Police authorities have admitted that they may have been at fault in the Marikana mine shooting, with some officers either overreacting or mistakenly shooting at protesters in response to “friendly-fire”.
In an opening statement to the inquiry into the deaths of 34 workers at South Africa’s Marikana mine, police officials said that “the response of some police officers may have been disproportionate to the danger they faced from the group of more than 200 armed protesters”.
The commission is examining evidence surrounding the events of August 16, when police opened fire on miners engaged in a protracted strike action outside the Lonmin platinum mine. It will consider the role of trade unions, mine bosses and police officers in the shooting, dubbed “the Marikana massacre”.
“The police officers are prepared to accept that they may have been responding to ‘friendly fire’, believing it to be fire from the protesters,” said the police statement.
The deaths sparked domestic and international outrage, and added fuel to widespread industrial action across South Africa. Monday’s hearing has been seen by many as an attempt by President Jacob Zuma to regain popular support after the outcry.
Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa is attending the hearing in the northwestern town of Rustenburg.
“[The police] have been saying that they followed police guidelines in delaing with public disorder,” she reported.
“They’re saying they were defending themselves. They say they tried to get Lonmin managers and the miners to resolve the crisis peacefully – but that failed – and that the use of lethal force was an absolute last resort, as they were trying to disperse 3,000 people, some of them armed, and remove the most militant of the miners.”
Police officials also laid blame at the door of the mining giant.
“Lonmin created the ‘beast’ that it later found impossible to tame - the ‘beast’ being the violent strikes that contributed to this tragedy and not the deceased protesters,” said the police service’s opening remarks.
Further opening statements were expected on Monday on behalf of Lonmin, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Legal Resource Centre and the families of those killed.
Video footage will be shown at the hearing, and ballistic experts will likely be called to testify.
The commission had been due to sit weeks ago, but was delayed because of scheduling and logistical problems.
Families of the killed miners have been given tickets to attend the hearing, but many are disappointed they will only get to visit for the opening two days of the inquiry.
“I think we should be there until the commission’s work is done and only come home once for the holiday,” Nozukile Sokanyile, aunt of one of the deceased, told Al Jazeera. “I want to stay for the final report.”
Thousands of miners – many of whom had reportedly been earning just R1,800 ($220) a month – went on strike, demanding a monthly salary of R12,500 ($1,400).
Wildcat strikes subsequently spread to other mines and other industries, prompting a slide in the value of the country’s currency, as investors’ concerns rattled the market.