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South African Police Acted Without 'Command and Control' in Marikana Mine Massacre

In one of the most high-profile assaults since the end of apartheid, South African police killed 34 miners striking for higher wages and better living conditions in August 2012.
Photo via AP

South African President Jacob Zuma surprised his country on Thursday by suddenly announcing the findings of a highly anticipated government investigation into the 2012 Marikana mine massacre.

In one of the most high-profile assaults since the end of apartheid, South African police killed 34 platinum miners who were striking for higher wages and better living conditions. The event received international attention and has been a rallying point for national discussions on the rights and conditions of mine laborers in South Africa, which hosts one of the world's largest minerals industries.


In announcing the commission's findings, Zuma shamed British mine owner Lonmin Plc and the South African Police Services during a televised address on Thursday from Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.

Police forces operated with "a complete lack of command and control," he said. He also heaped responsibility onto the striking miners, saying that they had "promoted a situation of conflict and confrontation which gave rise‚ directly or indirectly‚ to the deaths of Lonmin's security guards and non-striking workers."

But higher government officials like Nathi Mthethwa, a former police minister who has been accused of improperly interfering with police operations in Marikana just prior to the massacre, were effectively cleared. The inquiry found that "the Executive played no role" in the assault.

South African rights groups and journalists have criticized the suddenness of the government's disclosure, saying that it precluded the chance for a press conference and did not give relatives of those who were killed time to prepare. Hilton Epstein, the president's legal advisor, told the High Court of Pretoria earlier this month that Zuma was planning to release the report on June 30.

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Mourners attend the funeral of one of the 34 miners killed by police forces at Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana on August 16, 2012. (Photo by TJ Lemon/EPA)

When they learned of Zuma's announcement, attorneys from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI-SA) rushed from their offices in Johannesburg to Marikana. In proceedings with the government commission, the legal NGO has been working closely with relatives of 36 Marikana victims — mostly widows and children — as well as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).


But technical difficulties and electricity issues brought on by South Africa's failing electricity grid made watching the live broadcast in the impoverished mining region impossible. In the end, those most afflicted by the lack of accountability over 2012's massacre were some of the last to hear the government's response.

When they finally did, they learned that closure on this episode remains a distant prospect.

SERI-SA member Naadira Munshi told VICE News that when her legal team went through the recommendations of the commission's report and explained it to the families of strikers that police had killed, "there was disappointment, sadness, and shock."

The report, she said, doesn't make its findings clear and maneuvers holding anyone accountable.

"It deals with the families as a collective," she remarked. "There was no real closure. It made recommendations for further investigations, but nothing was found" against government officials.

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Dianne Kohler Barnard, a member of parliament for the opposition Democratic Alliance who also serves as the country's shadow minister of police, told VICE News that the next step is for Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega and Mr. Mthethwa to face the judiciary.

"People must understand Marikana was the lowest point in our young democracy, and it's a test of the current governing party of the ANC to uphold the principles of justice," she said.


The Marikana Commission of Inquiry did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite Marikana's legacy, mine workers in South Africa are still battling for a better quality of life. Platinum miners at South Africa's three largest platinum producers staged a 5-month strike at the beginning of last year to demand an increase in monthly wages from $480 a month to $1,200.

The platinum strike, which was South Africa's longest and most costly mining strike to date, was quelled when producers agreed to increase the salaries of their lowest-paid workers by approximately $86 a month. This year gold miners are insisting on similar demands. Unions representing nearly 93,000 employees in the sector began negotiations with producers this past Monday to discuss their push for low-paid workers to receive pay increases ranging between 80 to more than 100 percent.

Workers in Marikana still live in shacks, and the roads are littered and unpaved. Munshi described the widows of Marikana workers as inheritors of a difficult life, in which they work the same mines as their deceased husbands once did. It is common policy for family members to take over mining jobs when a loved one dies in South Africa, but the widows face special hardship as they still lack access to basic services and do not have time to care for their children.

During a worker and human rights conference titled "Enough Is Enough: Change Now" that was held in November last year, John Capel, the executive director of the South African social justice group Bench Marks Foundation, reportedly told his audience that "very little has changed" since the massacre.

"It is clear that the dignity and needs of the workers and communities are still not a priority for these sectors as well as for the government," he said. "Not much will change in this sector until companies and the government foster the real meaning of corporate social responsibility, which is to assess and take responsibility for the company's — and government's — effects on the environment and impact on social welfare."

Mushi says that despite mounting hopes that it might have been a game changer in the Marikana case, there's now little faith that the inquiry's recommendations will lead to companies and government fostering that type of change going forward.

"I think government will say the report is out and we should heal as a nation," she said, "but we can't really heal under these circumstances."

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