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South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa insisted that the 2012 police shootings at the Marikana mine, and the resulting deaths, were the ‘collective’ responsibility of the entire country. The police have claimed they shot in self-defence, but testimony has showed otherwise. (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)
South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa insisted that the 2012 police shootings at the Marikana mine, and the resulting deaths, were the ‘collective’ responsibility of the entire country. The police have claimed they shot in self-defence, but testimony has showed otherwise. (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)

Testimony at South Africa’s Marikana mine inquiry provokes emotions Add to ...

It was an astounding scene. One of South Africa’s richest and most powerful men, Cyril Ramaphosa, sat quietly in a meeting room, smiling politely in the midst of chaos as protesters seized the room and furiously denounced him as a murderer with blood on his hands.

Mr. Ramaphosa, a business tycoon who became South Africa’s deputy president this year, was a director of Lonmin mining company when police killed 34 protesters at its Marikana mine. This week, on the eve of the massacre’s second anniversary, he was finally forced to explain his shadowy role in the lead-up to the deadliest police violence since apartheid ended.

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His testimony to a public inquiry was the latest in a slow unravelling of the hidden links between the Marikana massacre and the highest levels of South Africa’s power structures. The inquiry’s painstaking work, revealing a series of incriminating e-mails and phone calls in the days before the massacre, has raised troubling questions about the nexus of politics, business and a brutal police force in post-apartheid South Africa.

The second anniversary of the Marikana massacre on Saturday will be marked with protest marches, memorial ceremonies, vigils, prayers and film screenings across the country. Marikana still casts a long shadow over South Africa, but the inquiry has helped to lift the dark veil over how the killings happened.

The police have claimed they shot in self-defence. But testimony at the inquiry has shown that many of the killings were done at close range, execution style, by police who chased the protesters into a hillside and shot them point-blank. The police had ordered live ammunition, assault rifles and even mortuary vans in preparation for what they had called “D-Day” – the day when they would end the Marikana protests.

The question now is whether the police were serving higher masters. In the days leading up to the massacre, Lonmin’s executives were able to mobilize an array of powerful politicians and police commissioners to lobby for a crackdown on its striking workers. In this chain of events, Mr. Ramaphosa was a key player.

At the inquiry this week, Mr. Ramaphosa confirmed that Lonmin had asked him to use his “influence” to urge the government to take stronger action against the striking mineworkers.

It was a message that Mr. Ramaphosa took to a range of powerful figures, including two senior cabinet ministers and even the secretary-general of the ruling political party, the African National Congress. He was uniquely positioned to use his influence, since he was already a member of the ANC’s national executive and had previously served as its secretary-general. (A few months after the massacre, he became the ANC’s deputy leader.)

E-mails showed that Mr. Ramaphosa was demanding “concomitant action” by the police at Marikana because of the “dastardly criminal” actions of the striking workers. He lobbied to have the protests considered a criminal action, rather than a labour dispute. And he told the company that he had persuaded Mining Minister Susan Shabangu to ask the police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, to “act in a more pointed way” in the standoff.

On the witness stand, Mr. Ramaphosa denied that he sought violent action by the police. He insisted he only wanted the criminals to be arrested so that the situation would be “stabilized.” But since the police were already arresting people at Marikana, there are widespread suspicions that his demand for “more pointed” action meant something stronger than arrests.

The inquiry has already unearthed the transcript of a conversation between a senior police commissioner and a Lonmin executive, in which the commissioner quoted the police minister as saying that Mr. Ramaphosa was “pressurizing him” to take action.

In two days of grilling at the inquiry this week, Mr. Ramaphosa stuck to his claim that he was trying to be a peacemaker at Marikana. He admitted, however, that he should have recognized the conflict as a labour dispute, not just a criminal situation. He expressed “deep regrets” for the killings at Marikana, but insisted the deaths were the “collective” responsibility of the entire country. He repeatedly portrayed himself as a junior-ranking director of Lonmin, a “non-executive” member of the board who didn’t get involved in the details – a claim belied by his influential connections with top political leaders.

Many audience members at the inquiry – including survivors of the massacre – were outraged at Mr. Ramaphosa’s attempt to shrug off responsibility. They repeatedly disrupted the proceedings, calling Mr. Ramaphosa a “killer” and chanting: “Blood on his hands, blood on his hands.” Dali Mpofu, lawyer for many of the families of the killed miners, told Mr. Ramaphosa he should be held criminally liable for the deaths at Marikana.

Throughout all of this, Mr. Ramaphosa remained calm and unperturbed, ignoring the protesters, sometimes even smiling as he fended off Mr. Mpofu’s cross-examination.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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