Photojournalist Leon Sadiki covered the Marikana strike and took the picture of ‘The Man in the Green Blanket’ which has come to symbolise the protest that ended with 44 people killed. In this in depth-interview with Mukurukuru Media editor Styles Lucas Ledwaba he reflects on some of the images from the strike and offers insights into what it was like then

Styles Lucas Ledwaba:

Yeah. Thank you, Leon. For the benefit of those that may not know we were together at Marikana. We got there on the 14th of August to cover the strike by mineworkers.

This was nine years ago. One of the pictures you took of Mr Mgcineni Noki, the ‘man in the green blanket’ has become the defining image of the strike and South Africa’s first post Apartheid massacre. We asked you to give us five pictures that are going to form part of this discussion. And why are we doing that we want to have a discussion around number one, the significance of photojournalism in recording history. Number two, for the public to also understand what goes behind taking some of these images. But the most important thing from a photojournalism point of view, there’s a book by John Liebenberg called Bush of Ghosts. And in that book, one of the questions he asks, is what is the story of the photograph? What is the story of the photographer? So you have chosen five images. I’ve opened the first image of men marching along a police Nyala. Can you tell us about that photograph? What emotions does it evoke? What does it portray?

Mgcineni Mambush Noki leads his colleagues on the march as police deploy barbed wire to disperse the striking workers gathered at a koppie in Marikana. 16 of the men in this photograph were shot and killed minutes after this and 18 others were killed further away from the first scene. Photo: Leon Sadiki

Leon Sadiki:

Thank you. Yeah, I mean, the selection of pictures tell different times throughout the day, build up and as well as the day of the fatal shooting that we’ve come to know as the Marikana massacre. So if you look at the picture that you are asking about, of the group of men marching towards the Nyala, if my memory serves me well, that was towards the end of the 16th [August] when the police ordered the miners to disperse. Some of the men had already moved towards where the informal settlement was. However, this group of men had advanced towards the Nyala. So if you look at how they are moving, they’re moving with precision and a military kind of style led by Mgcineni Noki. But that was the beginning of the end. Most of those men in that front line were killed [minutes later].

Styles:

Okay, no, thank you. Maybe let’s move on to the next photograph, where a group of men are gathered around what appears to be buckets at the base of the koppie. Can you tell us the story of that photograph?

Striking workers gather around buckets containing what was later revealed to be muthi on Tuesday 14 August 2012. The buckets were dropped off by a bakkie which allegedly belonged to an inyanga that had been contracted by the workers to conduct rituals that were meant to protect them against attacks. Photo: Leon Sadiki

Leon:

Well, you know, first of all, let me say it was the first time that we’ve been in such an environment, you know, we had covered protests before. [But] this one was way too different. And as an African, you would know that, you know, there’s different cultures and beliefs. And my interest was trying to move around as much as I can. Even one would say, putting myself on the firing line. Because if you look at that moment, it’s more of a very, it’s a very secretive moment, even as you can see how the men are gathered around those buckets, it’s because they’re trying to hide something, or in a way, trying to make sure that those who are around don’t see what they’re doing. But the rumour was that some of the miners had, as we later heard at the commission as well, was that actually [they went through] some sort of rituals to be strong…So at that moment, we’re all curious to know, what could be these things.

Styles:

The question I’m asking is about this photograph. What does the photograph say? What was happening there? You are saying it appears to be a very sacred space where these guys are gathered. Yeah. What was it like to take this picture, was it, they just allow you to take the picture? What I remember when you look at this picture, is that we actually were [being] chased away from this area.

Leon:

Well, yeah, I don’t know if, if I’m explaining that correctly…Yeah, and if I take you back a bit, there were certain restrictions that were communicated to us by the miners at the time. And it was clear that there were other things that they would rather not show us or rather, not have us be privy to the information. And some of the conditions were things like women were not allowed in that area. So some of our female colleagues had challenges in reporting, because then the conditions were that women had to stay away, they should not come close because the koppie was regarded as a sacred place, a sacred space. And I think it was more spiritual to them; that they ordered us or rather, given us these conditions that if we really want to be in the mix of things, we need to follow those rules, and we followed most of them. And I think with that picture in particular, I could say we were just breaking some of the rules that were given. Obviously, it comes with the job in trying to tell the story as widely as we can. Hence, the picture was taken very quickly, and I moved away.

Styles:

This picture is taken on the very first day that you arrive at Marikana. For someone who does not understand what it was like. Can you take us through that? What was it like I mean, if I remember this was in the afternoon on Tuesday. Can you take us through? What was the environment like? It is this the first day that people sitting on a koppie when you’re approaching them, they’re shouting at you, you don’t even know what they are saying.

Leon:

I was actually working on a story in Botswana in the days when the strike broke out in Marikana. And the build up for me, I was not privy of what was happening days before [I got there]. So straight from Botswana, I went to Marikana and when I got there, I realised that most colleagues were basically at a far distance from the koppie where the miners had positioned themselves. Obviously, they were calling for the mine executives to come and address them. I think they [had] already communicated that they were now representing themselves. At the time, I think they knew the NUM was the majority union at Lonmin. So they had already abandoned their union and chosen to represent themselves. So you could tell that the situation was a bit tense. Obviously, by looking at how our colleagues, they were a bit skeptical about going closer. So that is a start, then, basically, then said to me, this is a different kind of situation that we’re facing today. And we have done a lot of protests around the country, service delivery and so forth, you know, salary disputes and all but this one was, it felt different, I must say, even someone with experience, you still felt a bit unsettled. So, after we discussed with fellow colleagues to say, maybe we need to, we need to find a plan to try and convince, you know, the leaders to let us in, you know, because our interest was to tell the story and it’s part of our job to do so. We did just that. And I think those kind of details that you see within that image contributed to the feeling, you know…And so many men stationed in one koppie, listening to instructions attentively, you know, usually when you when you cover such protests, you hardly find people who are that organised, everyone wants to do their own thing. For this particular one, there was a sense of discipline. And obviously, we later managed to have a little chat with Mambush [one of the strike leaders], who actually was the one who gave us access to be able to have a one on one with some of the miners also to address the group at the koppie to have a few questions that we wanted to pose to them.

So he managed to give us access by the way, there were other miners who were not comfortable with that decision. I think the leadership that Noki [Mambush] showed during that time, it gave a sense that he was a different kind of leader and that the entire group was willing to listen to him. And that’s how we managed to gain access and be able to talk to some of the miners. So in a nutshell, it was a bit unsettling. It wasn’t comfortable, it was a bit worrisome.

Styles:

Now there is a picture of a gentleman lying on the ground with someone walking past him. And three other people in the image. We later learnt that this gentleman was Isiah Twala a shop steward with the National Union of Mineworkers. Tell us about this. What is the story of this picture? What is the story of the people in that picture? What is your story? What is the story of the photographer in relation to this picture?

The body of Isiah Twala who was a NUM shop steward is left lying on a dirt road shortly after he was killed – allegedly by his own colleagues gathered at a koppie nearby. The Marikana Commission of Inquiry heard that Twala was stabbed 13 times and hacked with a machere across the right side of his face. Photo: Leon Sadiki

Leon:

Well, yeah, maybe to start with that. That incident happened on the first day. It just happened immediately after we were given access to interview the miners.

Styles:

You did not witness the killing.

Leon: No, no, no, no, not at all. Essentially, no, no, we did not witness the killing itself.

Styles:

Yeah, I’m saying essentially, this is a very important image. The first person who was killed after you arrived in Marikana.

Leon:

Yeah, well, you know, I had [earlier in the year] covered the strike at Impala [Platinum Mines] before. There was violence there as well. And a few of the miners were hacked, you know. So this incident for me, kinda made me realise how intense the protest was, that’s when [one] actually realised that this was actually very serious. Despite the fact that, you know, the were some of the other miners that were killed before…I think it was a photographer from AP, who actually saw the body before we did, because then there were people shouting at him, basically chasing them away from where Mr Twala was lying. So we then moved towards the body. I was in the car when I took those pictures. And I think from my side, I think there was like not more than three shots that I took. What was so sad about this incident is the lack of value for [human] life, that’s what shocked me the most because as you can see, there are people passing by as if nothing has happened, you know, everyone wanted to disassociate themselves with what happened to Mr Twala. Hence, people were just passing as if nothing had happened. So it definitely did shock me to say I mean, I would expect, now that we know that, you know, he was a shop steward, and hence the miners were representing themselves and so forth. Maybe most of the miners didn’t want to associate themselves with NUM anymore to the extent that no one was willing to assist Mr Twala. But yeah, I think that was the beginning of realising that actually, this protest is way too serious.

Styles:

You say you took only three shots from this, why was that?

Leon:

It was uncomfortable, it was really uncomfortable. As you can see, the image is very direct, you know, there was not even time to try and conceal the face, you know, be creative about it so as it doesn’t become offensive, and so forth. There was no time that you could move around and try and take this shot. And that shot, it was just a moment that was there at the time. And because everyone was staring at us at this moment. We realised that we needed to do this as quick as possible. Hence, we did not even get out of the car. And it needed to be quick, because then you also don’t want to upset you know, the crowd, because there are so many people, there’s so many miners there who were angry. So the least you could do was to upset them. So we tried by all means that because they were shouting that we must move away. And I mean, with experience, you know, you can sense the mood when you need to take your shots and move. That kind of situation.

Styles:

Okay. So What impact did this photograph have on you going forward when covering the strike? Did it make you realise that your own life was in danger?

Leon:

Yes, of course. When I look at that picture, it made me realise that actually, one could lose their life in the split of a second. Because we could say possibly we were there when Mr Twala was killed, we could say we were there because even though it happened on the other side, we were on the other end, but you could tell that it had just happened, you know, so, for me, it made me uncomfortable going forward, it also made me realise that if I don’t really move with caution, anything could happen. It was just a volatile situation that even going forward, I then realised that I needed to be careful but obviously, you know, you can only bring emotions for that two minutes thereafter, you know, you then do what you need to do, you know, you want to tell it as it is and and then in the following day, we’re back at it again. What’s important is that you inform the nation and you let the people know what was happening in Marikana on that day, as well as trying to communicate what the miners wanted the people to know of their plight and the challenges that we’re facing.

Styles:

The photograph of the weapons silhouetted against the sun. Tell us about that picture, it is a very haunting picture. When you look at the picture, the weapons, the way they’re crafted, the shadows. Tell us about that. What is this?

Weapons are silhouetted against the late afternoon sky during the strike by Lonmin workers at Marikana on 15 August 2012. Photo: Leon Sadiki

Leon:

Well, I think that was taken on the second or the third day, when we were there, we had now created some sort of relations with the miners, they were comfortable with us. So, if you see that image, it was taken out, basically, in, in the clouds, when they were singing and they were waving the machetes, I was just trying to tell it in a very creative way, the dark clouds that descended on Marikana, looking at those weapons, knowing that those weapons could, kill people, you know, because those were very dangerous weapons. So the creative aspect of it was just to give that element of saying there’s a dark cloud that has descended on Marikana.

Styles:

This photograph is taken after the day after you photographed the gentleman that we later learned was Mr Isiah Twala, the picture that made you realise that maybe people didn’t quite value life as much. But then you mingled with them the following day, and you still had time to be creative. My question is, is there a need to be creative in a war or conflict situation, why is there a need for that?

Leon:

Well, you know, at the end of the day, you know, in as much as you are expected to, to capture the moments you are also equally expected to capture it in the most interesting way. So that’s why I was saying with Mr Twala’s image, that there was no any other way or any other creative way to try and conceal his face because there was no room…not every thought has to be as obvious and straightforward. Sometimes you want to engage in a dialogue around particular work, you know, let people discuss and go into details about what they think about the image that you’re looking at. When it comes to protests, the first day, you will experience a bit of resistance, and it was not the first time that I had experienced, I mean, I’ve done a lot of them. And it’s always a challenge to break the wall between, you know, the protesters as well as clearly when you are there. And there’s many of you, there’s always in the beginning some sort of resistance. So, yes, the first day, it felt like that. But there was just something heavy about covering the protest in Marikana, it was not the same as some of the other ones that we had covered before.

Leon Sadiki in action during the Marikana strike in August 2012. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

And I mean, I have been in the field for many years. But, however, this one was, was very different. But, you know, we clearly had managed to communicate to the miners to let them know that we are here to do what we need to do, and they need to allow us to do our job, because we could assist to communicate the message that they wanted to communicate, because at that time, there was no one who was willing to come, management and the union as well, many of them didn’t want to come there. So there was no one there, there was a vacuum [in terms ]of leadership. And so he took that position. And he [Mambush] managed to, you know, balance these things to be able to even say no, with the understanding that these journalists are here to do their job. I think we must allow them to, to document what was happening even though it came with conditions. But then we were free enough. The following day, to be able to move around, you know, hence the image of the pangas. And I mean, it was also with shock to look at how those pangas, they looked very new. You could tell that the way the way they were, they were purchased recently, you know, for this particular protest. I don’t know it could be the case. But yeah, I mean, we’re comfortable there going forward. So hence, you see the difference between the first day and the second day.

Styles:

Now the next picture, it’s a picture of a outpouring of grief. Very harrowing picture of two people, including someone who appears to be in very serious pain. And we see coffins there. Maseru Funeral Parlour. To me, this picture symbolises the pain. But tell us about the picture. What is the story of this photograph?

The grief stricken Mohai family after viewing the body of Telang Vitalis Mohai who was among four Basotho men who were killed at Marikana on 16 August 2012. The bodies lay in state at the Maseru Funeral Parlour in Maseru a day before they were sent for burial in different parts of Lesotho. Photo: Leon Sadiki

Leon:

You know, when it comes to the Marikana massacre as well the build up and what followed after this, and you listen to a lot of interviews, and people will try and be philosophical about, you know, life, you know about people losing their lives and be very political and economical with the truth and so forth. Until, until you listen to that woman [Mrs Mohai] that you see in that photograph, wailing… I actually had decided that I was not going to continue with the story following the shooting. Because I felt I had seen enough, you know, even though it was like part of my work, I needed to do what I needed to. But in journalism circles, there’s the thing of saying the story is yours, you know, the story chose you. So I then had to abandon being at home, because after the shooting of the 16th, I actually did not go back to Marikana. However, when the funerals were happening, I had to actually follow these four gentlemen who were to be buried in Lesotho. So you can see in the image, how those women were crying so painfully, for their loved ones…I can’t forget the wailing of that woman, how she was screaming in that funeral parlour, and some of the things you know, you go for debriefing and so forth and try and make sense of such incidences, but they’re always gonna be with you. You can’t unsee what you’ve seen. And that’s part of our job, you know, sometimes, you know, it takes a toll on you with time because no one, after seeing so many people killed, you will never forget such a thing. And it will never, it will never leave your mind.

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