Thousands of striking miners, armed, angry and determined, mass in defiance of the police who opened fire using live rounds. Picture: THE TIMES
Thousands of striking miners, armed, angry and determined, massed in August at Marikana in defiance of the police who opened fire using live rounds. Picture: THE TIMES

FINGER-pointing was the order of the day at the Marikana commission of inquiry on Monday, where the South African Police Service (SAPS) blamed Lonmin for the deaths of 34 striking miners shot by police officers on August 16.

The opening statements gave the first glimpse of the explanation the police will offer for their deadly response to the illegal strike at the platinum mine, and their version of events was immediately questioned by lawyers representing other parties.

Ishmael Semenya SC, counsel for the SAPS, said the tragedy could have been avoided if all parties had kept to their roles. "Evidence will show that in July 2012 Lonmin struck a deal with workers outside the bargaining processes," he said.

When the engagement between the striking workers and Lonmin reached a breaking point, the company refused to negotiate with the workers on their wage demands.

"This inconsistent approach must have sent mixed messages to protesters," he said.

Lonmin had created a beast that it later found impossible to tame, Mr Semenya said.

Karel Tip SC, for the National Union of Mineworkers, agreed that Lonmin’s " unilateral" negotiations with workers undermined agreed processes.

Schalk Burger, for Lonmin, told the inquiry that the area where the shooting occurred was under the control of the SAPS.

Tim Bruinders SC, for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, said its president, Joseph Mathunjwa, had tried to arrange a meeting between Lonmin and the strikers — at the request of the workers — without success. He said that on August 16, Mr Mathunjwa went to the strikers’ gathering place on a koppie near the mine and informed them that Lonmin was not prepared to negotiate. After he left, the police arrived and shot the workers.

George Bizos SC, for the Legal Resources Centre, said the force used by the police on August 16 was not sanctioned by any of South Africa’s laws, or the constitution. "We have not seen any evidence of any policeman being shot at on the 16th," he said.

Mr Bizos asked who took the decision to use live ammunition.

Dumisa Ntsebeza, representing 21 families of those killed at Marikana, said they called on the commission to make a finding that their family members were unlawfully killed by the SAPS. He said that before the shooting, there appeared to be no direct order issued by the police for the strikers to disperse, nor was any ultimatum given to them.

"After what was described as a show of force, the SAPS sought to encircle and entrap workers and block the miners’ likely dispersal route to the Nkaneng informal settlement," Mr Ntsebeza said.

"It was this event, and this event alone, which precipitated the movement of strikers off the mountain. They had no choice but to move down the mountain." In those circumstances, death and injury were predictable, he said.

"Less predictable is that some of these miners were shot in the back while they were charging at the police. The use of automatic rifles is surprising, especially despite lack of evidence that workers were carrying heavy arms," he said.

Mr Ntsebeza asked the commission to put on evidence to show that the timing and the manner of the SAPS response was "aggressive, misguided, disproportionate, unreasonable and unlawful".

He said the families believed that Lonmin should also take blame for the shootings, as they consistently refused to meet their striking workers — even after indications that there could be violence.

"Whether or not meeting with Lonmin would have averted the deaths, we will never know," Mr Ntsebeza said.