Much has changed in South Africa since apartheid’s 1994 abolishment, but a new book about a horrific massacre in 2012 reveals what awful things have stayed the same. It also reveals that many Westerners are oblivious to modern South African atrocities.
“Murder at Small Koppie: the Real Story of South Africa’s Marikana Massacre” by Greg Marinovich relates his investigation into the massacre of 34 platinum miners and the wounding of 78 others.
Marinovich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, pulls no punches in telling what led up to the massacre and details of the tragedy itself. The story is not only about the greed of the mine’s owners, but also about social justice for the platinum miners.
During the days leading up to the massacre, strikers allowed Marinovich, a white South African, total access to the scene. Although Marinovich does not see the actual killings, he is one of the first journalists on the site the day after.
Marinovich examines forensic evidence and discovers a state cover-up about whether the killings were planned. When he writes about the hill Small Koppie, where the miners choose to make a stand, it is presented as more than just high ground, but rather a holy place for the miners who work underground.
Marinovich writes, “When the setting sun caused the rock to turn blood red it indeed seemed to be a site of enchanted potency.” This is contrasted to where the men work, deep below ground in a helllike atmosphere for a pittance to supply the world’s platinum.
The author is at his best when he takes the reader below ground with the miners, as they descend into a living hell of mud, slime and noise. Interestingly, the miners are given two sets of pure white overalls to wear underground. But since the overalls are expected to glitter when they start work the next day, they immediately strip them off when they are underground. At night they return to a shanty-like existence.
Marinovich describes the workers as powerless and disposable, and when that happens the workers have nothing left to lose.
Marinovich tells a straightforward, but nevertheless dramatic tale. He separates fact from fiction, such as when he dispels the notion that the miner’s leader was alive after the massacre and then killed by the police while in custody, effectively making him a martyr for the cause. Good story, but not true.
The author, a college dropout, considers himself a documentary photographer and is now teaching visual journalism at both Harvard and Boston College.
“I dropped out because I got caught up in politics,” Marinovich said. Referring to himself as an ethno-graphic, anthropology storyteller, Marinovich got his start in journalism by traveling to the all-black areas of South Africa.
“People quiz you and either they trust you or they don’t. They can see what color your spirit is,” Marinovich said.
The day of the massacre, Marinovich had left the site when he got word that the police were shooting live rounds.
“It was too late to go back,” he said. Returning the next day, he found the police using Styrofoam coffee cups to mark the site of the killings and the trajectory of the bullets. Estimates of 700 rounds being fired were made during a 300-day inquiry into the killings from which no police were found guilty of misdeeds.
While on the site his first goal was to find eye witnesses to the shootings, but initially none were coming forward. He later found out all the witnesses had been rounded up and arrested on murder charges.
Marinovich persisted and finally found an eyewitness who countered the duplicity of the police, the politicians and the mining company.
From the start, press conferences were held depicting one location for the shootings, but Marinovich discovered that less than a 15-minute walk away was another site where 17 of the miners were killed in cold blood.
“It was obvious a lot of blood had been spilled at the site. Cops were hunting the miners down and killing them in their hiding places,” he said.
Marinovich reported the second narrative on how the police reacted at the online site Daily Maverick. He is highly critical of mainstream press for not reporting what actually happened at the massacre.
“It is not simple stuff and very few have the resources to dig deep,” he said. He also cites pack journalism as a fault of coverage and how the web has become a “great boon to democracy of people’s voices.”
However, Marinovich believes we are living in the golden age of documentary and that we are uncensored in story-telling.
“Just don’t expect to make a living doing it,” he said.
Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill led the New Journalism movement in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s. Their counterpart, Joan Didion, set the standard on the West Coast with her slim 1968 volume, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Members of the City Pulse Book Club, which is open to all, will tackle it at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at Schuler Books & Music in the Meridian Mall. The club, which meets monthly, is spending the entire year reading books about 1968 or published that year. This book is available at Schuler.
Marinovich Author Appearances Wednesday, April 18 Mosaic: Multicultural Unity
Center 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. 49 Abbot Road, East Lansing Free Open to public Thursday, April 19 MSU International Center 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. 427 N. Shaw Lane, East Lansing Free Open to public