Members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union protest on the Wonderkop Hill during the fourth anniversary of the Marikana massacre in Rustenburg. Picture: EPA
Members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union protest on the Wonderkop Hill during the fourth anniversary of the Marikana massacre in Rustenburg. Picture: EPA

More than four years after the Marikana massacre and 18 months after the report of the commission of inquiry into the events was released, finally we have a response from the president. The timing of the Presidency’s "update", released on a Sunday in December, is inexplicable. But it does represent at least some attempt to hold some people accountable for the events of August 2012.

Attributing responsibility for the shootings to individual police officers proved to be almost impossible for various reasons. The Farlam commission recommended rather that those who were in charge — who set up the situation and then failed to control it — should be held responsible. Commendably, the Presidency seems largely to have followed this. It has referred a list that includes South African Police Service (SAPS) brigadiers, major-generals, colonels and other officers for prosecution. The list appears to cover the key officers who were in control and were responsible for what happened.

The principle of holding those in charge responsible is an important one, though whether we shall ever see those high-ranking officers in court is open to question, given what we know about SA’s faltering prosecutorial system.

An even bigger problem, however, is that the accountability list begins and ends with the SAPS, including a separate inquiry going on into suspended commissioner Riah Phiyega. It goes no higher.

But where was the minister of police at the time? In the more than four years since, there has never been any sign of any Cabinet minister, least of all the president himself, apologising or acknowledging any responsibility in any broader sense for what went so badly wrong. And that’s a problem, not just for the mine workers and police officers who died or for their families and communities, but for SA itself.

The presidency lists a series of measures that include changes to labour legislation

Then there is the issue of compensation for the Marikana victims, with the Presidency, encouragingly, stating on Sunday that "government is ready to pay". But it is victims of police action who might finally get a payout, rather than a broader set of victims of the events including workers who were killed by other workers.

Like the commission, the Presidency has adopted a somewhat legalistic approach. In the interests of reconciliation, it might have been wise to adopt a more humane one and to make payouts much earlier.

In its update on the actions taken by government departments in response to the Farlam recommendations, the Presidency lists a series of measures that include changes to labour legislation and police procedures, as well as a big focus on the provision of housing in the Marikana area by Lonmin and by the government.

All those measures are important. And the efforts to update SA’s labour laws to try to curb the incidence of prolonged and violent strikes have helped to reassure investors and are holding out the hope of a more stable labour relations environment as well.

But neither new labour laws nor more houses will do much to tackle the profoundly disturbing workplace dynamics that underlay the disaster at Marikana. They were about established trade unions’ failure to represent their members well and management’s failure to engage with their workers or take into account the risks to which they are exposing them. They were about the often brutal workplace dynamics in the mines and the dysfunctional nature of mining communities.

What the government should be doing about those deep social and structural factors is an enduring challenge. But threatening mining companies with revoking their licences is not going to do it. The response to Marikana needs to be a much more probing and reconciliatory one than we have seen so far.

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