Marikana: Blood trails lead into a maze
Without key forensic data, one's interpretation of events at Marikana depends on what one wants to believe.
The ultimate tragedy of Marikana may be that we will never know exactly what happened on the day so many died at the hands of the police, or that South Africa will never agree about the events.
To date, there are three different versions of the events that killed 34 strikers at Marikana on August 16.
The official story from the police, as told by national commissioner Riah Phiyega, is of a concerted attack by a mob and the inevitable deaths as officers defended themselves. This version lays the blame squarely on armed and belligerent strikers.
Interviews with police on the scene and video news footage provides a slightly different picture: panicking police firing wildly on people who may be rushing to attack them or may be trying to get away, or a mixture of both. In this version, you have to look at events leading up to the shooting to assign blame and it is hard to declare either side entirely blameless.
Then there is the narrative of cold-blooded slaughter, first put forward by academic Peter Alexander and his research team, based on interviews with strikers and an examination of the scene after the police forensics team had left. In this version, the police engaged in a "well-organised, premeditated slaughter".
That is the version now strongly supported by a report from Greg Marinovich, which has the weight of his international reputation as a photojournalist behind it. And although it is an extraordinary claim yet to be supported by extraordinary evidence, it is not impossible. The brutal murder of two fellow policemen earlier in the week provided motive and the confusion amid the chaotic attempt to disarm the strikers provided opportunity. As for method, Marinovich's interpretation of the scene is compelling.
But there are many potential loopholes in that interpretation that - depending on which way you are predisposed to lean - could be used to debunk the theories, or be seen as a way for those in the policy guilty of premeditated murder to avoid justice.
Both the Alexander group and Marinovich considered blood left behind at the scene of the killing, but unlike the police forensics team they could not determine whether that blood was human at a scene in which animals were slaughtered the preceding week. Both the investigations rely heavily on eyewitness accounts from miners, accounts that have been contradicted by other strikers or have apparently suffered some embroidering along the way. Both assume that the absence of any wounded police show that police were not under immediate threat.
Could a striker armed with a handgun and holed up among the rocks of the koppie, hostile either in fear or panic or because he believed in protective muti, been shot at and killed before he could fire in return? Could men have tumbled down rocks after being shot, leaving no blood trail as they fell? And are these scenarios any less likely than police walking among those rocks, randomly executing cowering men?
Unprovoked police action
There are similar problems with the accounts of how police officers Hendrick Tsietsi Mohene and Sello Ronnie Lepaaku were killed earlier that week. Some say they were alone when they were dragged from their vehicle and killed. Now, some time after the fact, a conflicting account tells of a battle between police and strikers initiated by unprovoked police action.
Crush injuries would be less ambiguous even than people shot in the back. The veld in the area around the Marikana koppie is rarely thick enough to obscure a man lying down, which would make claims that armoured vehicles drove over prostrate strikers unwittingly more than a little dubious. But such injuries have yet to be independently verified.
In the midst of all this uncertainty, information that could us help to reach firm conclusions remains scarce. It seems fairly certain that most of the deaths on August 16 were out of view of much-analysed television footage, unobserved by journalists. As early as that night, forensic specialists confirmed that they were at work on two sites. People in the area remain guarded and suspicious of outsiders and some of those who are willing to talk tend to tell wild tales that cast themselves in key roles. The police, meanwhile, are saying nothing, but it seems unlikely that officers are not comparing stories and getting them straight ahead of the judicial inquiry.
The most crucial information is also still closed to journalists and the public. A source close to the investigation into the aftermath said on Thursday the intention remained to process and consider all evidence before releasing any findings, or responding to any allegations. That may change, but only on political orders.
Again, there are at least two interpretations possible. It could be that investigators and their managers are determined to not jeopardise the prosecution for murder of either strikers or police. Or it could be that silence and time will give them the opportunity to massage the evidence and hide the truth.
Ultimately, and sadly, it depends on what you wish to believe.
Disclosure: Phillip de Wet was previously the deputy editor of Daily Maverick, the website where Greg Marinovich’s article on the evidence at Marikana was first published.