Not since the dark days of apartheid era has South Africa witnessed the kind of carnage at the country's Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana in the North West province on August 16. Unable to control a crowd of protesting miners, South African police shot and killed 34 of them; 78 others were wounded. It was according to Bishop Jo Seoka of Pretoria "the biggest massacre since Sharpeville".
Conflicting reports of what occurred on that day do not detract from this fact. Some of the miners contend that the attack was premeditated; the police allege that one of the miners fired the first shot, and that the police only shot back in self-defence when the protesters advanced towards them brandishing machetes and knives.
In the run-up to this tragic episode, 10 people, including two policemen had been killed in clashes between the miners supporting South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Rivalry between both unions has been cited as contributing to the violence. The NUM had been losing members to the rival AMCU, which some consider to be more militant and better at championing the cause of the miners.
The miners had been on strike to press demand for a tripling of wages. The country's mines are notorious for their appalling conditions and paltry wages.
To make matters worse, the Lonmin management appeared to show disregard for the miners' sensitivities and further inflamed passions by ordering them back to work even in the midst of mourning their dead.
Anxious to address the outrage that this has caused, President Jacob Zuma announced a three-member Judicial Commission of Inquiry chaired by a former judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal to probe the circumstances leading to the carnage.
The commission's wide-ranging terms of reference include examining the role of Lonmin, owners of the mine, the NUM, AMCU and the conduct of the South Africa Police Service. It was also to examine the "facts and circumstances which gave rise to the use of force, and whether it was reasonable and justifiable".
The Marikana miners' plight highlights once more the conclusion that some have made that the struggle in South Africa against economic apartheid has a long way to go. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world with the white minority living way above the impoverished black majority, fuelling a very high crime rate and posing a threat to social cohesion.
Only a few blacks have benefitted enormously from the government's Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Some of them are now multimillionaires, men like Tokyo Sexwale, currently minister for human settlements and presidential hopeful, and Cyril Ramaphosa, former secretary-general of the NUM, best known for participating in negotiations for an end to apartheid. Ramaphosa is on the board of Lonmin.
Not surprisingly, Julius Malema the expelled former president of the ANC Youth League and a harsh critic of President Zuma, has sought to exploit the massacre to boost his standing among the miners. He stole a march on Zuma by addressing the miners at Marikana where he was accorded a hero's welcome.
The Lonmin massacre has further eroded the power-base of the ANC and could undermine its triple alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Leaders of these organisations are increasingly seen by the impoverished black majority as fat cats wallowing in affluence far removed from the harsh socio-economic realities facing the people they are supposed to represent.
Ahead of the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung in December, the massacre could turn out to be a defining moment in Zuma's presidency, weakening core-constituencies and jeopardizing his chances of re-election to a second term.
The massacre probe panel must do a thorough job and not shy away from putting the blame for it if the evidence requires it to do so. There is a creeping impatience among South Africans that the gains expected from majority rule have not materialised; the Marikani massacre is another wakeup call for South Africa's leaders to step up efforts at relieving the crushing economic plight of the long suffering South Africans who are fast running out of patience.