South Africa shootings: Marikana mine inquiry begins

Protesters at the site of the Marikana shooting during the commission visit - Monday 1 October 2012 Some protesters gathered at the site of the shooting during the commission's visit

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A judicial commission of inquiry into the killing of 44 people during a strike at the Marikana mine has opened.

The inquiry was set up by South African President Jacob Zuma.

The investigation will determine the roles played by the police, the management of the platinum mine, Lonmin, the unions and government.

Some 34 striking miners were shot in a day of bloodshed on 16 August. Ten others, including two policemen, died during weeks of unrest at the mine.

The killings on 16 August were the most deadly police action since the end of apartheid in 1994.

The commission, which consists of a three-member panel led by retired Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Ian Farlam, is expected to complete its analysis within four months. It must submit its final report within a month of finishing its investigation.

At the scene

The mood among the various representatives in the air-conditioned auditorium in Rustenburg's Civic Centre changed from emotional to legalese after the panel observed a minute's silence in memory of the 44 people who died and whose names were read out.

The lawyer for most of the victims' families then made an application for the hearings to be postponed for at least 14 days to allow him time to consult his clients who are scattered across vast rural areas of the countryside.

The judge declined, but promised an expeditious investigation. However, the morning's proceedings highlight the legal minefields an inquiry of this magnitude will have to navigate to get to the truth.

Ironically its proceedings begin on the same day as the governing ANC's nomination process for the party leadership in December. Ultimately the fallout may cost Jacob Zuma the presidency, as some within his party call for him to have a one-term limit. But it has made those loyal to him campaign hard for his re-election and ensure his possible challenger, Kgalema Motlanthe, remains his deputy.

Video evidence

The proceedings are being held at the Rustenburg Civic Centre, near the scene of the shooting and 100km (60 miles) north-west of Johannesburg.

At the opening of the commission, the names of the dead were called out and a minute's silence held.

Judge Farlam said: "It is very important that the truth, in so far as what happened over that period, should become clear as soon as possible.

"We have to balance the need to deal with the matter with expedition, with the need to be thorough."

A short time into the proceedings, a lawyer representing families of dead miners asked for a postponement of at least 14 days. Dumisa Ntsebeza said this would give him time to consult his clients, who are scattered across a vast rural area.

He was supported by the lawyer representing most of the 270 miners arrested following the shootings, says the BBC's Milton Nkosi at the court. The counsel for the police made no objection.

But the commission rejected the request for a two-week adjournment, saying its work needed to be completed with speed.

After the morning's proceedings Judge Farlam travelled to the site of the killing, 30km from Rustenburg, where some protesters had gathered with signs saying: "Don't let the police get away with murder."

A total of 46 people died in the violent protests which took place during weeks of unrest at the platinum mine. However, only 44 deaths are being investigated as two deaths fall outside the scope of the inquiry.

Marikana mine violence

A policeman (R) fires at protesting miners outside a South African mine, 16 August
  • 10 Aug: Some 3,000 workers launch a wildcat strike; three days of clashes kill 10, including two police officers
  • 16 Aug: Police open fire on miners, killing 34 and injuring 78; 270 workers are arrested
  • 23 Aug: President Jacob Zuma appoints a judge-led inquiry to investigate the shootings
  • 30 Aug: State authorities charge all 270 arrested miners with murder under apartheid-era "common purpose" rule
  • 2 Sept: Charges are provisionally dropped after a national outcry
  • 3 Sept: First group of miners freed
  • 18 Sept: Miners agree to a pay offer of a rise of up to 22%
  • 20 Sept: Miners return to work

The investigation will also examine the conduct of any individuals or groupings in promoting conflict and confrontation.

There are plans to set up giant screens in Marikana, close to the scene of the shootings, to allow relatives and friends to follow proceedings closely.

Video footage of the police shooting at the striking miners, which shocked the world, may be used as evidence during the hearings.

Late last month, striking miners at the Marikana mine agreed to return to work after accepting a pay rise of up to 22%.

But the strikes and unrest have spread to other mines in South Africa, one the world's biggest producers of precious metals.

On Friday, an official from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was seriously injured in a petrol bomb attack on his house in the mining town of Rustenburg.

The union said it believes the attack was carried out by a "hit squad" as part of a campaign of intimidation against its members in the platinum industry.

The NUM is locked into a formal alliance with the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Correspondents say South Africa's unions are facing a crisis of credibility, with workers turning on their bosses - accusing them of being too close to capital, and government.

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