The national police commissioner began her testimony before the Marikana Commission of Inquiry on Thursday. Under the guidance of police lawyer Ishmael Semenya, she presented her version of events as they transpired from 13 August: she was briefed by provincial commissioners and Lonmin management on the situation, which was described to her as seriously grave and almost beyond solving. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
As the public face of the South African Police Service, national police commissioner Mangwashi Phiyega has had to deal with increasing unhappiness over police brutality. From Thursday, she has to take the stand before the Marikana Commission of Inquiry as the leader of a police service that killed 34 people and injured a further 78 on 16 August 2012 in Marikana. From her, the Commission will likely establish how much the chain of command knew of the facts on the ground and to what degree she had a hand in planning and executing the deadly operation.
Phiyega has not had a good run as the Marikana tragedy has unfolded. She was criticised for defending police actions just hours after the massacre, saying that the police action was in self-defence. Evidence before the commission shows that the police acted heavy-handedly. The matter of proportional or reasonable response is set to be one of the biggest fights at the Commission.
Later, the police commissioner was observed reportedly joking with members of her entourage in Rustenburg as the Marikana Commission was shown footage of the massacre.
On the stand on Thursday, Phiyega said that the incident was regrettable, and that claimed she never laughed as the press described.
“The events at Marikana in August 2012 are of concern to me as well,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “The protracted and ever-increasing violent protest at Marikana, which culminated in the catastrophic and unprecedented loss of life, is to me regrettable.”
The stories about her laughing and joking were a hurtful observation, she said. “It is not only inhuman, it is totally out of my personal character and not true. I reject that with every part and measure of my being… What happened that day [August 16] is regrettable.”
After she was sworn in, Semenya quickly made Phiyega either recite or affirm the constitutional role of the police. She agreed that the police had an obligation to prevent, combat and investigate crime, maintain public order, and protect and secure the inhabitants of the country and their property. They should also be firm, fair, and impartial, and had to ensure no lives were lost and property damaged.
“The police should change and adapt its tactics to the situation to ensure effectiveness during public gatherings,” Semenya said, reading from a SAPS document on public policing, eliciting an agreement from Phiyega.
According to the commissioner, she was informed by North West police commissioner Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo on 13 August that a situation had developed, and some people were dead, including two security guards.
More police were deployed to the area, and Phiyega made a personal visit to Lonmin’s offices in Marikana. Accompanied by Gauteng commissioner Lt-Gn Mzwandile Petros, she met with police already deployed to the area, and a delegation of management from Lonmin.
“The mine management informed the South African Police Service delegation that there were ongoing clashes between the members of two labour unions, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the National Union of Mineworkers. [They] further stated that the protesters were not their employees and are unknown to them and that, as such, Lonmin found no reason to negotiate with what they referred to as faceless people,” Phiyega said.
Phiyega encouraged the police to continue to “find ways” to end the violent strike, she told the Commission.
Days after the massacre, Phiyega went on record to state that she had been informed of the facts and had given the operation the green light.
A video that was shown to the Commission showed Phiyega speaking at a police rally on August 20. She said: “You did what you did because you were being responsible by ensuring South Africans are safe. I want to thank you once more for doing what you did… All we did was our job, and to do it in the manner in which we were trained… Don’t feel you are being persecuted as police – you were doing your work.”
Speaking to reporters in Rustenburg on 17 August, she said, “By midday, yesterday we had received information from various sources that the protesters would not end the strike peacefully and they would not leave their gathering point or disarm. The options were weighed and the decision taken that the SAPS needed to protect their members adjacent to the protesters.
“As commissioner, I gave police the responsibility to execute the task they needed to do,” Phiyega said.
She also explained that there was no way to “prepare” for Marikana, as such.
“The police provide services that are underpinned by tested structure, management and strategies in law enforcement and public order policing. The events at Marikana have no precedent in the history of our organisation in democratic South Africa,” Phiyega said.
Unlike other witnesses, Phiyega had the police’s chief legal adviser sit next to her to help her page through the pile of documents before her, but this caused consternation amongst some lawyers at the Commission, who thought that she was being advised while under questioning.
The flow of information between the striking miners, unions, company representatives and police, especially its control, is going to be important because it will determine where the blame lies. What each entity knew on the day of the killings is becoming clearer as the commission continues – the murkiness of it served at first to obfuscate and make it nearly impossible to corroborate eyewitness accounts.
The testimonies of union bosses, police and miners has clashed at times. Phiyega’s is different because she is the first person on the stand – because of her large involvement in Marikana – who has any kind of direct link to real political power at the Union Buildings.
There is no doubt that should Phiyega end up in big trouble for the shootings, the real political powers that be would cut her off quickly. But her testimony will be golden should she choose to be truthful about what the very same powers that be decided to do about Marikana.
Phiyega’s testimony continues, with cross-examination to follow. DM
Photo: National police commissioner Riah Phiyega holds a news conference near Mooi Nooi in the North West on Friday, 17 August 2012, following the killing of 34 miners in Marikana. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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