South Africa’s Ramaphosa Defends Actions in Mine Unrest

South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said he tried to defuse violent labor unrest at Lonmin Plc’s Marikana platinum mine two years ago that led to the deadliest action by the security forces since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Thirty-four people died on Aug. 16, 2012, when police opened fire on a crowd of striking workers at the mine, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Johannesburg. In the previous week, 10 people including police officers were killed in fighting at the site, sparked by clashes between rival labor unions. President Jacob Zuma established a commission of inquiry led by retired Supreme Court Judge Ian Farlam to probe the violence.

Before taking up his current post in May, Ramaphosa was a non-executive director of Lonmin and chairman of Shanduka Group Ltd., which indirectly held a 9 percent stake in two of Lonmin’s South African units. In e-mails written to Lonmin executives in the lead-up to the police shootings, Ramaphosa undertook to try to persuade the government to address the violence, which he described as “dastardly criminal.”

“With this grave situation that was unfolding at the mine, I felt obligated to intervene and communicate with the management at the mine to try and get the situation not to escalate,” Ramaphosa told the commission in the capital, Pretoria, today. “I was focusing on the prevention of the further loss of life and the injury of people. When I said those responsible for the violence should be brought to book, I anticipated that the police would investigate and ensure the right people were arrested.”

Fighting Sticks

The police say they acted in self-defense as the miners had fired upon them and charged at them, armed with spears and traditional fighting sticks.

Julius Malema, leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, and some union officials have accused Ramaphosa of using his political connections to ensure that the police took violent action against the strikers to protect his financial interests.

Ramaphosa said he had warned then-Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu that the situation at the mine was deteriorating and denied requesting a heavy-handed response to break the strike.

“I said we need to make sure that at the government level we sensitize people to what is happening,” Ramaphosa said. “I considered the situation at Marikana to be criminal because of the things we heard about people being killed and even having their body parts taken out. That was an horrific thing to hear. We were saying we want police to be brought on site to prevent further killings.”

Protest Disruption

The commission’s hearings were disrupted briefly by a small group of protesters, who chanted that Ramaphosa had “blood on his hands” and called for him to resign. Some of the protesters wore T-shirts labeling Ramaphosa a killer.

Ramaphosa, who is the second-richest black South African after his brother-in-law Patrice Motsepe, said mining companies should take responsibility for the workers’ living conditions.

“I wouldn’t say Lonmin completely failed, I would say it underachieved and more work needed to be done,” he said. “As a non-executive director on a board, you are largely reliant on the management. I am not happy about this part of the mining industry, it is not an area where the mining industry can be proud of its performance.”

Ramaphosa is due to continue testifying before the commission tomorrow.

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