Marikana police shot ‘surrendering miners’
Siphethe Phatsha was part of a group of armed mine workers who were captured by television and press cameras being fired upon by police officers with automatic weapons during a protest by Lonmin rock-drill operators at Marikana on August 16 last year.
The gunfire at this scene near a cattle kraal left 16 men dead, but Phatsha (48) was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape.
The scene, the bloodiest in post-apartheid South Africa, sent shock waves around the world, with some referring to it as a massacre.
But this week the Marikana Commission of Inquiry heard contrasting arguments concerning the intentions of the men who were shot and killed at this scene.
The men, including Phatsha, were armed with an assortment of weapons, including pangas, spears, sharpened iron rods and a firearm.
Unlike the more than 2 000 others who fled from the police when they began attempts to disperse them, Phatsha and his group advanced towards the police line.
Now the big question remains: were they going in for the kill or merely advancing towards their places of residence?
Phatsha said, in his testimony this week, that, with many other workers, he ran to the path next to the kraal intending to escape into Nkaneng informal settlement.
He said the workers had fled when they saw a police armoured vehicle pulling out a barbed-wire fence to encircle them while they gathered on a koppie where they had been waiting for their employer to come to address them.
Police had released a barbed-wire fence after the crowd of about 3 000 men refused to disperse or disarm after several pleas, including a tearful and desperate call by Association of Mining and Construction Union president Joseph Mathunjwa.
Police have testified that they had released the barbed wire as part of a broader plan to disperse the armed mine workers into smaller groups, disarm and arrest them.
Police arrested 278 people on the day, injured 78 and killed 34.
The police barbed-wire fence was set up on the eastern side, between the koppie and the informal settlement of Nkaneng and the Wonderkop hostel further east where most of the mine workers live.
The line of police that opened fire on the mine workers was set up behind the barbed wire.
Phatsha argued that he and some colleagues, although they were armed, had no intention except to flee to their homes. But police counsel Ishmael Semenya disputed this, saying Phatsha and his colleagues had declared war on the police and intended to kill them.
Semenya said earlier that afternoon, one of the leaders of the protest, Mgcineni “Mambush” Noki, had told police they should sign a piece of paper so the whole world could see how they were going to kill one another that day.
Semenya said by this, Noki – the “man in the green blanket” – meant that police were going to be killed.
He argued that Noki’s statement, and another one made by one of the miners at the koppie on the same afternoon, saying the police would be finished off there, was a declaration of war.
“He was expressing what you as a group were going to do. The police were going to be killed,” argued Semenya, pointing out that one of the miners had a firearm which he used to fire at the police.
Semenya asked Phatsha why, when 2 000 others fled in the opposite direction, his group, led by Noki, chose to face the police, carrying dangerous weapons.
But Phatsha argued that his intention and that of his colleagues “was always to avoid being trapped inside the police barbed wire and to escape to the residential area. I never attacked any person,” he said.
“I don’t believe I would have used them (weapons) in that manner as I was running,” Phatsha said.
Semenya said Phatsha and his group would have put down their weapons and walked home if they had no intention of using them.
Phatsha said after the police vehicles outpaced them and closed the gap near the kraal, they ran behind the kraal in a bid to access the road to the informal settlement from another side. He said “all this time we were being fired upon with teargas and the water cannon spray.”
“When we emerged from behind the kraal we were fired on with live ammunition by another group of policemen whom I had not noticed,” Phatsha said.
He said he jumped over the bodies of the injured or dead colleagues and ran into the kraal where he thinks he lost his shoes. He then noticed that his left toe was severely injured.
“I thought I must have been shot from one of the helicopters. The injured toe was impeding my movements and also getting caught by stones and plants on the ground. I decided to cut off the loose toe in order to be in a better position to run. I used a bush knife which I was carrying to cut off my ruptured and loose toe,” Phatsha said.
He said he severed his toe right there and ran faster towards a small koppie to hide. There, he found a piece of cloth which he used to tighten against his foot to lessen the bleeding.
“I noticed how people were being shot while coming out of their hiding places with their hands raised up as a sign of surrender,” he said.
According to evidence led before, the commission indicated that 18 of the 34 people that were killed that day were shot at the small koppie where Phatsha had hidden after the shooting near the kraal.
The commission has previously seen evidence of dead bodies lying between rocks at the small koppie.
The commission heard arguments that some of the mine workers at this scene were shot in cold blood by police who later planted weapons next to their dead bodies.
Phatsha said he was later apprehended by police and told to lie down facing the ground. He showed one of the policemen his bleeding toe and was taken by ambulance to the mine hospital for treatment, where he was visited by President Jacob Zuma.