In JOHANNESBURG, the events which mark the basis of the character, September's metaphysical discomfort and extreme physical injury is the violent end to a miners' strike at a fictional location called Verloren (in Afrikaans this means lost, all is lost, I am lost) While the events as described by September are fictional, they were inspired by the true life events which unfolded at Marikana exactly 5 years ago today, 16 August.
The massacre which followed days of wildcat strikes at the mine are considered a watershed in post-Apartheid South Africa and it has been described as the most lethal use of force of the state against civilians since the Apartheid regime's brutal suppression of students and others in the 1960's, the Sharpeville Massacre in particular has been used as a point of comparison.
At Marikana police used lethal force killing 34 citizens. The official figures of those injures is 78.
No one at the Lonmin (who own the mine), the police or any government minister has ever been called to account for the events at Marikana. There have been allegations that the deputy president Cyril Rhamaphosa has blood on his hands, the suggestion being that he is on the board of Lonmin and was the only one who would have the authority to give police orders to suppress the strike with such lethal aggression. No enquiry has yet exposed anything and the story has for the most part been swept away apart from the extraordinary effort of those who fight to keep it in the media and on the minds of politicians whether through the courts, social media or pressure groups, including the widows of those killed.
In the wake of the Marikana Massacre it became impossible to speak of South Africa in terms of the hyperbolic praise of the Mandela era; the Miracle Nation, the Rainbow Nation. Marikana changed not only the lives of those involved but also the very language South Africans were able to use to describe their nation and their nascent democracy.
September, one of the major characters of JOHANNESBURG and, I would argue, the heart of the novel, finds himself caught up in a protest at a mine where he has been working as a cook. Here is an extract of September's (fictional) experience at Verloren:
The sun was gathering flame. September was tired. He wanted relief. He placed his board in front of him so that its message obscured his face. Above him he heard the familiar voop voop voop of a helicopter. He looked up, straight into the sun. He could hear the blades cutting through the sky, just as they had at the mine on that dark day at Verloren when the police chopper had flown over again and again. It had flown lower and then lower again to scatter their number. But the strike leaders and called out, hold fast, hold fast, they will not scatter us to the wind.
The leaders were right. They could not be scattered, so angry were their hearts. They had not, he remembered, begun their five day strike with vengeful hearts. Rather, to begin, the miners had come in peace and those comrades who had shown their fury, who had threatened to become ungovernable, had been quickly disciplined by the strike leaders. Focus and discipline. That was what they had all been told; we can give the bosses no excuse to abandon negotiations, no excuse to divide us.
What was more the strikers knew they were protected. Their safety had been arranged with the muti man. He had leaned on his powers and spells to summon good favour with all the ancestors. He had given each of them special charms and amulets to wear. Such was their faith, that they had continued to go to this medicine man every night since the strike began, to reinforce the charm.
But, during the days, the helicopters, great and thundering, had continued to accompany them, flying lower and lower. The miners held their course. They would not disperse, they would not be cowed until negotiations meant a pay rise had been won.
Each evening the sun would dip below the mine dumps. The dust and smoke from the townships hung low over the horizon and the sky would bleed pure crimson from its heart. Then, when the sky was already red, the in helicopters (still swooping, voop voop voop) were given muscle by the arrival of armoured police vans. One and another and another came, until they made a long wall. And out of them came the uniformed men in their blue shirts and their big black boots.
Before 1994, September remembered, these boots were filled by apartheid-white feet.
Even now, as he sat outside the Diamond, September curled in on himself to remember what happened next at Verloren.
He, being small, was behind a few lines of taller men. They called out their protest, carrying as their shields nothing but the muti man’s protection. Some, Basotho men had their blanket tied at their shoulder to drape across their front. That was all. The police gave instructions to disperse, ‘Stand down, stand down.’
‘No,’ came the defiant reply, ‘You once were comrades. You should stand with us, support your black brothers against the mine. You are traitors now.’
The sun dipped further. The day would soon be done.
Then, inexplicably, (for these were still the rainbow days) a hurtle. A boom. A flare. Flash bombs, tear gas.
A screaming retreat, the miners caught off guard, more and more the deep thud of canisters being launched. As he ran, all September had thought was, I must not fall in this rush of men, I am too small and too bent. If I fall, I will get hurt. I must not fall.
Oh, but he could not know, never imagine what worse was to come.
For September, even remembering it all, raised in him a terrible sorrow which had become so impenetrable and painful that he knew that if he was ever asked to write it down, he would lack the correct alphabet to describe all the monstrous, shameful things.
The miners, the leaders in the front, the large and the brave, began calling:
‘No, we will not be cowed but their stupid bombs. They are nothing but tears and smoke. We are made from greater things.’
The miners turned back to face to the police vans. September was shaking, his heart in his head, his breath short, eyes burning, full of dust and gas.
The police, the miners, edging closer, eyes locked, loaded. Both saying, ‘We will not blink first.’
The chopper, voop voop voop overhead, dust and blades, the chaos of gas and grit, lower and lower.
Then, an instruction, and still, still, no one will say where from. No one will say whose voice was heard but the black boots and the blue shirts were emboldened yet more. One more surge from the miners, through the down-draft of the blades, fists raised and voices too. Mayibuye! iAfrica!
No more than a second, no more than a blink.
The police let loose their guns. Casings clacked and flew. Bullets. Hot. Hot and alive, rent all through flesh, alive, the walls of hearts, alive, mother’s sons.
September saw his comrades fall. Saw them try to claw through the dust. Through the dust and the gravel, crying out. And he saw them fall again.
September was crawling, (Save yourselves Comrades! Stay low, stay low!) He could not breathe. Someone cried out, ‘Help me, Nkosi, oh God, please help me,’ but he could not say who.
And then (oh my father, my mother) September fell too. A bullet shaving off the side of his face (he fell) so that he bled, in the way that skulls do, fast and crimson red. He tried to stagger up with half of his sight and all of his slaughtering pain.
So silent the dust. So easy to fall. A moment passed, another.
So easy to fall.
He thought he might see God. But no.
‘Stay down or I’ll kill you, bru,’ he heard a man's voice.
The gravel next to September's pulsing cheek turn red then black. Standing over him, the stride of a policeman’s boot.
‘Traitor,’ said September or perhaps he only thought it.
Here I lie. My face in the dust. A boot on my hump.
He drifted here and there, lifting out of his body (which made it all bearable) and then, terribly falling back into himself, calling ‘Help me, Nkosi, oh father, oh God.’
September lay, in the middle of all of that, the Verloren hill behind him. Its single boulder mocked his own, cowering back. And with every last capillary firing and fighting and raging against the creeping dark he feltand unfamiliar cold gathering around his fingers, his feet.
Verloren. Nkosi. I am lost.
Later, and he could not say when, he woke, trying to remember his identity number for the police for he could still hear helicopters, gun fire. Later still again, when he was being carried by his comrades so that his clothing tore, he could see through different helicopters. They were white, a big red cross on the side.
All through the longest nights was the voop voop voop from the sky and sometimes the lights of the police choppers as they illuminated the mine hospital and the long flat hostels and surrounding shacks.
When he was eventually allowed to go home with Duduzile (she had wept to see him, held his hands) and his face was patched with gauze, the helicopters were still there, but now with ‘press’ and ‘news’ written on the side.
September tried not to remember that day and yet it was the remembering – the sorrow and anger that would instead rise up in him where once he fell – that fuelled his purpose and allowed him to live each day.
He had to remember Verloren if he was to walk from his garden (the vines so rich and with new leaves and just that week, flowers too) across the island. Then, further along the streets, past the Residence and the deep shaded avenues to the front of the Diamond. And he did this, daily.
When a man has no shelter, his anger must become his home.
Still, while he was forced to occupy these darker precincts, he could, at least some of the time, still imagine himself lying flat on the mountain tops, sweet grass, the air of early winter, a flock of birds, his father’s horse, a dog. In his heart he carried all of this: the scars of his terrible slaughter and his longing for kindness and beauty and home.
(images: News 24/AFP/STR/Reuters)
JOHANNESBURG is published by Corsair.