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A sombre Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa took a severe tongue-lashing during a parliamentary debate on the Marikana tragedy on Tuesday, as speaker after speaker lambasted his police force for its handling of the situation.
Mthethwa was left reeling as MPs, by turns, described him as a “lame duck” whose police had become a “militarised” force, “unable to handle crowd control” and who should never have been allowed to use live ammunition in the tragedy, which left 34 striking miners dead and nearly 80 injured last Thursday.
In a scathing attack, DA police spokeswoman Dianne Kohler Barnard described Mthethwa as “nothing but an empty suit”, who presided over a police service which was turning into “a force for state-sponsored violence against civilians”, who should be held accountable for the “[Bheki] Cele-era shoot to kill” dictum and who should “hand his ministry back to the president and resign”.
Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota called for “repercussions” for Mthethwa and the management of the police, while ACDP leader Kenneth Meshoe asked: “Why were the police allowed to use live ammunition when they were ordered by way of a memorandum in December last year not to shoot at protesters with live ammunition?”
Questioning why police had been called in to disperse the crowd, IFP police spokesman Velaphi Ndlovu asked: “Who gave instructions for the police to shoot to kill workers and why … when the workers were not at their workplace, but were on a hill outside the mine and were not a threat to the mine’s production?”
And, describing the events as a “brutal murder”, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa went so far as to suggest a “carefully crafted” plan to ambush the workers, who, he maintained, “seemed to have walked right into a police trap”.
As emotional MPs expressed their condolences for all 44 people who died during the strike, speakers from across the political spectrum welcomed President Jacob Zuma’s announcement of a judicial commission of inquiry and agreed that the “senseless loss of life” must never happen again.
None of the players in the tragedy was spared in the sometimes heated debate as parties demanded that all actors – from mine workers, trade union leaders, police officers and Lonmin board members, to Mthethwa and Zuma himself – must face “fair and impartial scrutiny” in getting to the bottom of what happened.
Even the sangomas who reportedly offered muti to the strikers to make them “invincible and invisible”, should take the blame for what happened, some speakers said.
Both Lekota and Holomisa voiced concern at the “proximity of certain trade unions to the ruling party, with Holomisa saying the deployment of ruling party senior individuals to the private sector had compromised the Lonmin mineworkers.
“For example, just a few hours before the Marikana shoot-out, NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), the police and Lonmin reportedly held a meeting to discuss the situation without involving Amcu (the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union),” Holomisa said.
Lekota voiced serious concern at what he called the close political alliance of the ruling party with trade unions such as NUM and Popcru.
“We all know that at Marikana Mines, Amcu had broken away from NUM and that there was great enmity between them. What will convince the public that the order to shoot at Amcu members was not linked to large-scale rejection of NUM, an affiliate of the ruling party, by members that previously belonged to NUM? Was there a hidden political agenda to the shooting at Marikana because of the close relationship, or was it a failure of SAPS management to update its standing order on the use of live ammunition?”
Lekota accused Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu of fuelling such speculation by her “steadfast refusal to allow Amcu to be present at a meeting with the other involved parties”.
“Her deliberate omission of Amcu is unacceptable.”
Introducing the debate, Mthethwa said the nation should work “double hard” to ensure that such an event did not happen again.
“The events of Thursday are tragic because many people lost their lives in a manner that could have been avoided if all of us had adhered to the constitution,” he said.
“The constitution … guarantees us the right to strike, to protest in a peaceful orderly manner to express our dissatisfaction with anything. While all South Africans enjoy these rights, rights always come with responsibilities.”
ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga said the Lonmin tragedy spoke to the “many ills which continue to plague mine workers in the mining industry”, adding that it must be seen in the context that “the mainstay of mines “was and is cheap labour, cheap black labour”.
“It would be necessary and extremely important to examine all underlying socio-economic reasons for the scale and depth of this tragedy and (the inquiry) should be broad enough to encompass all the variables that played such important roles in the escalation of the violence. This inquiry must be able to give us a comprehensive understanding of how we descended into such anarchy and how we move forward.”
Shabangu said the tragic events “drive us to make amends, to review in utmost depth the happenings in our sector to check any further outbreaks”.
“As part of implementation of mining charter commitments, mining companies are expected to address housing and living conditions of mineworkers. As a department we are working to ensure that companies do comply and implement their transformation commitments,” she said.