Marikana massacre: South Africans left waiting for answers

Aug 15, 2014

Two years after 34 people died at the British-owned Marikana mine, an inquiry seems no closer to the truth

As South Africa marks the second anniversary of the Marikana massacre, a commission of inquiry into the mass killings continues with little visible result.

The most lethal use of force by South African security forces since the end of apartheid left 34 striking miners dead after days of violent clashes.

The Ferguson inquiry into the killings at the British-owned mine heard this week that the lives of the miners were considered "cheaper than chewing gum" by the police and the mining company, South Africa's Daily Maverick reports. As the families continue to grieve, calls for accountability, justice and compensation grow louder and more urgent.

What happened in Marikana?

On August 10 2012, miners at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana staged a walk-out after the company refused to discuss a pay rise and complaints about safety. The strike was not sanctioned by the mining unions, but workers went ahead with the action, saying the pay was not worth the dangerous working conditions.

While striking, the miners clashed with police repeatedly, with casualties on both sides. On the deadliest day of the strikes, which came to be known as the Marikana massacre, an elite police unit opened fire on protesters with automatic weapons, killing 34 miners and injuring hundreds more. The miners were armed mostly with sticks but some reportedly possessed handguns. There are conflicting reports about which group fired first.

Some of those who survived were arrested and tortured by police, according to a special investigation by Niren Tolsi for the Mail and Guardian.

Who is to blame?

Two years later, many argue South Africa is no closer to an answer. The Ferguson commission was set up in October 2012 and expected to deliver findings within four  months. It is still ongoing, and has been dismissed by victims' relatives as a farce. "I don't have faith in the truth being uncovered," one miner's widow, Matsepang Ntsoele, said.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the families told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that "there [are] a lot of people in authority who want the Marikana tragedy to be forgotten."

  • The mining company

Lonmin has been accused of paying the miners minimal wages and failing to enter negotiations while requiring them to work in dangerous conditions. It does not admit any responsibility and has not paid compensation to the families of victims.

  • The striking miners

The state, the police and the mining company have all indirectly placed the blame on the strikers themselves, saying they initiated the violence. Police accused them of carrying dangerous weapons and attacking security officers.

  • The police and government 

The government and security forces also deny they are culpable, arguing instead that police fired at the strikers in self-defence. They say strikers refused repeated requests to disarm and disperse and then charged at police. The South African Human Rights Council has accused the government of a "deliberate" cover-up, according to the South African Press Association.

What happens next?

Families of the victims have been waiting for two years for answers - and compensation. The majority of the relatives live in impoverished rural areas and now must live without their sole breadwinner.  "We have no closure, and what's even worse is we have nothing to eat," one widow said.

The killings also had a broader political effect. They "certainly changed how [people] see their relationship with their democratically elected government", says the Mail and Guardian.  

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