Five years ago today members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) shot dead 34 mineworkers and injured 78. Some of the injured are permanently disabled.
The shooting of the 112 miners took place during a poorly planned operation to disperse, disarm and arrest around 3 000 striking mineworkers at the Lonmin Marikana mine. No action has been taken against the police officers involved despite evidence of unlawful acts; nor have the victims and families of those killed received compensation.
The ruinous Zuma administration doesn’t seem to have learnt anything from the most shameful episode of policing since the advent of democracy. However, Cyril Ramaphosa – the country’s deputy president and ANC presidential contender – has, at last, planned to visit Marikana to apologise.
Ramaphosa has come under fire for not using his authority as a non-executive director on the Lonmin board to ensure that mine management negotiated in good faith with the striking miners, who had legitimate grievances about poor salaries. Despite various attempts in the run-up to the massacre to get negotiations going, Lonmin management showed callous disregard for their employees and refused to engage with them.
Everyone in South Africa needs to know what happened that day and in the days leading up to it. Very few have read the full report of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry, or know the facts. Many people, police included, still believe that shooting the miners was a legitimate act of self-defence by the police. This is partly due to the television footage of ‘scene one’ of the massacre that was taken from a police point of view, and partly from the police’s version of the shooting at the time, and before the Farlam inquiry.
No action has been taken against the police involved in Marikana despite evidence of unlawful acts
However the Farlam inquiry, in its June 2015 report, didn’t find that the strikers were attacking the police at this point.
Many people also don’t know that the entire operation was unnecessary. An earlier police plan that would probably have avoided bloodshed but could only have been implemented a day later was discarded by top SAPS management.
Instead, on the evening of Wednesday 15 August, a small group of police generals under the leadership of former national commissioner Riah Phiyega, and probably with the support of then police minister Nathi Mthethwa, decided that an operation would be launched to end the strike the next day. This was in line with the earlier promise made by then SAPS North West commissioner Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo to mine management that if the strikers didn’t capitulate, the police would ‘kill this thing’.
On the morning of 16 August, SAPS spokesperson Captain Dennis Adriao was quoted as saying, ‘Today, unfortunately, is D-Day.’ Prior warnings from more experienced operational officers that trying to confront a large number of miners would result in bloodshed were ignored. Officers on the ground were ordered to forge ahead with the operation despite its unacceptable risks. Heavily armed paramilitary units were brought in, along with about 4 000 extra rounds of ammunition and four mortuary vans.
The Farlam inquiry found that the striking mineworkers posed no imminent threat to the police or anyone else on the afternoon of 16 August.
An earlier police plan that could have avoided bloodshed was discarded by top SAPS managers
In the operation, the police initially shot dead 17 miners who, it was argued later, were attempting to go home to their nearby settlement. The Farlam inquiry couldn’t make a conclusive finding on the intention of the miners, but found that although there was no objective evidence of the need for self-defence, some police officers may have mistakenly believed they were under attack.
The miners who survived the shooting at ‘scene one’ turned and fled into a nearby rocky outcrop called the ‘small koppie’. The police chased after them and surrounded the koppie. They shot dead another 17 miners who were hiding among rocks and bushes at what later became known as ‘scene two’. During the Farlam inquiry, the police failed to provide any evidence that most of those who were killed at ‘scene two’ were attacking them, or posing any threat.
A new future South African president who cares about truth, justice and accountability must ensure that the victims and their families receive proper compensation. He or she must also ensure that all those implicated in the killings, including police officers, are held accountable.
Additional resources must be allocated to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate so that thorough credible investigations can be undertaken against the police. An internal police investigation ‘cleared’ 87 police officers of any misdeeds that occurred at Marikana.
Many people, police included, still believe the shooting was a legitimate act of self-defence
The findings and recommendations of the Farlam inquiry must be integrated into the police’s basic and operational training as a case study of what can go wrong if proper planning within the law isn’t undertaken. A panel of experts was established by the minister of police in 2016 to reform public order policing in line with Farlam’s recommendations. Once its work is finalised, the recommendations must be implemented as a priority.
To improve policing overall, the recommendations of the National Development Plan regarding the appointment of the SAPS national commissioner and deputies must also be implemented.
Unless action is taken to show that government has learnt the lessons of Marikana, 16 August will remain a day of perpetual shame for all South Africans. However, if Marikana results in better accountability and policing, over time this day could become a reminder of how South Africa can learn from tragedy and can craft a better future.