Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s deputy president, is being sued by victims of the 2012 Marikana tragedy, during which police shot and killed 34 striking miners employed by Lonmin, the London-listed platinum producer.
Mr Ramaphosa, who is also one of the country’s most prominent black businessmen, said in parliament on Thursday that he could not take questions on Marikana because a summons had been issued against him, “in his personal capacity”, and two other parties.
The presidency released a statement shortly after his comments in parliament, saying a “summons has indeed been served on lawyers of Deputy President Ramaphosa arising from the Marikana tragedy”.
It said he had instructed his lawyers to defend the action, adding that it reiterated “the view that the findings” of a commission of inquiry into the violence “remain clear insofar as they relate to” Mr Ramaphosa personally.
The commission released its report in June and said there was no basis for it “to find even on a prima facie basis that Mr Ramaphosa is guilty of the crimes he is alleged to have committed”.
It said accusations made against him by lawyers representing miners wounded and arrested during the strike were “groundless”.
During the commission’s hearings, those lawyers gave evidence that Mr Ramaphosa had exerted political pressure that led to the tragedy. Mr Ramaphosa, who was appointed deputy president last year after a general election, denied the allegations.
Victims of the shooting, including relatives of those killed, those wounded and others arrested, are represented by different groups of lawyers. It was not immediately clear which lawyers filed the summons.
The other two parties named in the summons, which is a civil suit, are the government and Lonmin, said a spokesman for the deputy president. Lonmin declined to comment.
At the time of the strike, Mr Ramaphosa was a member of the ruling African National Congress’s national executive committee, but was not actively involved in politics.
However, Mr Ramaphosa, an ANC veteran and former union leader who led a miners’ strike in 1987 that was a defining moment in the struggle against apartheid, was in contact with the ministers of police and mining ahead of the planned police operation that led to the shooting.
Ten people, including two policemen and two Lonmin security guards, were killed in violence related to the wildcat strike in the days leading up to the police shooting, and Mr Ramaphosa had sought to characterise the unrest as criminal rather than a labour dispute.
While giving evidence at the commission of inquiry, he said the tragedy “has to be approached as a collective failure by many role players”.
The saga is deemed to be damaging to Mr Ramaphosa’s political prospects as the ANC heads into a five-yearly conference in 2017 at which it elects its leadership.
He is a frontrunner to take over from Jacob Zuma — the president who is serving his second and final term — as leader of the party.
Given the ANC’s dominance, whoever leads the party into 2019 general elections is virtually assured of the presidency. But there is increasing speculation that he could face challenges at the ANC congress as factionalism blights the former liberation movement.