai, I too want to make work that brings about public consciousness.
But first, for now, I need to get to a voting station and participate in democracy.