Khanyisile Soboyce thought he was next to die when he saw two fellow miners felled by police gunfire through a cloud of green teargas smoke at a Lonmin Plc mine in South Africa last week.
One of the men was shot in the head, the other in the chest, Soboyce, 35, said in an interview on Aug. 17, the day after police opened fire on striking miners with automatic weapons, killing 34 and wounding 78. Soboyce, a locomotive operator at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, saved himself by crawling under an armored police truck during the volley of gunfire.
“I thought I was going to die,” Soboyce said, sitting on a concrete block under a billboard outside Lonmin’s Andrew Saffy staff hospital, where he came to look for a friend who went missing after the shootings.
Soboyce was armed that day like most of the 3,000 miners gathered atop a rocky outcrop staging a six-day stayaway demanding higher wages. He said he carried a traditional yard-long carved fighting stick, with a heavy rounded end, known as a knobkierrie, while others wielded spears or machetes. They were protecting themselves after fighting flared up between miners that week, he said.
“We were seeking safety in numbers,” Soboyce said.
The air was hazy with teargas and the acrid smell of gunpowder when Soboyce said he saw a man before him raising his hands in surrender.
“He was crying for forgiveness,” Soboyce said, his own eyes still stinging from the teargas a day later. “Then he was shot in the chest and died.”
Soboyce said he didn’t know whether the bullets came from the line of police, truck-mounted soldiers behind them or a helicopter hovering above the melee.
As the shootout ensued, Soboyce crawled under a truck, emerging beyond the police line that was erected earlier that day. Soboyce said he then ran as fast as he could to his home, a shack in the adjacent shanty town, crossing a field of litter where chickens and goats usually forage between thorny shrubs.
“I realized that whoever moved got shot,” Soboyce said. “When I got under the truck, I crawled out the other side and ran for my life. I don’t know how I made it.”
It was the most deadly police action in post-apartheid South Africa.
Soboyce called his wife and three children in a village near the town of Port St. Johns in Eastern Cape province, about 485 miles from Marikana, that evening to tell them he was safe. His six-year-old daughter, Neo, cried when she saw images of the shootout on television, convinced her dad hadn’t survived, he said.
After seven years at the mine, located about 62 miles west of Pretoria, Soboyce says his striking days are over.
“If you want to protest, you get killed,” he said. “I came all this way to work.”