Marikana three years on: a massacre that shook the nation

14 August 2015 - 1:15pm

by Tom Lebert, Senior International Programme Officer (Resources & Conflict) at War on Want. This article was first published by New Internationalist.

It was a massacre that shook the nation. On 16 August 2012, 34 striking miners were shot dead by police at the British-owned Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, north of Johannesburg.  Rock drill operators earning R5000 (£270) per month were demanding parity with workers earning R12000 (£670) per month at the nearby Impala platinum mine.  Less than a week after downing tools, the police opened fire.

South Africa bears a long legacy of state sanctioned police brutality against black people: Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976. Speaking in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, the Right Reverend Rubin Phillip, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Natal, said: “And so again, the truth of our country is in dead black bodies littering the ground. The truth of our time is that people asserting their rights and dignity have been brought down in a hail of bullets.”

So, how could something so shockingly reminiscent of the country’s violent Apartheid past happen in a modern, democratic South Africa?  Three years on - a presidential inquiry and police cover-up later - many questions remained unanswered. Families of the miners are still denied justice and their search for compensation and closure goes on.

Back in 2014, in response to intense public pressure, President Jacob Zuma set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate who had given the order that day to open fire on some 3000 protestors. The Commission published its findings in March 2015.  While absolving the police and the state of any responsibility for the miners’ deaths, the Commission noted how officials, in their attempt to uncover the truth, were stymied at every turn by the South African Police Services. In short, the police closed ranks and sought to defend the indefensible.

Advocate Geoff Budlender, senior evidence leader of the inquiry, said senior officials of the South African Police Services were “evasive and non-responsive.” This was particularly acute when it came to the meeting at which police tactics were discussed and the decision to ‘disperse, disarm and arrest the miners’ was taken.  The official report findings back up his claim, stating: “the leadership of the police […] appears to have taken the decision not to give the true version of how it came about that the 'tactical option' was implemented on the afternoon of 16 August.” Curiously, any record of this meeting has since disappeared.

While the Commission failed to hold the leadership of the South African Police Services to account, the South African Government was similarly exonerated. This despite evidence that the decision to disperse and disarm the workers would not have been taken without guidance from the Minister of Police. Lonmin – the mining company - was also absolved of any responsibility, this in spite of their failure to resolve the dis­pute and respond to the threat and eventual out­break of vio­lence.

The Legal Resources Centre, in their submission to the Inquiry, suggested the mine owners had cre­ated an envi­ron­ment con­ducive to labour unrest, and failed to put in place suf­fi­cient mea­sures to ensure the safety of its employ­ees. Put simply, through its actions or lack of action, Lon­min con­tributed to the vio­lence, and ultimately the death of 34 strik­ing miners.

And what about the families of those killed?  Shamefully, the Commission remained silent on their fate - the issue of compensation ‘beyond its remit’. It is a feeble offering to those left without husbands, brothers, sons and fathers, and still shattered by the violent manner of their deaths.  Already mired in poverty, and now deprived of their breadwinners, their struggle deepens.

Since 2004 there has been a sharp increase in the number of people killed in South Africa protesting their rights to decent housing, water services, political representation and much else.  As ever, anger and frustration lie at the heart of these protests.  What happened at Marikana was a tragedy; the investigation that followed a travesty. Yet still the killing continues. In 2013, Nqobile Zuzua, a 17 year old girl and activist with the housing movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, a War on Want partner, was shot in the back protesting against evictions in Cato Crest, Durban.

To be gunned down simply for protesting against injustice is a scandal. So as the families’ continue their long search for justice (their lawyers are now issuing civil law suits against the state), surely it’s time for a second inquiry - independent of the state, that puts the victims and their families first, not the careers and reputations of police officers, politicians and mining companies

The words of Bishop Rubin Phillip sum it up best:

“Has nothing changed in our place, when its truth remains that the armed might of the state acts for the elite of powerful and wealthy, and against our people? No self-righteous declarations of 'tragedy'; no insisting on 'complexity'; no obfuscatory 'commissions of inquiry'; are enough to hide that truth. The truth is plain to masses of the people of South Africa.”


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