Poloko Tau will be remembered as a journalist’s journalist who was a strong and kind man

Poloko Tau should have been sitting at home today, surrounded by his loved ones, celebrating his 42nd birthday. Instead his family and friends will be burying him. He died last Friday, but this week the City Press features writer has been remembered mostly for the work he did as a reporter at The Star, 10 years ago in Marikana. 

It was Poloko who introduced the world to the ‘man in the green blanket’, 30-year-old Mgcineni Noki better known to his friends as ‘Mambush’. Mambush became the iconic rallying point for the Marikana Massacre afterwards as a nation tried to work out what had happened. There was a lot of incredible journalism around Marikana, but right among the very best was Poloko’s, which stood out for his thorough and dogged reporting before, during and after, the tragedy.

Poloko has been remembered this week as a strong, quiet and kind man; a journalist’s journalist. He was all of that. He was imbued with an incredible sense of purpose, especially about this story. Marikana is often reduced these days to 30 minutes of mayhem on the koppie on August 16, 2012. It was so much more than that, which we know because of his work, before and after, speaking to the various actors and reflecting their stories, their fears and their hopes.

Marikana was a watershed in post-apartheid South Africa. We have never truly understood this, because if we had our leaders would have dealt with it. Instead Marikana has become an eerie prologue: what happened last July is just one part, complete with the same performative hand wringing, gnashing of teeth and empty platitudes. There will be others.

The police commissioner at the time, Riah Phiyega has been roundly disgraced, but none of her senior officers, despite the recommendations of the Farlam Commission that sat afterwards, have ever been called to account. Conditions for mine workers, both living and working, have not dramatically improved. Less people have jobs countrywide a decade later with little new investment in the mining industry. The widows of the 34 miners gunned down on the koppie and the nine others; miners, security guards and police officers, murdered in the run up to the tragedy, are still waiting for resolution. What hope then is there for the far larger Zondo Commission?

We have forgotten how incredibly dangerous and difficult it was to tell the Marikana story properly like Poloko did, to gain the trust of people literally armed, dangerous and angry. How dangerous it was to be on the koppie that day. Freelance photographer Tiro Ramatlhatse, on assignment for The Star, was so close that spent cartridges from some of the 295 bullets fired from police R5 carbines hit his back, scorching him. 

We have never begun to contemplate the emotional and psychological impact on them and the other journalists working then and through the aftermath, before going back to their normal jobs in a profoundly abnormal society.

This week we remembered – for a moment. It’s too little too late. The travesty remains that Poloko was never properly acknowledged in his lifetime. 

Rest in peace.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 29 January 2022.