“If it is committed to cleaner supply chains, BASF has a commitment to these people”: Speech by Niren Tolsi at BASF Shareholders’ Meeting 2023

My name is Niren Tolsi, and I am a journalist from South Africa.

Since the massacre in Marikana in August 2012, which left 34 men dead, photojournalist Paul Botes and I have documented what has happened to some of the mine-workers who survived that fatal day and the forty-four families who lost loved ones at Marikana — a project we called After Marikana.

Through this project, we aimed to investigate the real cost of the Marikana massacre to families, to communities and — through this microscope of the intimate — this strange new South Africa that Marikana has ushered in by echoing the bloody massacres of our apartheid past. For such a violent rupture in an ostensibly democratic South Africa required some attempt to reflect upon its meaning. Both then and over the years.

We pledged to do this by using the social documentary approach to go back, to return: To the families. To the mineworkers. To the mines at Marikana themselves — at the time of the strike and over the past decade.

In that time we have grown to know people like Nokuthula Zibambele very well. Her husband Thabiso was killed by police on 16 August 2012 at the the cattle enclosure where 17 men were mowed down by police during an eight second fusillade. Seventeen more men were hunted down and killed at another hill close by — many while hiding or fleeing from police according to the forensic evidence of bullet entry and exit wounds, and the positioning of their corpses. Eleven men were shot in the back, four in the neck or head. They were murdered.

As yet, with court cases dragging on slowly, not a single policeman has been prosecuted for the 34 deaths on 16 August 2012.

In December 2012, when we met Nokuthula for the first time at her home in Lusikisiki, she was still in the dark clothes of mourning. Her eyes mirrored that colour. They were shell-shocked too. But then, so many of the widows of the 44 men who lost their lives at Marikana carried that look, for so long. Some often still do when their thoughts consider their current predicament against the backdrop of their loss.

In 2016, I looked into her almond-shaped eyes again. Nokuthula was staring at her daughter Sandisa’s coffin while mourners’ prayers escalated into the sky. Nokuthula’s eyes had a mother’s gnawing question in them. The one that asked what she could have done differently to prevent her 24-year-old child’s suicide?

For Sandisa was a care-free young lady who had responsibility thrust upon her before she was ready — which led to her taking her own life. When her mother accepted Lonmin’s 2014 offer of a job at the mine — because she had no other option to ensure food and clothes for her six children and the extended family her husband supported — Sandisa was put in charge of their home in the rural Eastern Cape. She buckled under that responsibility, unable to run the household, tend the vegetable gardens and livestock with the required attention, or take care of her siblings too young to attend school. Sandisa committed suicide by drinking rat poison. Her mother still works at what is now Sibanye-Stillwater, cleaning toilets and offices. She is still haunted by her daughter’s suicide and the grim irony that accepting a job to support her children had led to one of their deaths.

I know Nokuthula wants nothing more than to leave the grey squalor of Marikana and to return to the rolling green hills of the Eastern Cape and a more pastoral and peaceful life. Until she reaches retirement age, she cannot.

I ask you all gathered here today: is this fair? Is this justice?

I have walked around this pretty, neat city of Mannheim. It is far removed from the poverty and squalor of Marikana.

More than a decade after the 44 strike-related deaths at Marikana, the social conditions in the informal settlements that surround Sibanye-Stillwater’s mining operations remain the same. Homes are rudimentary shacks made from corrugated scrap metal, wood and cardboard. Wires for illegal electricity connections criss-cross under the settlement’s detritus, while water is sourced from one of the public taps placed sporadically around the broken-down community.

Litter carpets the narrow, soiled roads between the shacks, crackling underfoot like brittle bones from carnage long past. Children rummage and roll around in the dirt, conjuring games out of the rubbish.

There are no public facilities where they can play sport or liberate their imaginations; no playgrounds, parks, sports clubs or libraries. There is very little to do and, aside from Wonderkop Stadium, which is on Sibanye-Stillwater property and where organised football matches are played and mass meetings held, few alternatives to the cramped drudgery of everyday life.

There is an overwhelming sense that even the most determined dreams have broken wings in this penury.

Last year, academics Asanda Benya and Crispen Chinguno conducted research on the socio-economic conditions at Marikana. Their findings were unsurprising for anyone who has been to Marikana.

Poor sanitation in the area has been linked to pulmonary tubercolisis and bilharzia cases seen in the area. Residents’ continued reliance on illegal electricity connections had led to fatal electrocutions: more than seven people died while attempting to connect illegally in 2021. Two children were electrocuted while playing. Access to water remains limited.

When Sibanye-Stillwater bought Lonmin’s mining operation it also bought its responsibility to the families of the dead men, the mineworkers injured during the massacre (many go whom cannot work because of their injuries) and the community of Marikana itself.

I have read BASF’s company profile, annual reports and its online Marikana page, where it prides itself on being the very best example of German industrialisation with a deep commitment to clean supply chains.

Yet, when I return to Marikana and speak to community members and mineworkers I encounter a very different reality. Residents tell me that Lonmin consulted with them more than Sibanye-Stillwater over social initiatives in the area and that they have been denied their agency and voice in this matter.

Mineworkers talk about about the intense output pressure which has led to lax health and safety standards. Sibanye-Stillwater has a reputation in South Africa’s mining industry of being the cowboys of the industry — concerned with production output above all else. In 2018 it counted 25 of the 60 mining fatalities recorded by the Department of Mineral Resources across the industry — the highest fatality rate in the industry.

As Benya and Chinugo noted in their research last year Sibanye-Stillwater recorded 18 fatalities in 2021, three of them in Marikana.

Whether dead, or living in impoverishment, these are real people’s lives. If it is committed to cleaner supply chains, BASF has a commitment to these people. I must ask you, with the billions of euros of profit made form the various products using platinum group metals: what is the business volume at Marikana, and how much of that is then recommitted to transforming the platinum-mining sector in my country.

I address you today during the Freedom Day holiday in South Africa. This marks the day we voted in our first democratic election in 1994. I can assure you that after a decade of documenting the effects of Marikana on the families, the mineworkers and my fellow South Africans I am certain of one thing: there are very few tangible freedoms for those living and working in Marikana.