Five years ago this week 44 people were killed in the course of an industrial dispute at a platinum mine in South Africa’s North West Province owned by Lonmin. It became known as the Marikana massacre.

For many observers, Marikana was a turning point in the presidency of Jacob Zuma – who came to power in 2009 – and in the history of democratic South Africa. Even more so, it gave an early indication of the abuse of state power that’s been the hallmark of the Zuma government.

Thirty-four miners were shot dead by members of the South African Police Service in a single day, 16 August 2012. Seventeen were gunned down by heavily armed members of police tactical response teams as they left the small hill (or koppie) they’d been occupying. Others died at the hands of the police in the course of a brutal mopping up operation that followed.

Marikana: A Promise Kept Through Tears Of Grief

Five years on, and two years after the official Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana tragedy, no-one has been held to account. Ministers have moved to new portfolios, police commanders have retired on ample pensions, or been replaced  in a blaze of litigation.

Lack of accountability

Only last week Zuma survived a vote of no confidence in parliament in the wake of a series of scandals. These included compelling evidence that he and his government are in thrall to the influential Gupta family.

Zuma’s reputation as the “Teflon President” – able to shrug off charges of everything from bribery to rape and allowing the South African state to be “captured” by the Guptas and their acolytes – dates back well beyond 2012. But, when it comes to Marikana, Zuma is not the only one with non-stick credentials.

In March this year, the country’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the police oversight body, announced that it had identified 72 police officers to face charges. These ranged from murder to perjury and defeating the ends of justice. Since then, no further action has been taken.

Important though this is, the responsibility for the massacre doesn’t stop at those who pulled the triggers. At the outset of the Farlam Commission’s public hearings, Dali Mpofu, counsel for the miners injured at Marikana, blamed many of the deaths on ‘toxic collusion’between the police and the mining company Lonmin.

As the inquiry progressed, Mpofu and others made strenuous efforts to blame Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of South Africa for the bloody denouement of 16 August. At the time Ramaphosa was a shareholder and non-executive director of Lonmin as well as a member of the ruling ANC’s National Executive Committee.

The commission itself uncovered evidence that collusion went some way beyond the police commanders and Lonmin executives on the ground. At a special briefing two days before the massacre the police commissioner for the North West province, Lieutenant General Miriam Mbombo, told a senior Lonmin executive that police were planning to move in to “kill” the strikers’ protest.

Mbombo revealed that she was acutely aware of the influence wielded by Ramaphosa. She also admitted being alive to the risk of allowing Julius Malema, who had been expelled as leader of the ANC’s Youth League, to make political capital out of the dispute.

Based on the transcript of this briefing, the Commission found that both Mbombo and the then National Commissioner of police, General Riah Phiyega, were complicit in raising political factors in their discussions about policing in Marikana. It found these discussions to be “inappropriate” and inconsistent with the constitutional requirement that policing should be conducted in an impartial and unbiased manner.

The Commission also determined that the fatal decision to forcibly remove the striking miners from the koppie they were occupying was taken by Mbombo and not by tactical commanders with expertise in public order policing. It was then endorsed at an extraordinary session of the South African Police Service’s national management forum late on 15 August.

The commission did not find a direct link between anyone in political authority having ordered the police to take action. It did, however, conclude that the decision to remove the strikers from the koppie was at least partly the consequence of the senior police officials feeling the need to act and to be seen to act.

This idea that the police commanders at Marikana did not need to be told what to do, or how to do it, is consistent with the social theorist Steven Lukes’ three-dimensional view of power and the ability of the powerful to secure the compliance of those they dominate without either making decisions or giving orders. The generals knew what had to be done to end a costly and politically damaging protest. They knew that it had to be done without further delay, and, if necessary, with the use of force. The result, as we now know, was the loss of 34 lives.

The way in which power, subtly but with far reaching consequences, was used at Marikana may also tell us something about how it’s used in contemporary South Africa more generally to control, perhaps even to capture, not just the police but other state institutions far beyond the criminal justice system. – Written by Professor of Criminology, University of Nottingham

Originally published in The Conversation