One year after South African police shot striking miners, no official explanation

Nor is there recompense or improved conditions for families of those killed in a high-profile strike at the Marikana platinum mine. 

Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS
The mining community chant slogans at a hill known as the "Hill of Horror", where 43 miners died during clashes with police last year, during a strike at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine in Rustenburg, 62 miles northwest of Johannesburg, May 14, 2013.

Thousands of people will return to the dusty wasteland around South Africa’s Marikana platinum mine on Friday to remember the 44 people who died in violent clashes between police and striking workers there last year.

The culmination of the uprising saw police open fire on a crowd of protesters on Aug. 16, 2012, killing 34 people and injuring another 78.

News pictures of South African law enforcement’s bloodiest crackdown since the end of apartheid were captured by those covering the strike and broadcast around the world, causing widespread outrage and questions about how far the country had really moved on from its brutal past.

A year on, tensions are still prevalent at the Marikana mine – adjacent to one of a series of flyblown industry towns whose names are known only for the towering mining apparatus that surrounds them – and the promised official report on what happened still languishes. 

"Marikana," as the massacre is now simply known as, arrived as part of a larger rise in violent strikes and clashes between citizens and police across the country. Many voices in South Africa's poorer quarters spoke of a building rage at the slow pace of change in their lives, 20 years after the birth of democracy. The rhetoric accompanies a concern about greater unrest down the road.  

Police commanders on the ground last Aug. 16 claimed their officers had been in imminent danger of attack from workers armed with machetes, spears, and pistols when they opened fire at Marikana, which is located in South Africa's North West Province about 100 miles from Johannesburg.

Yet witness accounts also surfaced, suggesting some of those who died had been shot as they lay injured on the ground. Police photographs showed weapons were placed next to some bodies after they were killed.  

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma sought to quell anger over the incident by setting up a public inquiry that had instructions to report back in four months.

The president also instructed a mining task force of his ministers and industry bosses to look at improving the fractious relations between workers and their employers in what is one of the country's most lucrative industries.

Lonmin, the UK-listed mining firm that runs the platinum mine at Marikana, capitulated to the workers’ demands after six weeks of stoppages, offering a massive 22 percent wage hike that dismayed other mining houses and brought warnings that South Africa’s industry would lose its competitive touch.

Today, there has not been an amelioration of tension at Marikana. In the informal shack settlements close to the mine where most of its workers live, there has been no improvement in the destitute conditions that sparked the uprising.

Lonmin has announced plans to build homes for workers and community centers, and to set up education for the children of those killed. But most of these plans remain in the "pilot phase" and their intended recipients are impatient for delivery.

“Our children still play in dusty roads, we do not have water and electricity,” Primrose Sonti, a local women’s rights activist, says. “We still do not have proper houses. We live in shacks a year down after mineworkers were killed for fighting for a better wage to improve their lives.”

To make matters worse, fear now stalks the bleak settlement that rings the Wonderkop hill where the strikers gathered, and were shot by police.

A series of tit-for-tat killings between rival unions representing the Marikana workers are estimated to have claimed up to 20 lives since last year. Among those killed are six people who were due to give evidence at the public inquiry into what happened.

“No one feels safe, even if you don’t work at the mine,” Daniel Modisenyane, a local church leader, says. “We don’t know who are doing the killings but they will just shoot anybody. You are just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Meanwhile the public inquiry report on the event – due earlier this year – has had its deadline twice extended, and appears to be no closer to providing the answers so many crave about what happened, and why.

George Bizos, one of the lawyers involved in the inquiry, best known as the close friend and lawyer of South Africa’s adored former president Nelson Mandela, said he was “disturbed” by the way things were going.

In a statement to the inquiry commission’s chair, Judge Ian Farlam, he added that public confidence in the “effectiveness and credibility of the inquiry” could be “seriously eroded” by the delays.

A chief new concern is that funding for the participation of miners at the hearings and in courts has been denied by the state. 

Last month, lawyers representing the families of the miners who were killed walked out in solidarity with miners who were injured or arrested in the strikes. 

The funding row is now before South Africa’s Constitutional Court. Tshepo Mahlangu, a spokesman for the inquiry, said that if the case to get them funding is lost, they hope a private benefactor might come forward so they can continue.

Mr. Mahlangu said the most important thing was to ensure shortcuts were not taken in getting to the truth. “It would be pointless to continue if the process is not fair and credible,” he says.

Some informed critics say the sharp social and political meaning of the strike and the killings is being ignored. 

Peter Attard Montalto, an economist with London-based Nomura investment bank, said the South African government was using band-aids instead of taking genuine action to handle warring unions and to push mining firms to overhaul its practices.

“Until there is a fundamental understanding of the causal, deep roots of the events at Marikana and the government has the political room to do something about it, it’s hard to say the lessons of a year ago have been learned,” he says.

Since Marikana, there have been many more protests and, according to Johan Burger of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, each one brings the fear of another such tragedy.

"The effect on the psyche of the country is felt not just by the average citizen but also by the police and the way they now approach public protests,” he said.

"Crippling restructuring policies; deadly xenophobic violence causing the deployment of the military to restore law and order; and continuous violent civil unrest has left the police reeling and their relations with communities in tatters.”

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