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By last Monday, confrontation at the Lonmin Mine at Marikana in North West was ready to explode – two policemen had been hacked to death, another was battling for his life; two mine security officers had been killed; and several miners shot.
Mid-week reports of miners being given muti for invincibility heightened fears of greater bloodshed. The sight of thousands of miners armed to the teeth, crouched on a hill in battle readiness, chanting and tapping their weapons in unison like something from centuries past, pushed tension higher still.
It erupted on Thursday, as police moved to divide the striking miners by dragging in barbed-wire barricades. A phalanx of miners charged the police and tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets gave way to lethal ammunition.
Crucial questions the commission of inquiry will have to answer include: did the police action, such as the tear gas, cause the charge by mineworkers? Were they trying to escape the crowd control measures and did they run the wrong way?
Or were those miners plainly attacking, as the videotape suggested? There is little doubt that police were under fire – at least six firearms were found among the dead and wounded.
Another question goes to police command and training: should snipers not have been used to stop the storming front-runners, rather than a chaotic fusillade, including automatic gunfire? The barrage cut down 112 men, 34 of them fatally.
Other questions go to the culpability of the labour unions in this – who persuaded a workforce of manual labourers that more than three times their present take-home pay was possible?
Did they deliberately fail to defuse the crisis because of labour politics and rivalry between two unions? Or were they out of touch with their members, out of control?
And did Lonmin’s management of the dispute play any role in charging that deadly atmosphere – as claimed in the inevitable finger-pointing?
As we search for answers to this disaster, the world is fast reassessing a country it had on a podium just a few years ago.