Marikana mine massacre: why British lawyer has joined fight for justice

by Jan 23, 2013All Articles

James Nichol explains his decision to volunteer to represent forgotten families of dead strikers

mine-massacreWhen South Africa’s apartheid police massacred 69 people in Sharpeville in 1960, the revulsion spread as far as northern England. James Nichol, then 15, took part in his first street protest. “I remember there were about 20 of us and I think we marched in single file with a placard each around Newcastle because there wasn’t really enough for a demonstration,” he said.

More than 50 years later, Nichol, a criminal lawyer, has travelled to South Africa to stand up for the victims of another state-sponsored massacre of protesters. But this time the police who shot dead 34 striking mineworkers in Marikana were serving a democratic, black majority government.

Nichol is working pro bono for the legal team representing dead workers’ families at the judicial commission of inquiry into August’s tragedy at the Lonmin platinum mine.

He volunteered because of a sense of injustice that he says is shared by many in Britain, where demonstrations and boycotts once pressured South Africa’s apartheid regime in the hope of preventing more Sharpevilles.

“There are tens of thousands of people like me in the UK,” he explained. “When you switched on that television that day and you saw those people being killed, you felt completely gutted, winded. When you speak to people of my age group, people who did a little bit then, it’s like a death in the family. People actually speak in hushed tones, not in anger, but what is it all about that a black government turns rifle machine guns on black poor miners? You put so many years into it. It’s bloody awful really.”


James Nichol: ‘What is it all about that a black government turns rifle machine guns on black poor miners?’ Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Nichol felt a personal connection given his upbringing in the coal mining town of North Walbottle, near Newcastle. His father, Bryce, became a miner around the age of 14 and died at 40 from a dust-related heart disease. By then his mother, Kathleen, was already dead from tuberculosis, leaving Nichol and three siblings as orphans. Within weeks of his father’s death, Nichol, 15, who had dropped out of school, also contracted TB.

“Poverty, which is what the Marikana people are facing, I don’t have now myself, but by God I did,” he said. “I’ve stood at the bottom of the street in a mining village and got a pan of hot food from a relative to take back to small children who were then living alone in the house.

“It can never be the same as a Marikana, but I know the people in Marikana wait for a food voucher and I know they have no money, no food. And so it’s pretty hard to look at these people. Sentimental as I sound, that is why I came. I think, I’m 67, is there something I can do? I’ve always been a socialist and this is where my heart is, with miners and people like that.”

Nichol, whose legal practice is based in north London, specialises in miscarriages of justice. He worked with the late journalist Paul Foot on cases involving the Bridgewater Four, Raphael Rowe and Colin Wallace. He helped represent Arthur Scargill and miners in the 1984-85 strike and had clients in the Bloody Sunday inquiry. A few years ago he raised £10,000 to buy a secondhand ambulance, fill it with medical equipment and drive it to Gaza in 39 days. He is a member of, and a lawyer for, the Socialist Workers party.

His view of what happened in Marikana, when 34 workers were shot dead and at least 78 injured, makes chilling reading. The loss of 10 lives, including those of two policemen, in the build-up to that day, he believes, were merely “a hook on which to hang the orchestrated effort to break that strike. I don’t accept for one moment the crocodile tears of people like Lonmin.

“What I believe is they’re looking at their share price daily and seeing it plummet, knowing that if they give in to the rock drillers now, they’ll be back time and time again.”

Could the police have foreseen how the crackdown would go so wrong?

“They should have anticipated what happened because if you set up an operation which involved nearly 800 police officers with 800 pistols, with several hundred machine-gun rifles, with stun grenades, gas grenades and water cannon, together with four helicopters, razor wire and 50 armoured vehicles, and in addition to that you’ve already organised the medics and the ambulances and the fire brigade, then you must have done your risk analysis.”

Nichol believes that mineworkers ran forward, not to charge the police but to avoid being trapped by razor wire. “You then get eight seconds of barbarity. If you say self-defence, all the footage shows the miners coming are some distance away, it’s not as if they’re in your face. You can see individual police officers using a single shot.

“But you see police officers using this machine-gun rifle that discharges, according to police evidence, between 600 and 800 rounds a minute. Now that’s staggering because, according to police evidence, in order to fire the machine-gun rifle at that rate, you actually have to click a mechanism, so it doesn’t happen by accident. So why did they click? They just fired.”

Nichol endorsed reports that, at a second site away from the TV cameras, some of the workers were shot execution-style. “The evidence shows that people ran away maybe 500 metres to a small set of rocks and were pursued by police officers with machine-gun rifles. A number of strikers found their way into a little crevice where they no doubt sought safety and sanctuary. There is no doubt that people were killed quite deliberately by police officers.

“They give the most ludicrous reasons. One man says, ‘He looked as if he was coming towards me with a spear, so I shot him, as did my colleague.’ Complete rubbish. It just simply doesn’t stand up. This is revenge. And then, to make matters worse, the undoubted planting of evidence on each of the dead bodies by trying to put a spear into the hand of the dead person in itself is so outrageous, it’s difficult to contemplate.”

A day later the South African president, Jacob Zuma, announced a judicial commission of inquiry.

Nichol, who is based in Johannesburg, rises early each day to attend hearings more than 60 miles away in Rustenburg, rubbing shoulders with lawyers including George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela in the 1960s. But families of the dead were unable to attend until Nichol and a trade union intervened.

“When I arrived here, I discovered that nobody had been in touch with the families to see if they were even interested,” he said. “So we set off more than 1,000km to talk to these people and say, do you want to be represented? And what did we find out? Yes, they all had something to say to the commission. But nobody cared.

“What strikes me is what is, in reality, indifference to the Marikana families. It’s not that those people in the professional classes – what, if I was in England, I would call the chattering, do-gooder class – don’t say the right words. Of course they’re ‘terribly sorry’, it is a ‘tragedy’, you name it and they know the word for it. But do they care? Not a chance.”

He has doubts about the inquiry’s terms of reference, but added: “I do live in hope that the commission concludes that each of those who died were unlawfully killed by the police. That at least would be some little justice for the Marikana families.”

Nichol, an Arsenal fan and grandfather, thought he would be in South Africa for only two weeks, but is now braced for the inquiry to run well into this year.

“I have dug a great big hole for myself,” he said philosophically. “I don’t think you can come here and fly in and fly out as if you’re some sort of white man come with the goodies or whatever. I’ve committed myself.”

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