John “Papi” Ledingoane, a South African miner employed by Lonmin, the London-listed platinum company, died instantly when he was shot in the neck in a blaze of police gunfire.

The 24-year-old, who supported six people on his salary of R4,675, was demonstrating with other miners to demand higher wages when he was gunned down, one of 34 miners killed by police in the so-called “ Marikana Massacre” of August 16, 2012.

Ledingoane‘s story was retold during the closing arguments of a two-year commission of inquiry set up to investigate the events surrounding the tragedy. The investigation, which ended on Friday, has examined the roles of senior officials, from police chiefs to Lonmin executives to Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president, as well as the miners themselves and rival unions.

It is now up to the inquiry’s three commissioners – led by respected retired Judge Ian Farlam – to make recommendations about what should follow. They have until the end of March to produce a report that will be submitted to President Jacob Zuma and other relevant bodies, including the National Prosecuting Authority if criminal charges are recommended.

The shooting was the worst violence by the security forces in the 20 years since South Africa’s first democratic election, and has been likened to the apartheid era Sharpeville massacre and Soweto student shootings. The police have insisted they were acting in self defence; the miners counter that the shooting was unprovoked and that the police used disproportionate force.

South Africans are now waiting to see if charges will be laid, and whether senior figures will be held responsible in what is being seen as a test of the government’s commitment to justice.

In an impassioned closing argument, George Bizos, a prominent human rights lawyer who is representing Ledingoane’s family, reminded the commission of the apartheid regime’s repeated failures to find fault for atrocities committed by its security forces and warned: “No one to blame is no longer a proper finding.”

“A finding by the commission that the police are not responsible for any of the deaths will undermine the administration of justice in our country and the rule of law,” said Mr Bizos, who assisted the defence at the “Rivonia” trial of Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress members.

To date, no police officers have been suspended or charged over the killings – all criminal investigations were put on hold until the commission makes its ruling. But emotions have run high as lawyers have recounted the events of August 2012, when, in addition to the 34 miners shot by police, 10 people, including two policemen, were killed in days of violence.

There have been impassioned calls for senior officials, including the former police minister and police chief, to face charges. Dali Mpofu, a lawyer representing wounded and injured miners, sensationally called for Mr Ramaphosa to be charged with murder, alleging that he exerted political pressure to end the strike, which fed down to police commanders and “resulted in [the] massacre”. At the time of the shooting the now deputy president was a senior member of the ruling ANC and was also a Lonmin shareholder and board member.

Mr Ramaphosa has repeatedly denied he exerted any pressure, saying he only intervened to help end the violence. When he appeared before the commission in August, he said the tragedy had “to be approached as a collective failure by many role players”.

Lawyers appointed by the commission concluded that the provincial police chief “took into account irrelevant political considerations” but added that Mr Ramaphosa’s intervention with the government was not “inappropriate”. It is highly unlikely Mr Ramaphosa will face any charges, but the image of the respected former unionist has been tainted by the saga.

Lawyers have also alleged that Lonmin bears criminal responsibility for the miners’ deaths amid claims its executives contributed to an escalation of tension and unrest in the run-up to the massacre, and aided the police in their deadly operation. The company’s lawyers countered the firm was placed in an “almost impossible position”, adding that Lonmin was “neither responsible, nor caused any of the deaths”.

The security forces, meanwhile, have always insisted they acted in self-defence as they sought to disperse some 3,000 miners gathered on a rocky outcrop near Lonmin’s Marikana mine. However, they were accused of misleading the commission and seeking to conceal evidence.

Testimony revealed that police ordered the deployment of four mortuary vans before the shooting took place. They also fired some 600 live rounds at the miners. In contrast, only five 9mm pistols, which could have fired 24 rounds at most, were found near the two main sites where the strikers had gathered.

Mr Bizos pointed out that of the 34 miners who died, 20 had more than one bullet wound, while just one in five was shot from the front. Ledingoane’s body was found 85 metres from where the main shooting took place, and evidence was presented showing that weapons were planted on other victims’ bodies.

Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary at the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, said the commission’s report has to make recommendations for political, legal and criminal accountability for those responsible for the massacre.

“It must mark a turning point in the way in which the police service discharges its mandate,” he said. “A failure by government to implement the recommendations will inevitably lead to the conclusion that the whole exercise has been a very costly sham, and a gross affront to the families of the victims.”

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