Questions and confusion remain at Marikana

Strikers and police are still at odds with each other over the Lonmin tragedy's sequence of events. (Paul Botes, M&G)

Strikers and police are still at odds with each other over the Lonmin tragedy's sequence of events. (Paul Botes, M&G)

Police and workers who were part of the strike at Marikana don't agree on a great deal – except the count of the dead.

Groups of strikers stormed their lines clearly intent on killing, police say. The men were simply trying to escape and were running for their lives in the belief that live ammunition was already in use, surviving colleagues say.

The strikers were wielding dangerous weapons and under the impression they were invulnerable thanks to muti, police say. The weapons were simply for show, as has been traditional at marches and protests, strikers say, and the sangoma rituals were for defence.

Strikers wouldn't listen to their own leaders' pleas to disperse, police say.
They didn't have enough time to consider and consult on the demand, strikers say.

The stories the two sides tell are rich in colour and descriptions of sights and sounds, but fragmented. On August 16, when 34 people died in a hail of bullets, the line of confrontation was kilometres long, and the two main sites of confrontation were veiled in dust and smoke, and further obscured by rocks and bushes. Even though several TV cameras were on the scene, both sides say video footage doesn't tell the whole story, and when pressed both sides admit that their overall impressions are strongly coloured by second-hand accounts from people who suffered from shock.

"Those guys, when they came back, you should have seen their eyes," one of the only police members who would speak at all said later that week. "Most of them ... they didn't want to talk about it. One was just babbling. I think he was still full of adrenalin ... They started making sense later, then they told us what happened, but that night nobody knew."

One of the striking workers, who says he was not far from a group that was mowed down, tells a not-dissimilar story.

"When we got away we ran and we hid under a bush, and everybody was asking 'What happened? What happened?' The next day everyone was together again, and we were still asking 'What happened?' The women were asking many questions. I didn't know what to say to them."

By Friday afternoon the narrative of events had been cemented in the minds of both sides, but neither would confirm crucial details that would help establish the truth. Members of the striking group would not talk about the handguns police said they had, and police would not answer questions about details of orders and force disposition. Yet each believed the other to be at fault, and by the weekend those on the fringes of each group were coming up with theories about why the other had acted the way it had. The families of strikers spoke about a conspiracy between police and mine bosses, or a plan to drive Xhosa's from the mines. Private security guards speculated about mine nationalisation, and unions trying to out-militant one another.

Others were less taken with such theories.

"It's all about the money," said a worker on the mine, who said he had not been part of the protest but attended some meetings. "They wanted more money, and things went wrong."

The truth of the matter, if it can be determined at all, now seems most likely to emerge at the judicial inquiry announced (but not yet constituted) by President Jacob Zuma. Police and security services are not answering questions that could help determine whether the police had the resources they required, including intelligence support, and followed correct procedure.

Here are the questions the Mail & Guardian put to the police and the State Security Agency this week.

Questions for the South African Police Service:
Which police units were deployed in the Marikana area on Thursday, August 16?

Was the number of police members deployed in the Marikana area on Thursday August 16 considered sufficient?

What proportion of police members deployed in the Marikana area on Thursday August 16 had be trained in crowd control?

Was the number of available armoured carriers deployed in the Marikana area on Thursday August 16 considered sufficient?

  • How many armoured carriers were on the scene at the time?


Was the number of water cannons deployed in the Marikana area on Thursday August 16 considered sufficient?

  • How many water cannons were on the scene at the time?

Were police on the scene considered adequately equipped with shotguns, rubber bullets, tear gas and body armour?

  • How many of the front-line members were in body armour on the afternoon on Thursday 16 August?

Were any police on the scene on Thursday August 16 equipped with riot shields?

  • If so, how many?

Were members on the front line on Thursday August 16 ordered to chamber rounds and set safety off?

  • If so, who gave that order?
  • If not, what position were firearms ordered to be in?

The stated intent of police action on Thursday August 16 was to arrest illegally striking workers. What provisions had been made for the transport and holding of those to be arrested?

In situations similar to that at Marikana on Thursday August 16 police have previously opted to isolate those gathered illegally and keep them barricaded. Was this option considered?

  • If not, why was such a tactic not adopted?

What was the average duration of shift for police members deployed in the Marikana area in the week before Thursday August 16?

Did police members who discharged their firearms on Thursday August 16 remain on duty subsequently?

  • If so, why were they not relieved?

Were police weapons discharged on Thursday August 16 secured for forensic testing?

Was police intelligence active in the Marikana area prior to Thursday August 16?

Questions for the State Security Agency:
Do the intelligence services have a responsibility to investigate potentially violent or disruptive illegal labour activity?

Were any intelligence operatives active in the Marikana mine during the time of the strike?

  • If so, how many?

Were any additional intelligence operatives deployed after Thursday afternoon, August 16?

  • If so, how many?

Did intelligence services have confidential informants among the community at Marikana, or among workers at Lonmin mines prior to August 16?

Do intelligence services now have confidential informants among the community at Marikana, or among workers at Lonmin mines?

Did intelligence services provide information to police commanders at Marikana?

Were the intelligence services involved in tactical decision-making at Marikana, including the decision to disperse the group that had gathered on Thursday August 16?

Are intelligence services usually involved in such tactical decision-making in cases of service-delivery protests or illegal labour action?

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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