South Africa: The Marikana massacre, an indelible stain for Cyril Ramaphosa

By Romain Chanson, in Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 22 August 2022 15:18

Demonstrators wave placards during a site inspection by the judicial commission of inquiry into the shootings at Lonmin's Marikana mine October 1, 2012. A retired judge toured the spot where police killed 34 striking platinum miners in August as he opened a judicial inquiry on Monday into South Africa's bloodiest security incident since the end of apartheid. Ian Farlam has four months to uncover the events surrounding the August 16 "Marikana massacre", which sparked intense criticism not only of the police but also of mining bosses, unions, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and President Jacob Zuma. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The slaying of 34 striking miners by the national police on 16 August 2012 continues to dog the South African president, who at the time sat on the board of Lonmin, the company that owned the mine.

“Cyril Ramaphosa the bloodthirsty.” The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party is not playing around when it comes to implicating the head of state in the Marikana massacre, ten years ago. The second largest South African opposition party has accused Ramaphosa of being responsible for the death of 34 miners who were striking to demand a pay rise on 16 August 2012. The then businessman was a non-executive director of Lonmin (now Sibanye-Stillwater), one of the world’s largest platinum mines, in North West province. A total of 44 people lost their lives in the industrial action.

‘Heinous criminals’

The Marikana Commission of Inquiry [chaired by Judge Ian Gordon Farlam] did not investigate Ramaphosa. Instead, it revealed how he allegedly used his position on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to influence the course of the strike. In an email to the mine’s business manager the day before the killing, Ramaphosa had called the strikers “heinous criminals” who should be treated accordingly. He called for action and explained that he had spoken to the ministers of police and mineral resources.

Since these revelations, and despite Ramaphosa’s apology for using inappropriate language, the EFF has not let up on the president. The political party, which has just celebrated its 9th anniversary, was launched in Marikana by Julius Malema in 2013. Two years later, Malema filed a complaint in a Marikana police station against Ramaphosa, former police minister Nathi Mthethwa and the South African police chiefs for their alleged role in the massacre. The EFF also runs a fund to support the miners’ widows.

Ramaphosa has never met these women despite promising he would do so. “Previous attempts have failed because of logistical problems – some victims’ families have moved away – and due to lack of support from some key players,” says presidential spokesman Vincent Magwenya. And so the tenth anniversary of the massacre will not be an occasion for a return to Marikana. Ramaphosa is travelling to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in the DRC. His absence is no surprise to Joseph Mathunjwa, head of the African Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has a majority in the platinum mines. “His conscience is weighing on him,” he says.

“Out of sight, but close to the heart,” Ramaphosa has said. “The president will always remember these tragic events […] as one of the saddest moments of the post-democratic era and a curse on the contemporary history of South Africa,” says Vincent Magwenya. The Marikana massacre is often compared to the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, when the police from the racist apartheid regime shot and killed 69 people. A comparison intended to highlight the failures of the advent of democracy in 1994.

“It is unfortunate that such an event could have occurred under the democratic government of a former liberation movement,” said Nono Maloyi, newly elected ANC president in North West province. However, he will not be taking part in any commemorations. By way of explanation, Maloyi says that the election weekend was gruelling and that the new office has not yet been set up. “The provincial secretary of the ANC at the time was very involved […]. He met the families, the widows, which we will continue to do,” Maloyi adds, to dispel any suspicion of indifference.


Despite Ramaphosa’s reluctance to meet with the widows, despite the revelation of emails portraying him as an anti-social businessman or his alleged role in the police response that led to the massacre of the miners, the Marikana tragedy has had no impact on his political career. On the contrary, four months after the tragedy, he was elected deputy president of the ANC in December 2012, then deputy president of the Republic in 2014 before taking over as president in 2018.

Those in power, in government and in the ANC have profited from the miners’ blood”

The sense of impunity surrounding ANC cadres will not be taken down by Marikana. The unpopular Nathi Mthethwa is now minister of culture and sport. He had agreed to be held accountable before the inquiry commission. Susan Shabangu, former minister of mineral resources, will become minister of social development under Ramaphosa.

“Those in power, in government and in the ANC have profited from the miners’ blood”, says sociologist Luke Sinwell. He points to the importance of the mining sector in Ramaphosa’s personal enrichment and the support of certain unions in getting ANC representatives elected. “The ANC played a role in the murder of the miners, who helped them take power, without suffering the consequences,” says the co-author of Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer, published in 2012.

Double standards

In this collective book, the researchers highlight the double game of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Before he crossed over to the other side of the fence and made a fortune from his mining investments, Ramaphosa was NUM’s first national secretary in 1982. An ally of the ANC and a favoured negotiator with Lonmin’s management, NUM angered the Marikana miners. During a march of thousands of strikers to NUM offices, five days before the massacre, unionists fired on the demonstrators.

This outburst of violence reportedly prompted the miners to defend themselves and march carrying arms, including machetes, which would lead to a more violent police response. The police were equipped with automatic weapons to contain a social movement.

In the aftermath of the Marikana tragedy, NUM’s influence was lost to the opposing, non-government affiliated union, the AMCU. This is perhaps the only significant political consequence of the massacre. “What happened in August 2012 was instrumentalised by disgruntled politicians for political motives, at the expense of the 44 dead miners and their families,” writes NUM spokesperson Luphert Chilwane. “As a responsible union, we discourage anyone from politicising this unfortunate event.”

‘Toxic role’

His comrades do not see things the same way. In 2015, 349 miners filed a complaint against Ramaphosa, Sibanye-Stillwater (ex-Lonmin) and the government in an attempt at €600 million in compensation. They are represented by EFF lawyer Dali Mpofu. In a judgement handed down in early July, the Johannesburg High Court rejected the suspicions of collusion between Ramaphosa, the government and the police.

However, the court did not dismiss suspicions that Ramaphosa was influencing the police authority. The plaintiffs may want to step into the breach. The EFF welcomed a “small but significant step in the right direction” in exposing the “toxic role” the president played in the miners’ deaths.

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