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A nation in mourning

Mpumalanga - In Mpumalanga on Sunday, National police commissioner Riah Phiyega struggled to contain her emotions as officers buried Warrant Officer Sello Lepaaku in Seabo village.

Lepaaku was hacked to death, apparently by striking mineworkers, last Monday. Three days later his colleagues shot and killed at least 34 miners as they stormed off the same koppie between Wonderkop and Marikana Mine towards the police skirmish line.

National Commissioner Riah Phiyega wipes a tear during the funeral of Sello Ronnie Lepaaku, who was killed by miners during a strike at Lonmin Mines in Rustenburg, North West. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu. Credit: INLSA

Phiyega absolved all her officers of guilt in what is dubbed the worst massacre in democratic South Africa’s history:

“It was the right thing to do. We are sorry that lives were lost,” she said. “As SAPS, we are doing our work. No criminal, no person will discourage us from doing so.”

She appealed to the public to understand how her officers felt: “Take into account the reasons why we did this. Our officers were emotionally bruised.”

Back at the mine, emotions were running high as anxious relatives visited the local hospital, prison and morgue to find out if their fathers, husbands or sons were alive or dead.

Many fear the death toll of 34 could be far higher once all bodies are accounted for.

President Jacob Zuma has declared a period of national mourning from Monday until Sunday to commemorate the lives of all South Africans who have died violently – but especially the people killed in “incidents at Marikana in the North West province”, the Presidency has announced.

The SA flag will fly at half-mast at all flag stations in SA and missions outside the country. Zuma declared Thursday the official day for services “to mourn, and promote a violence-free society”. The day would be aimed at mourning the 34 people killed as well as those killed in the run-up to last Thursday’s shooting.

“The period of mourning is also for the eight members of the community-based anti-stock theft group called Isikebhe, who were ambushed and killed in Pomeroy near Msinga in KwaZulu-Natal,” Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj said.

The Presidency confirmed a judicial inquiry would be held. Maharaj said its composition and terms of reference would be announced “in a few days”.

“The nation is in shock and in pain. We must this week reflect on the sanctity of human life and the right to life as enshrined in the constitution… We must avoid finger-pointing and recrimination. We must unite against violence from whatever quarter,” Zuma said.

“We must reaffirm our belief in peace, stability and order and in building a caring society free of crime and violence.”

Zuma’s office also named the team of cabinet ministers beingdespatched to Marikana to help co-ordinate support for families of the dead and injured, including counselling and burials.

It will be led by Minister in the Presidency in charge of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, Collins Chabane, and includes North West premier Thandi Modise and ministers Susan Shabangu (Mineral Resources), Nathi Mthethwa (Police), Bathabile Dlamini (Social Development), Richard Baloyi (Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs), Mildred Oliphant (Labour), Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (Defence and Military Veterans), Aaron Motsoaledi (Health), Dr Siyabonga Cwele (State Security) and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (Home Affairs).

Zuma had also called on faith-based organisations to work with the government in assisting families, he said.

The first port of call for most relatives of the miners was the Andrew Saffy Memorial Hospital in Wonderkop, where mine staffers waited outside a caravan parked next to the gate with the list of mineworkers either in jail or dead.

Among them was Bernard Mokobori, 41. Unharmed during Thursday’s shooting, he was now fretting about his elder brother Jakob’s whereabouts.

Flanked by his two sisters Sebabatso Lekhutla and Ntebaleng Pitso, Mokobori stood anxiously in the queue as the family awaited their turn to hear if their brother was among those detained or dead. They moved slowly towards the help desk. The staffer’s eyes raced through the list as Mokobori watched. Lekhutla bit her lower up and gave a huge sigh. Pitso covered her mouth with the palm of her hands.

“I am sorry, you will have to come back tomorrow. His name is not on the list. He may be on the list that will be updated tomorrow,” said the staffer.

A few metres away stood Pupu Yaya, 49. Forlorn, he had his worst fears confirmed when told his brother Anele Mdizeni, 38, was one of the 34 miners lying in a morgue in Phokeng.

“He had three young children. Who will take care of them now?” asked Yaya, a mineworker from Elliotdale, Eastern Cape, shaking his head.

Relatives and residents took to the streets on Saturday when Zuma arrived, followed by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

They were unequivocal, blaming Zuma and Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa for murdering their loved ones and authorising an ethnic cleansing of Xhosa workers.

Some women present called on the government to take over the mine while doubting the efficiency of the president’s specially appointed judicial and ministerial task team to probe the cause of the killings.

Tholakele Dlunga, one of the ringleaders of the striking miners, who was unscathed on Thursday night, said the police acted aggressively.

“We were sitting and singing on the hilltop when we suddenly noticed the police encircling us with barbed wire. These police officers were armed. Some of the men on the hilltop then confronted the police about it. It was then that the police opened fire on us. Yes, we were carrying weapons at the time, but none of us fired any shots or attacked the police. The police did not fire any warning shots and had instead fired their guns directly at us.”

He said that after the killings police had later fired teargas and rubber bullets to cover up their “murderous act”.

Other speakers corroborated this. Others said some of the mineworkers were killed when police drove over them in their armoured vehicles.

Malema was scathing. “How can you use an automatic rifle to control the crowd?” Malema asked to rousing applause. “Jacob Zuma must step down for supervising the massacre of the people of Marikana. Nathi Mthethwa must also step down because the killings happened under his command.”

On Sunday, the site was deserted. There were no posies of flowers, no pictures of those who died, no crosses in an informal shrine. Instead, dried blood on the ground and discarded blue rubber gloves marked the spot where the first group of men were killed on Thursday. There were wooden sticks circling a bone fragment which many believed was a piece of skull blown out in a hail of bullets.

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