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The Misery Commission

Two years ago, police killed 34 striking miners. A commission set up to investigate the massacre is still looking for answers as the cost continues to rise

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It’s a chilly winters Monday morning in Centurion, just 16 kilometers outside the South African capital Pretoria. In a little room nearby is the Marikana Commission on its 252 day in session.

Inside this small auditorium with harsh lighting is a screen projector on the right side of the room to Judge Ian Farlam. On the opposite end, seated in the last three rows, are the widows of the dead miners. To the right are members of the legal team, most of them dressed in black.

It’s nearly two years since President Jacob Zuma appointed the commission to investigate the tragic events of August 16, 2012. On that day, the police shot dead 34 striking miners near the Marikana operation of Lonmin in the North West province. They were on a wildcat strike for a R12,500 ($1,165) monthly wage.

Secretary of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, Advocate Phuti Setati, says the commission has heard testimony from 36 witnesses and is expected to call up to 20 more.

“It must be emphasized that this number changes due to continuous engagement between the evidence leaders and parties represented at the commission,” says Setati.

From its inception in November 2012 until March, the commission has spent around R171 million ($16 million). Setati says there was no initial budget put aside for the commission in the beginning as it commenced in the middle of a financial cycle.

The commission is behind the clock. When it was appointed, it was to complete its work within four months but has since gone over nearly two years.

It is likely to cost around a further R34 million ($3.1 million) until the commission completes its hearings and submits its report six weeks later.

“The commission, like all other programs of the Department [of Justice and Constitutional Development], is implementing cost containment measures in line with the decision of National Treasury. The department therefore anticipates a reduction from the above budget estimate as we approach the last quarter of the commission,” says Setati.

On this Monday morning, journalists, lawyers and widows wait for the police’s technical equipment that will link up a witness. Mr X, who won’t be named to protect his identity, is testifying via a video link from an undisclosed location. On his fifth day on the stand, he is a witness brought in by the South African Police Service under cross examination.

Mr X was part of the group of protesting Marikana miners who underwent a ritual which included two sangomas (an isiZulu term for traditional healers), the burning of live sheep and swallowing of their ashes five days before the fatal shootings in 2012.

In his sworn statement, Mr X details how the miners attacked and killed Lonmin security guards and how one of the security guard’s body parts were removed and combined with a second security guard’s ashes for muti (traditional medicine) rituals.

An evidence leader has accused Mr X of lying. The witness is standing by everything he has said.

“I’m telling the truth, I’m prepared to go to the grave now,” he says.

Later on this Monday, the presidency released a statement extending the commission’s deadline of July 31 to September 30.

“After engagement between the President, the Chairperson of the Commission and the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, it became evident that the commission would not be able to complete its investigation by [the previous deadline], hence the extension of the term of the commission,” it said.

The commission received statements from the then Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, and the current Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in regard to their roles in relation to the conduct of the police. Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Group owns stakes in mining entities and he was a non-executive member on the Lonmin board at the time. It is anticipated that they will be called to give oral evidence.

When the commission finally ends, it will come at a high cost, emotionally and financially.

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