The families of slain miners seek compensation for their losses – and an apology from government, writes Niren Tolsi
Three years after their husbands were shot dead by police on August 16 2012 at Marikana, Zameka Nungu and Betty Gadlela are still waiting for a simple apology from the government that killed their families’ sole breadwinners, men they knew and loved.
Instead, this week, they and 34 other families of the Marikana dead filed a civil claim in the North Gauteng High Court that not only asked the department of police for financial compensation for loss of support, future medical expenses and the grief and emotional suffering they have endured, but also for an apology that has, until now, not been forthcoming.
“Government has no shame about what happened at Marikana since they have never presented themselves to us to apologise … and so have not received any peace. Until government apologises to us, we cannot know peace,” said Nungu, the wife of Jackson Lehupa, on Thursday at the offices of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri), the lawyers of the families of the deceased.
A spin operation by the state that denied responsibility while protecting shooters, commanders and, most likely, political heads within government that began the day after the massacre when National Police Commissioner General Riah Phiyega and Nathi Mthethwa, then police minister, addressed a parade of the police members involved in the massacre.
Phiyega told the gathered police their televised mowing down of 17 miners at scene one, and the subsequent execution-style killing of 17 miners at scene two, “represents the best of responsible policing”.
“You did what you did because you were being responsible,” Phiyega said, congratulating the shooters.
Before a single fact had been confirmed about the massacre, Mthethwa too had given, in the words of the Marikana Commission report, his “unequivocal support” for the killings in a militaristic speech: “You must know that as your minister and on behalf of the government, the executive as a whole, on behalf of the president of the republic, commander in chief of all the armed forces in the country, we are all behind you … There will be criticism … but here, as your leadership, we are confident that what you have done, you did in trying to ensure that the rule of law reigns in South Africa. We are not going to allow anybody to run amok in the country.”
What police on the ground at Marikana had actually done, according to forensic evidence at the Marikana Commission, was pump 297 bullets into a rocky enclosure where striking miners had been hiding, killing 17 of them. The killings had been execution style: four of the miners sustained bullet wounds in the head or neck, and 11 were shot in the back. The dead appeared to have been hunted down, and would later have weapons planted on them by police.
Fifteen minutes earlier, police had started the bloodshed by mowing down 17 miners in front of television cameras at “scene one”. The deadly Tactical Response Team responsible for the killings had not allowed – as good practice demanded – time for the use of nonlethal force such as teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to take effect on miners who were attempting leave the koppie for a nearby informal settlement before they opened fire.
Yet, for three years government has denied responsibility – and denied the families of the Marikana dead their humanity.
Almost all the families of the miners killed by police said government treated them as “criminals, or families of criminals”, and that their attempts to be heard at the commission, to talk of their loss, was stymied by police lawyers until its final weeks.
They had been ignored by the government many of them had voted for and that should have been protecting their loved ones, not killing them. This intransigence was evident a few days before President Jacob Zuma released the Marikana Report in June this year. Despite no evidence to support his claim that those killed had been involved in any murders themselves, Zuma told an audience at the Tshwane University of Technology that “those people in Marikana had killed people, and the police were stopping them from killing people”.
His dismissiveness towards the families of those murdered was evident when he released the report without bothering to notify the various interested parties’ legal counsel – which had asked for 48 hours’ notice to ensure psychological support for widows and children – of his intention to do so.
It was echoed by a press release by current Police Minister Nathi Nhleko this week, who welcomed the civil claim, saying that “this is one of the actions that bring[s] closure to this sad chapter in the history of our country”.
The families’ attorney, Kathleen Hardy, noted in a statement that in a right-minded constitutional democracy such as South Africa’s, the “civil suit should be unnecessary. The Marikana Commission of Inquiry spent more than two years establishing what was already clear in video and media footage: the SAPS are responsible for causing the these deaths.”
Marikana, with its police killings and inadequacies of the inquiry report, is justice and humanity denied for those most affected – the wives, children and parents of the men they knew and loved.
Unanswered letters to the presidency asking for a monthly stipend for each family to support them while they attended the commission had gone unanswered. They were living in poverty on handouts and donations while crops were left unattended and children without parental supervision.
Similarly, approaches to Lonmin finally yielded the opportunity for family members to take up jobs at the mine to replace their husbands. Most widows now work as cleaners at Lonmin, a few underground, for what they describe as “blood money”.
“We were suffering at home because there was no food on the table. We wanted Lonmin to pay our husbands’ salaries to us, but they finally offered us work. It is blood money. It is not easy to work in Lonmin, and every day when I wake up I think about the men who died on the koppie, but I must work for my children,” said Gadlela, who now works underground as a construction winch helper. Her husband, Stelega, was shot in the neck at scene two.
Her two sons, just hitting puberty, sit close by, their heads bowed, thumbs and forefingers pressed deep into their eye sockets as if to staunch tears or hold back memories of their father whenever their mother speaks.
Vuyisani Mati, the eldest son of Thebelakhe Mati, who was one of three miners killed on 13 August 2012 when police attacked marching miners without provocation, said: “Its very painful to work at Lonmin. The work is hard, it’s cold, and there are memories of my father there. But then I remembered what my father wanted to do around the house [in Ntabankulu in the rural Eastern Cape], and I go underground so that Lonmin can pay me the blood money. I can’t be a son any more, I have to be a breadwinner.”
Thembelakhe Mati’s killing on 13 August, together with that of Semi Jokanisi and Phumzile Sokanyile, form part of the civil claim.
The families’ lawyers noted in their court papers that “no appropriate plans were in place to disperse, disarm and arrest the group”, which had been marching peacefully to the koppie where they had gathered daily to demand a salary of R12 500 when police started firing teargas canisters at them, triggering a skirmish that also left two police members dead. They noted that commanders, including North West deputy provincial commissioner William Mbembe, had not planned appropriately for the operation, inadequately briefed their members, failed to maintain command and control of their forces, and not taken steps to minimise the risk of violence, injury and death.
This engagement was “contrary to the law, policies, standing orders and orders governing the first incident”, and the “conduct of the commanders was wrongful and negligent”, the lawyers stated in court papers.
Likewise the conduct of commanders at incidents on 16 August ,which left 34 people dead in the Marikana dust. Seri argued that the police commanders had acted on what former North West provincial commissioner lieutenant-general Zukiswa Mbombo had described as “D-Day”:
* “without sufficient rationale as to the manner and timing of the offensive, tactical phase of the operation;
* without proper information about the risks of the operation, the steps to be taken to mitigate those risks, and the implications of this decision;
* without adequate consideration of the available intelligence;
* without an appropriate plan;
* without adequate briefing;
* with an inappropriate use of force;
* without maintaining command and control of the shooters;
* without maintaining communication with their officers;
* without ensuring the provision of medical attention to the injured strikers, alternatively preventing such attention from being given to the strikers; and
* without effectively and timeously using nonlethal force”.
Seri has identified 326 claimants in total and the claim is set to run in excess of R300 million.
Whether government will settle out of court remains to be seen. This week during the parliamentary debate on Marikana, opposition parties tore into government’s callous approach to the families of those killed. Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema accused the government of “premeditated mass murder” and that there had been a “conspiracy to commit murder”.
Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane said the “failure of the president to assign political responsibility for the massacre is indefensible”. Maimane also suggested that the lack of accountability was reducing South Africa to the “evil” of apartheid actions when the state acted, and killed, with impunity.
Yet, the ANC-led government refuses to demonstrate any empathy for Gadlela, Nungu and the other widows, children, parents and siblings of miners who were shot dead by police. The enduring injustice suffered and the scars continue to run deep for the families of those slain: “No one knows how long our husbands would have lived for, no-one knows what the dreams of our families were,” said Gadlela.
* Sunday, August 16 2015, marks the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre when South African police killed 34 miners. Ten people had died in the week before during an unprotected strike at Lonmin’s platinum mining operations in Marikana. Niren Tolsi is a journalist completing a book about the massacre.
Main Photograph: Marikana Commission chairperson, retired judge Ian Farlam, and commission evidence leader Advocate Matthew Chaskalson, are led through the Marikana crime scene during an in loco inspection – by Delwyn Verasamy