On cold day in June, hundreds of young and elderly villagers in Mqanduli, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, some with faces painted with white clay and others smoking pipes, joined members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) who wore heavy green jackets to keep the cold at bay. Among them were Joseph Mathunjwa, Amcu’s fearless president, lawyers Dumisa Ntsebeza and James Nichol, the latter a pro bono lawyer from Britain. Mathunjwa, and his union members, were back at the village to fulfil a promise made to the Marikana families. Upon seeing desperation at the funeral of Noki in this village, Mathunjwa vowed to build 37 three-bedroom houses for the families of the deceased.

Mathunjwa tried in vain to stop the fatal charge of his men towards police during the Marikana massacre. He often wept at his failure. Now five years after the biggest incident of police brutality since democracy in South Africa, where 34 miners lost their lives, 78 were wounded and 250 sent to jail, Amcu returned to Mqanduli, to rejoice with the family of Noki, known as the man with the green blanket.

It took five years of struggle to raise the money to build the houses; Noki’s family was the first to benefit. The face-brick house stands among scattered mud houses standing on the side a hill next to a dusty road. Poverty is palpable in these parts of the Eastern Cape; as a result many young men are attracted to the mines, far from home, even before finishing school.

‘The Time To Fool Around With Black People Is Over’

Mathunjwa, before cutting the ribbon to the house and handing it over to the 30-year-old widow of Noki, spoke harshly about youth who drop out of school and run to the mines. He did not spare the government either.

“If our government, led by the ANC, could change the economic policies that will retain our raw material and create jobs for the youth – there’s nothing we cannot do on our own here in Africa with the resources that God blessed us with – this unemployment rate of 27%, we can reduce it to zero. In Germany, about 4.3% of people are unemployed. I don’t see a reason why we cannot do the same,” says Mathunjwa.

“All other nations come here to amass wealth and they leave us with nothing. We have turned into consumers; we are incapable of producing things for ourselves. No, Africans let’s be liberated in our minds. There’s not a politician that is going to liberate you… Look at East and West Germany right now. Those people spent many years in wars but see them today, when you enter Berlin it is so advanced because of our platinum and economy to enrich other nationalities,” says the scathing Mathunjwa.

Mathunjwa said we cannot be a nation that is too dependent on the government. It’s a shame that 17 million people in South Africa are beneficiaries of government grants, he said.

The villagers remembered Noki as their hero. He was merciless on the football field, something that his lanky 15-year-old son got from him. To the miners who sang revolutionary songs about him, Noki was the fearless leader. Mathunjwa told the villagers that Noki didn’t die in vain as the union was close to achieving the minimum wage of R12,500 ($960) the miners demanded in 2012.

“Mambush was a hero. I am proud of him. I was very angry at first but over time I have come to peace with what happened to my husband and his fellow unionists who died in the hands of police,” says Mathapelo Lekoetje, Noki’s customary wife, who’s a clerk at the mine hospital in Carletonville, outside Johannesburg.

They Dig, They Die

Lekoetje, who is left with five children to raise, says she could not grieve for long after her husband died. Noki, who would have turned 35 this year, worked as an underground miner for a platinum mine in Rustenburg. He was driven by the pittance he earned to join the strike that ended his life.

“Amcu has been fabulous to the families. Since the tragic death of my husband, and throughout the Farlam Commission, we never felt alone,” says Lekoetje.

“The spirit of Mambush lives on far and wide, beyond the boundaries of South Africa. His name is known in trade unions in many, many countries. I have spoken at meetings in the United States of America, Germany, Switzerland, France, Denmark and many other countries about the atrocity and murders of Marikana miners. But each time I speak, my mind is directed towards that courageous man who sought a peaceful solution to the tragedy of Marikana and that man was Mambush. His spirit lives on, his light is a beacon to all those burdened,” says Nichol.

“In 10 years’ time, when your children ask what happened in Marikana, you will tell them about Mambush. And in 50 years when the grandchildren ask what happened in Marikana, you will tell them about Mambush. And in 100 years’ time when their children ask what happened in Marikana, you will tell them about Mambush. Mambush is now part of South African history and his name will live on forever,” says Nichol.

The Misery Commission

Since the Marikana massacre, Nichol has been traveling between Britain and South Africa representing Amcu for free. He was part of the team of lawyers representing the union at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, led by retired judge Ian Farlam.

“I have tried leaving South Africa and going back to London, but each time I get money I find myself booking an airline ticket back to Johannesburg and then to the Eastern Cape to meet my African family,” says Nichol.

Houses will help. It is all the Marikana families have for now. The families hope they will get justice too.