On the 16th of August South African police opened fire on striking miners in Marikana. 112 people were shot, 34 killed and 78 wounded. There were allegations of murder and counter claims of self-defence as well as comparisons to the Apartheid era. Suspiciously, not a single officer was even slightly wounded. Bizarrely the police responded by arresting 270 strikers but not a single police officer. Recent reports claim that most of the victims were shot in the back and far from police lines. It’s looking more and more like we are dealing with a massacre of innocent strikers, a South African Bloody Sunday.
Miners at Lonmin mines in Marikana went on strike over working conditions and to demand a pay rise from 4,500 rand to 12,500 rand a month (10 rand is roughly worth 1 Euro). Lonmin is one of the three biggest platinum producers in the world and last year made $159 million in profits. For days there had been a tense stand between the miners camped out and the police. 10 people had been killed in the week beforehand, two of which were police officers. On the 16th police moved to disperse the crowd. That is when the trouble began. Police claimed they only fired in self-defence after being fired on and charged by strikers armed with machetes and spears.
They are problems with this explanation. Only six guns were found after the shooting and not a single officer was injured in any way. It is strange to the point of madness that a group of men armed only with spears would charge a large number of heavily armed police officers. Why would they choose certain death?
There are some videos of the shooting. The first one shows the strikers in a seemingly suicide charge at police lines, before being gunned down.
However most of the victims were killed far from these police lines and were not involved in any “charge”. This second video is taken from a different angle. It looks instead like the miners were herded (deliberately or not) into the line of police. Prehaps instead of charging the police line they were really fleeing another group of police.
A major hole was put through the police story when it was claimed that most victims were shot in the back. A local south African newspaper claimed it received leaked information from the investigation (not due to report until four months time). They quoted inside sources who claimed the autopsies showed most victims were shot in the back and were found far from the scene of the crime. This directly contradicts the police story and instead suggests that the victims were trying to flee the police.
There were allegations of a cover up when instead of arresting any of the police officers, 270 of the strikers were arrested and charged with 34 counts of murder. Apartheid era legislation was used to charge the strikers with the murder of their comrades. This bizarre turn of events defies logic. The charges have since been dropped, leading to suspicions that their own purpose was to intimidate witnesses. In fact 150 of the strikers have claimed they were beaten while in police custody and have filed charges. This is in the context of 1,769 cases of people dying in police custody in 2010 and roughly 5,000 cases of assault, torture and other misconduct by police. Note that these are only the cases that are investigated, they do not include unreported incidents or those that were covered up.
Reporter Greg Marinovich examined the scene and found “disturbing” evidence. He claims that some of the victims “appear to have been shot at close range or crushed by police vehicles.” The majority were killed 300 metres from police lines were the “charge” took place. After examining the local geography (rocks, trees etc), he concluded that some victims must have been shot in close range, no more than two metres away, possibly while begging for their life. As they were corned they could have been arrested but were instead shot. Few bullets were found in the surrounding area, suggesting they did not die in a hail of bullets. Others were run over by police vehicles. Only a single handgun was found at the scene and police had the protection of their vehicles. Why were they there? The crowd had already been dispersed. Marinovich concludes that “It is becoming clear to this reporter that heavily armed police hunted down and killed the miners in cold blood.” If this is correct, then the South African police is guilty of a disgraceful massacre.
It is necessary to under the working conditions in the mines to understand the context of the strike. It is mainly rock-drillers who are striking. They work in cramped, stifling hot, poorly ventilated areas that with powerful drills that cause damage to their hearing and risk the danger of rocks falling on them. Many miners also suffer from various diseases contracted while on the job, including tuberculosis and silicosis, a potentially fatal respiratory ailment.
It is because their work is so dangerous that the miners are determined to strike. Trade and Industry Minister, Rob Davis described the conditions in the mines as “appalling” and said the owners who “make millions” had questions to answer about how they treat their workers. International Labour Organisation criticised the condition of the miners saying they are exposed to “a variety of safety hazards: falling rocks, exposure to dust, intensive noise, fumes and high temperatures, among others.” While noting that wages can be high for managers and professionals they said wages can be very low for miners with limited education and skills. The independent faith-based organisation Bench Marks Foundation said Lonmin’s Marikana mine were exploiting their workers. They criticised the fact that few of the benefits have reached the surrounding area which are marked by “squalid living conditions, unemployment and growing inequality.” They argued that the high profits side by side with the low wages and dire poverty contributed to the violence.
The misery of the miners is not over yet. They are determined to continue their strike until they improve their dismal conditions. The evidence suggests that they were the victim of a brutal police massacre, the likes of which has not been since apartheid times. They must bury their dead knowing it is highly unlikely that the perpetrators will be punished. The truth of what really happened on August 16th 2012 may never be known. Their struggle for justice has only just begun.