Luke Hodgkin reviews Aliki Saragas’s new film Strike a Rock, which follows the fight for justice of the women widowed by the 2012 Marikana Massacre in South Africa.
On 16 August 2012, 34 striking miners were shot dead by the South African security forces, in what has become known as the ‘Marikana massacre’. There has been no apology; no one has been found guilty. The confrontation has become a defining moment in the developing story of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s a story of exploited mineworkers in violent conflict with bosses, the police, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and the ‘company union’, the National Union of Mineworkers. That story has been told in two films so far. The powerful 2015 documentary Miners Shot Down, by Rehad Desai, which won top honours at that year’s Emmy awards, tells the contested story of the massacre drawing on footage which Desai shot in the weeks leading up to it.
Aliki Saragas’s new Strike a Rock (circulated by the campaigning NGO War on Want as part of its work against neocolonialism) is again a documentary, but a very different one. It focuses on the life of the survivors. In a finely ironic opening scene the CEO of Lonmin, the firm operating the Marikana mine, celebrates that the ‘difficult times’ have been overcome; the union, the company and the ANC government are seen to be in a profitable alliance. We cut to the impoverished streets of Marikana where Primrose Sonti and Thumeka Magwangqana, widows of miners who were shot, are trying to survive and win justice. Their organization, Sikhala Sonke (‘we are crying together’) must lead the women of Marikana to take on the complex task of building unity in daily confrontation against the many levels of a ruthless power structure.
The film, like the story of this organization, is rooted in the daily life of women who are demanding justice at the same time as they cope with survival in the bleak, constantly flooded houses of Marikana. It relentlessly returns to Lonmin’s 2006 promise to build 5,500 houses – which was constantly postponed and effectively shelved – and contrasts the dishonesty of the company and its allies with the fierce desperation and commitment of the women. (Saragas’s film company, Elafos Productions, is explicitly feminist and implicitly socialist.) Strike a Rock combines a variety of beauties, strongly and physically presented – the landscape, the women in their daily life and friendships, closeness, laughter, song – and their surrounding horrors – the dirt and misery of the shantytown, the massacre, and the men who still justify and profit from it. The film covers Primrose’s election as an MP under the banner of the opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters, but also stresses that, under the hegemonic rule of the ANC, such a position is almost valueless.
A key turning point in the documentary comes when Primrose, the battling MP, and Thumeka, who carries on the fight at home, become estranged. This breach in the crucial relationship is – because of the role that the relationship plays – a particularly painful moment, and the straightforward process of confrontational dialogue which subsequently leads to resolution is a healing, recalling the complex, not always accepted role of ‘reconciliation’ in South Africa.
Inevitably, Strike a Rock recalled, to me, a much earlier underground classic dealing with miners’ struggle, 1954’s Salt of the Earth, which, with blacklisted Hollywood director Herbert Biberman and a mainly amateur cast of Mexican immigrants, told the story of miners on strike in a New Mexico zinc mine against their company. In an unforgettable twist, Salt of the Earth centres its portrayal of resistance on the community’s women, who must take the men’s place when they are banned from picketing. At a distance of sixty years, a great deal separates the two films, But they share an emphasis on the place of a group of women as the human core of a mining community. Aliki Saragas’s is a young graduate of the Cape Town Centre for Film and Media Studies, so that, where we may assume Biberman had Sergei Eisenstein, John Ford and Fritz Lang at the back of his mind, Saragas’s camera is underpinned by fifty years of more recent radical and feminist cinema, from Chris Marker to Chantal Akerman to Five Broken Cameras. The impressive achievement of Strike a Rock is to fix the camera eye on the life of the township and its women, where resistance, constantly visible, grows naturally out of those harsh conditions (the rain, the puddles, the struggle for food and fuel) which nurture solidarity. This is delivered alongside forceful occasional reminders of the places where the profits end up.
Strike a Rock never loses sight of politics, and closes with a reiteration of Sikhala Sonke’s reasonable, (but supposedly ‘impossible’) demands: a full apology for the massacre, punishment for the guilty, the immediate implementation of the promised building of affordable housing, and a living wage. It remains to be seen whether South Africa, still dominated by its neocolonial relation to the mining industry, can achieve the second revolution which that would entail.