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The first signs that South African police were preparing to launch a major operation against striking mineworkers came early on the morning of the tragedy that has been dubbed the ?Marikana Massacre?.

On that fateful Thursday, police called the local health department and requested four mortuary vans ? each one able to carry up to eight bodies ? to be sent to the site where striking miners were gathering a short distance from the Marikana mine operated by Lonmin, the London-listed company.

Putting in the request, a Colonel Classen of the South African Police Service allegedly said police were going to ?close down the miners, ? while a separate order was put in for 4,000 rounds of ammunition for R5 assault rifles.

The details, which suggest that police were preparing for the worst as they readied to confront up to 3,000 miners, have come to light at the commission of inquiry established to probe the events of August 16 last year.

That afternoon, police opened fire on hundreds of striking miners, killing 34 and wounding more than 70 in South Africa?s worst episode of security force-related violence since the dawn of democracy almost 20 years ago.

In the aftermath, police blamed the miners, while a shocked nation questioned how scenes reminiscent of the darkest days of apartheid could have unfolded. With his government the target of much of the criticism, President Jacob Zuma set up the Marikana Commission of Inquiry under retired Judge Ian Farlam to establish the truth.

The Farlam commission?s term was this month extended to April, when the country will be preparing for elections. It is not clear if its findings will be released before or after voting, but the details emerging from it highlight both the close ties between the ruling African National Congress and members of the black business elite as well as abuses by the police.

Political analysts believe the ANC will retain power but some commentators say it risks registering its worst share of popular support since the end of white rule in 1994.

Over the past 12 months, a steady drip of evidence has painted a grim picture of what took place. At best it highlights police incompetence and at worst suggests commanders were under political pressure to embark on an operation that they knew risked triggering significant bloodshed, legal experts say.

During the shooting ? which lasted much longer than originally thought ? police fired more than 600 live rounds. In comparison, five 9mm pistols were found near the two main areas where miners gathered, which in total could have fired a maximum of 24 rounds, the inquiry has heard.

Pictures have been presented showing weapons planted on victims? bodies, while a police dog handler described in a statement a fellow officer apparently shooting a wounded man and saying ?they deserve to die? when asked what he was doing.

Police insist they acted in self-defence, claiming they were charged by protesters, many armed with traditional weapons, including spears and machetes, and it is widely accepted that they faced a volatile and dangerous situation.

At least 10 people, including two policemen, died in violence related to the wage strike by Lonmin workers in the days preceding the tragedy.

But the police?s arguments have been sullied by concerns that officers have sought to distort facts and were not forthcoming with evidence contained on computer hard drives. The commission?s senior evidence leader voiced concern that the police?s version of events ?were in material respects not the truth?.

Lawyers and observers have also raised fears that political pressure to contain violent industrial unrest at the heart of the platinum sector influenced the police?s decision making.

Last week, Dali Mpofu, a lawyer representing miners, cross-examined Major General William Mpembe, the ?overall commander? of the Marikana operation. He cited a conversation between Maj-Gen. Mpembe?s superior, Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo and a Lonmin executive that took place two days before the shooting.

Using a transcript of the discussion, Mr Mpofu quoted Lt. Gen Mbombo as saying the police minister told her he was receiving pressure from Cyril Ramaphosa, a senior figure in the ruling African National Congress, a Lonmin shareholder and then a non-executive director of the company.

The police chief also raised concerns that Julius Malema, the radical former ANC youth leader, could make political capital out of the unrest.

?It (unrest) has got a serious political connotation that we need to take into account, but which we need to find a way of defusing. Hence I told these guys that we need to act such that we kill this thing,? Mr Mpofu quoted Lt. Gen. Mbombo saying.

Mr Ramaphosa, who is expected to appear at the inquiry, has said he spoke to the government to ?prevent the further loss of life and injury?.

Whatever influenced the decision, a video taken early on Thursday showed Lt. Gen. Mbombo telling journalists: ?Today we are ending this matter?.

Earlier that week, the police had planned to approach the miners at first light when they would be fewer in number. But instead, at 1.30pm on Thursday they decided to disperse and disarm the larger group of miners because the ?threat had escalated?.

By around 3.42pm, shortly after a union leader had urged miners to leave, police began rolling out razor wire which police say was to create a safe area but miners say funneled them towards the police.

What happened next is still contested, but about 10 minutes later, gunfire erupted.

In total police fired 327 rounds, killing 16 miners over several seconds in dramatic scenes captured by TV cameras. At least one protester fired a pistol.

Away from the cameras, some miners fled to a smaller outcrop and were quickly surrounded by police from five different units apparently with no co-ordination. In 12 minutes ? between 4.08pm and 4.20pm ? police fired another 295 live rounds killing a further 18 people.

One year into the inquiry and so far police have failed to either convince critics they needed to use that level of force or explain why they embarked on a strategy that appeared destined to spark more bloodshed.

Senior police commanders had themselves warned of the potential consequences of trying to forcibly disarm the miners.

As late as the evening of August 15, Maj Gen Mpembe was recorded telling an NUM leader that such a move would lead to bloodshed. ?I cannot go to the mountain .?.?. how do I de-arm somebody with an axe and I have a firearm?? he is quoted as saying in a transcript of the conversation. ?It will never work.?

The question of when it had to happen appears to have been political, says a lawyer close to the process. ?The consequence was no proper planning, no proper briefing and a complete failure of command and control on the ground,? he said.

Gary White, a former chief superintendent in Northern Ireland, who acted as an expert witness at the commission, said in a statement that he was sympathetic to the situation the police found themselves in.

But Mr White added that there were worrying gaps in the evidence and that ?there is no convincing evidence as to why less risky options were not considered or adopted?.

It is an issue that has lingered ever since the shooting sent shockwaves through the nation. The hope is the commission will provide a convincing answer.

?We are moving along inch by inch, uncovering more and more information about the minutiae of the day, and that collection of minutiae is speaking of a large scale deception,? says Bonita Meyersfeld, a law professor at Wits University

Source Financial Times

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