If Julius Malema’s rise as a national political figure is marked by a single event, it is one that happened Aug. 16, 2012, in a bleak mining town called Marikana.
On that day, some 1,000 striking miners were corralled into a razor-wire ring by Army troops. Thirty-four were fatally shot over a 300-yard terrain of rock outcroppings and spikey thorn bushes, indicating that they were fleeing. Many were shot in the back. No troops were killed on the infamous day.
The striking miners were paid about $350 a month to drill for platinum: South Africa produces four times as much as the rest of the world combined. They were asking for a sizable raise to about $1,000 – a figure seen as a negotiating position.
The Marikana shootings were the worst violence by any South African government against its people since 1960 at Sharpesville; it reminded people of the dark days of gunfire, tear gas, and water cannon in the apartheid shantytowns of Soweto – except that in 2012, the shots appeared to be ordered by a collusion of owners and leaders from the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party. No official report has yet been issued on the event despite a number of formal investigations.
For Mr. Malema, a challenger of President Jacob Zuma in the May 7 presidential election, the massacre was both an opportunity and a vindication. He was already on probation as head of the ANC youth league – mainly for advocating the nationalization of mines. He was not allowed to speak publicly without permission.
But a day after the massacre Malema went to Marikana anyway. He set up a stage yards from the bloodstained ground and began to advocate for workers, asserting that they were being exploited. He blamed the ANC for doing nothing to help.
Malema himself has been criticized for exploiting Marikana to his advantage. But here, miners see him as the first and practically only politician from Johannesburg to make the two-hour trip to their town – and to then find lawyers for the families of those killed.
A year later, by then ejected from the ANC partly over his stand on Marikana, Malema launched his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party from the same ground where workers had been killed.
One of his chief organizers here is Primrose, a migrant worker from the Eastern Cape. She sits outside her shack with two other campaigners on a recent spring morning and confides that it is “amazing, amazing, amazing” that “there are three parties that have made it to the top in the elections, and we [the EFF] are one of them.”
Shadrack, a driller who hid in the bushes during the shootings, backs Malema on a key point: He advocates the nationalization of mines as a “quick way to get us out of hell.”