EXECUTED WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE
After the guns fell silent that afternoon in Marikana two years ago, the incomprehensible happened. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) used the doctrine of common purpose to charge the 270 surviving miners in police custody with the murders of their 34 dead colleagues.
The common purpose doctrine holds all parties involved in a crime responsible for its consequences. It was most infamously used by the apartheid government to charge Solomon Mahlangu (21) with the murders of two civilians even though he did not fire any gunshots nor brandish a firearm.
He was part of an Umkhonto weSizwe trio that had sneaked into the country to smuggle pamphlets and weapons before the first June 16 anniversary. Prosecutors said he had acted in common purpose to commit murder with Johannes Motloung, one of the trio who had fired the fatal shots in a gun battle with police as the three tried to evade capture. Mahlangu was found guilty and hanged shortly before he turned 23.
In the case of the Marikana miners, the NPA dropped the charges after a public outcry. But their thinking in bringing the charges illustrates the extreme prejudice with which the striking miners were regarded from the beginning, as testimony at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry again highlighted this week.
The testimony focused on why Lonmin management refused to speak to the strikers despite repeated pleas from police and the miners.
The answer is found in a series of conversations between Lonmin management, its then nonexecutive director and shareholder Cyril Ramaphosa, leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Cabinet members.
At the time, Ramaphosa was widely believed to be the next ANC deputy president, giving his opinion enormous weight among Cabinet members who would soon be reporting to him.
From August 10, two days before the murders of two security guards, Lonmin management had made up its mind. It characterised the unprotected strike as illegal and refused to meet the miners.
Lonmin’s refusal to meet some of its most hard-working employees – rock drill operators who toil for hours in wet, dangerous and cramped caverns underground – allowed tensions to escalate.
When the guards were killed, Lonmin dug in its heels. It used the reasoning of common purpose to impute responsibility for the murders to all the strikers. It convinced Ramaphosa and the NUM, which also refused to meet the miners, that the wildcat strike was a criminal act.
Ramaphosa, likely acting with conflicted interests, carried this prejudicial view into his conversations with Cabinet members.
He sent an email 24 hours before the massacre boasting to Lonmin management he had convinced then mining minister Susan Shabangu to change her characterisation of the strike from a labour dispute to a criminal act. He said she would convince President Jacob Zuma and then police minister Nathi Mthethwa “to act in a more pointed way”.
Shabangu, a former deputy police minister, had once told top cops to ignore regulations and kill criminals with a single shot. And that’s what they did on August 16, convinced by Lonmin, Ramaphosa, Cabinet ministers and SAPS management that the miners were criminals.
In a heart-rending scene in the Marikana documentary, Miners Shot Down, a group of miners are pleading with police to be allowed to keep the sticks and spears which they said they needed for protection.
They are humble and respectful. For a moment, they almost win over William Mpembe, the North West deputy police commissioner.
In that moment, he sees through the unfair characterisation and regards the miners as human beings.
Just then, his phone rings. A command from the other end hardens his attitude. As the miners try to leave peacefully, police open fire, causing the chaos that led to three miners and two officers dying.
The scene is a reminder that the prejudicial way the miners were characterised forced them into situations where they first had to negotiate for their humanity to be recognised before anybody would listen to their grievances. It is also a reminder that those who characterised them criminals have blood on their hands.