JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - It was like a scene from the darkest days of apartheid: South African police opening fire with live ammunition, killing 34 striking black miners demanding a “living wage” from an international firm rich in capital.
But the killings outside of the Marikana mine of platinum company Lonmin happened on August 16, 2012, almost two decades after Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” exchanged white-minority rule for multi-racial democracy.
A new documentary “Miners Shot Down”, by South African filmmaker Rehad Desai, explores the events leading up to what has been dubbed “the Marikana Massacre”.
The film has a special resonance at the moment because most of the country’s platinum miners have been on strike for a “living wage” of 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month for the past 15 weeks and a general election will be held on Wednesday.
“The key thing here really is that 12,500 was the formal demand,” Desai told Reuters at a Johannesburg screening last Thursday, which was the Workers’ Day public holiday in South Africa.
“But what really stuck in the throat of these mine workers was (having) their dignity stripped off them because their bosses weren’t prepared to talk to them as human beings.
“I think we need to know and remember, now and for the years to come and for our children, what happened at Marikana.”
The film draws on interviews with survivors and uses footage including a video recording of the shootings by Reuters cameraman Dinky Mkhize.
Desai’s documentary begins a week before the killings, after an illegal strike erupted at Lonmin’s operations, generating a spiral of violence.
South Africa’s platinum belt was in the grip of a vicious and still unfinished turf war between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the once unrivalled National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
The film shows workers trying to speak to mine managers and being rebuffed as the violence, which included the murder of police officers and security guards, escalates.
“The life of a black person is so cheap in South Africa, they will kill us,” AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa, who is leading the current mining strike, says in archival footage recorded hours before the slayings.
While relative pay and conditions have improved since the end of apartheid, many black miners still feel they have not benefited fairly from the nation’s mineral wealth for the hard and often dangerous work they do underground.
Lonmin’s chief executive Ben Magara apologised to the families of the slain Marikana miners last year at an event marking its first anniversary.
Desai said his sense that justice has not been done for the miners, as a commission of inquiry into the incident drags on, was his motivation for making the 80-minute film.
“I couldn’t ignore it, it was much too big, much too dramatic and upsetting for me,” he said.
“I had to do something for these miners. I just felt that I had to give them a voice. If authority strikes in such a brutal fashion, artists have to pick a side and indicate which side they’re on,” he said.
The film has had local and international screenings already, including at the Paris Human Rights International Film Festival and the One World Film Festival in Prague.
Desai’s other films have included “Born into Struggle”, which looked at the toll that his father’s anti-apartheid activism in exile from South Africa took on the family.
Editing by Ed Stoddard, Michael Roddy and Ruth Pitchford