by Chris Rodrigues
By the time you read these words, the miners of Marikana will have long crossed the river Styx. Contemplate dear reader: These men with dirt in their pockets, their ears ringing with the noise of exploding lead, the holes through their bodies.
Imagine some nocturnal body of water. And a boat, with such passengers, steered by a ferryman with a sure stroke. In this version, Charon, as the Greeks knew him, doesn’t require silver coins. And even if he did, he wouldn’t ask anything of these rock-drill operators who, long before they were mown down, had already begun sacrificing limbs and lungs.
Perhaps this river guide, as he places a blanket over their shoulders, quotes passages from Bertolt Brecht:
“You who will emerge from the flood/ In which we have gone under/ Remember/ When you speak of our failings/ The dark time too/ Which you have escaped”.
“And yet we know: Hatred, even of meanness/ Contorts the features./ Anger, even against injustice/ Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we/ Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness/ Could not ourselves be friendly”.
These men are aware that they trouble so many more people now than when living with asbestos and bilharzia – they were faceless and unregarded. They are informed that the same company that point-blank refused to meet them has since offered – via one its shareholders – to pay for their funerals. When they were alive they knew that a sweetheart union had sent them up shit creek and at this moment in time – travelling down another wretched river – they couldn’t care less about future promises.
In this expanse these illiterate subterranean figures are, in the phraseology of Abahlali baseMjondolo, “professors of their own suffering”. They can draft PhD’s on the political economy of death. They can riff better than any broker about the price of platinum. They can wax like lawyers about police statements.
But what still embitters them is their understanding that they would have to be reincarnated many times over to earn what the CEO of Lonmin did in one single year. Comparing their salary of R48 000 per annum with Ian Farmer’s (2011) earnings of R20, 358, 620 amounts to an, approximately, 424 years discrepancy. Taking a recent estimate of average male life expectancy in South Africa (49.81) and deducting just 18 childhood years from that would mean even if they worked every day of their adult life – they would have to do so over 13 unlucky lifetimes!
Such is the normalisation of this capitalist metaphysics that the rival union has been universally rebuked for wanting to reduce it to a ratio of 1 year: 4.26 life spans. No wonder these strikers then entrusted the magic realism of a sangoma, for nothing today needs to be more urgently remedied than “reality”.
In the old myth, Charon takes our souls to the kingdom of Hades where we appear before three tribunes who decide whether we are worthy of entry into the Elysian Fields – an altogether middle-class sounding quietus.
Instead, picture a black-sooted boatman accompanying these men to a hill on which is gathered – from across time – hundreds of thousands of spectres just like them – an infernal rabble. They are mostly young because the poor die first. Amongst them are French peasants and Haitian slaves. There are Russians with pitchforks and Spaniards with rifles. There are Naxalites and whole generations of South Africans. Yes, some with knobkerries, machetes and spears!
They are all reciting Brecht’s words in the hope that they reach the ears of the living:
“But you, when the time comes at last/ And man is a helper to man/ Think of us/ With forbearance”.