Marikana Massacre 16 August 2012

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Miners at their gathering point on the hill at Marikana

On 16 August 2012, the South African Police Service opened fire on a crowd of striking mineworkers at Marikana, some 100km northwest of Johannesburg in the North West Province. The fateful event left 34 mineworkers dead, 78 wounded and more than 250 people were arrested. The protesting mineworkers were demanding a wage increase at the Lonmin platinum mine. The event was the biggest incident of police brutality since the advent of democracy and it revived memories of the brutality suffered under Apartheid security police.

Addressing a press conference, South African Police Service (SAPS) authorities claimed its officers had been under attack by a group of mineworkers armed with dangerous weapons, including machetes, spears and clubs when they opened fire with automatic weapons into the crowd a few meters away. Among those killed was Bongani Nqongophele, Janaveke Raphael, Van Wyk Sagalala, security guard Matlhomola Mabelane, Andries Ntshenyeho, Telang Mohai, Thabile Mpumza, Stelega Gadlela, Thabiso Thelejane, Thabiso Mosebetsane, Jackson Lehupa and many others. The official number of people killed was confirmed to be 34 by National Police Commissioner General Riah Phiyega, while 78 were injured and 259 arrested. The confirmation came after Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa told Talk Radio 702 that more than 30 people were killed and scores were injured.

Police and victims of the shooting, 2012.

The unrest at the Lonmin mine began on 10 August, as more than 3,000 workers walked off the job over pay in what management called an illegal strike. The build-up to the massacre was marked by reports of intimidation and assault incidents among the different factions of mineworkers. Two police officers and two security guards counted among the 10 people who were killed as violence escalated between two rival unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Striking workers infiltrated the production areas, assaulting on-duty employees, fatally wounding one and torching six motor vehicles at the plant.

On 15 August, Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu expressed her anxiety about the violent protests at Marikana. Meanwhile the striking mineworkers had chosen a hill as their gathering point and were discussing a truce with police officers. These discussions collapsed when mineworkers refused to disarm. Subsequently, the mining company, Lonmin, refrained from issuing warning letters to striking workers in order to avoid ‘harming’ ongoing negotiations.

Parallels could be drawn between the 12 August 1946 African mineworkers’ strike which was led by John Beaver (JB) Marks, leader of the African Mine Workers' Union (AMWU) and the 2012 mineworkers strike, led by Joseph Mathunjwa president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. The 1946 strike was initiated by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), which was active in distributing pamphlets and other material related to the strike. About 60 000 miners went on strike. The strike was forcibly suppressed by Government. According to 1946 official figures, nine workers were killed and 1 248 injured. Fifty-one persons, mainly Communists, were later charged in connection with the strike. They included three Indians, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, J.N. Singh and M.J. Vania. Police also arrested members of the District Committee of the Communist Party in Johannesburg. They were subsequently convicted and given sentences ranging from R30 (or three months in prison) to R100 (or six months’ imprisonment).

The Marikana massacre prompted wide criticism, some calling it “the ANC’s Sharpeville” while others claimed Marikana should be a catalyst for change. According to Terry Bell, Marikana was a watershed, a turning point that is likely to have a profound and long-term impact on South Africa’s social and political environment. “But, unlike other watersheds over the past 53 years, it may provide the basis for political diversification rather than uniting disparate opponents of a single authority,” he added. President Jacob Zuma cut short his attendance of the 32nd Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summit in Maputo, Mozambique, in order to visit the site of the incident. Announcing the government aims to appoint a commission of inquiry to probe the killings, Zuma said: “We have to uncover the truth about what happened here. In this regard I've decided to institute a commission of inquiry. The inquiry will enable us to get to the real cause of the incident.” President Zuma appointed retired Judge Ian Farlam as Chairman of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. His announcement came amid memorial services for the deceased held in the Eastern Cape, North West and Johannesburg.

While the commission is ongoing the allegations that have stemmed from it have caused concern over the police’s version of the event. There have accusations of collusion between police, politicians and business to ensure the strike would be unsuccessful. The truth of these allegations will only come out after the commission has released its final report.

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Last updated : 31-Jan-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Aug-2013