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Marikana commission: Lonmin condemned for avoiding miners

Gabi Falanga

A member of Lonmin management has faced strong criticism for not being willing to negotiate directly with the miners during their strike.

On August 16 2012, 34 striking miners were shot and killed by police at the Marikana koppies. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

A top Lonmin employee faced strong criticism on Tuesday at the Marikana commission for the company’s inflexible approach towards miners in the days leading up to the Marikana massacre.

Michael Gomes Da Costa was the vice-president of Lonmin’s Karee Mine at the time of the strike. He was also one of the first people the rock drill operators (RDOs) approached requesting a wage increase.

On June 21 2012, around 300 RDOs unexpectedly arrived at Da Costa’s office. He told the workers he would make their wishes known to the executive committee, but warned they were unlikely to be granted their demand of R12 500. Da Costa also said they should rather have followed the structures put in place, such as approaching the union in charge, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), to discuss wages on their behalf. The workers then indicated they did not want the unions to get involved.

Da Costa maintains that Lonmin had agreed to give miners an additional allowance in order to bring the RDOs’ salaries on par with those working at Impala. However, he said the company refused to enter in to actual negotiations.

Under cross-examination, evidence leader Geoff Budlender criticised Da Costa for the company’s rigid stance in dealing with the mine workers’ demands during the August strike.

On August 16 2012, 34 striking miners were shot and killed by police. In the week preceding this day, eight Lonmin employees, including miners, and two police officers were killed during the unprotected strike.

Correct channels
During the police negotiations with the mine workers, the strike leaders repeatedly requested to speak to Lonmin management. Lonmin’s response was that if the miners put down their weapons, left the koppie and went back to work, they could then have discussion with management, through the appropriate channels (namely, through the NUM).

“The refusal to talk directly to the strikers was the consequence of rigid adherence to speaking to them only through the NUM and this refusal was a mistake which had tragic consequences,” said Budlender.

Da Costa defended this by saying that “the company wanted to stay within the organised structure [NUM] that was in place”. Budlender then pointed out that the striking workers did not have confidence in the NUM; felt that the union had let them down in their negotiations with management; were afraid of the union members after two people were shot and injured by the NUM officials on August 11 2012; and were angry that the NUM was trying to persuade them to go back to work.

But Da Costa insisted that the striking miners should still have followed the structures put in place by Lonmin by talking to them through “the recognised union. At no point did we say you can’t change your union affiliation. Obviously if people had decided to exercise that right, then the membership of that alternate union would’ve grown,” said Da Costa. 

The commissioner, retired judge Ian Farlam, asked how long it would have taken for NUM to lose its position as the recognised union, to which Da Costa admitted that it would take many months.

Budlender also condemned Lonmin for refusing to speak to striking mine workers until after the massacre. “The deaths of 10 people – eight employees and two members of the South African Police Service – did not cause Lonmin to speak directly to the strikers … How many deaths had to occur before Lonmin was willing to talk to the strikers?” he asked Da Costa.

Da Costa responded that it was only after the events on August 16, when the rest of the country became aware of the situation at Marikana, that other parties became involved and helped to “facilitate and mediate” discussions between Lonmin and the workers. 

Police behaviour at Marikana rebuked
The police’s treatment of injured and dead miners at Marikana also came under the spotlight at the hearing again this week. 

Advocate Dumisani Ntsebeza, representing the families of the deceased miners, showed footage of policemen dragging injured and dead mine workers while holding cocked guns at them.

During his cross-examination of tactical response team commander, Lieutenant Colonel Little-Joe Claassen, who was at Marikana on the day of the massacre, Ntsebeza asked whether it was appropriate for the police to treat dead or injured people in such a manner.

Although Claassen agreed this was improper behaviour, he also pointed out that the police would take certain measures to ensure their own safety. “It was a tense situation. The people had dangerous weapons,” he said.

When Claassen had previously seen video footage of a policeman stepping on a striker, he said: “I tried to look for excuses, [maybe they did it] to immobilise a person, to keep them still.” He admitted however that he was distressed by some of the images. 

Last week the police’s behaviour after shooting striking mine workers was also scrutinised during the testimony of Constable Edward Sebatjane. During the cross-examination, cellphone footage was shown of police officers using crude language after Sebatjane had shot and killed striker, Thobile Mpumza.

When Sebatjane’s cross-examination continued on Monday, Dali Mpofu, representing the injured and arrested mine workers, again criticised Sebatjane on the police language heard in the video. A police officer can be heard saying in Sepedi, “Ke mo thubile boss [I destroyed him, boss].”

Mpofu asked, “Why would anyone say they’d destroyed a human being? Is that appropriate as far as you’re concerned? Is that like shooting a pumpkin?”

Sebatjane denied that it was him that said those words and at the same time defended the words, saying that in Sepedi, words can have many different meanings. In closing, Mpofu came to the same conclusion as Ntsebeza had last week, namely that the language used by police “suggests some satisfaction … and triumph and bragging [which] is inconsistent with someone who was shooting in self-defence”.

On Monday, Sebatjane also said he didn’t “see it as a sin” if police officers were seen laughing around the bodies of the dead miners. “They were possibly laughing at other things. But it would be wrong if they were laughing at the dead bodies,” he said.

Trapped by police
During the cross-examinations, Mpofu and Ntsebeza put it to both witnesses that mine workers could have been trying to get past the police to go back to the Nkaneng informal settlement, but were blocked from doing so by the police’s nyalas.

Sebatjane, who was part of the group of police members guarding the informal settlement, shot and killed Mpumza in what he calls “self-defence”. 

However, Ntsebeza argued that Mpumza came in the direction of Sebatjane’s group in order to escape being shot by other police members at the koppie. Due to the positioning of the police nyalas, he had no other escape route option. Sebatjane denied that this was the case.

Ntsebeza also questioned the shots fired by Sebatjane’s colleague Constable Ezekiel Mabe in private defence of Sebatjane, saying: “When you said Mr Mpumza was literally on top of you … we now know he was also shot by the person with an R5 rifle. I want to put it to you that it was improbable that he would’ve shot at him using an R5 rifle, because he would’ve risked shooting you.”

Sebatjane insisted that he acted in self-defence and that due to their positioning, Mabe would not have risked hitting him when shooting at Mpumza.

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