South Africa

Marikana Commission: Sangoma’s death and Phiyega’s understanding of truth

By Greg Nicolson 26 March 2013

Onto the pyre goes another Marikana body. The sangoma who allegedly provided muti to Marikana protesters was killed on Sunday before he had a chance to testify for the police at the commission of inquiry. Meanwhile, police commissioner Riah Phiyega continues to play dumb; the country’s top cop a silent and withered denial of a disaster. By GREG NICOLSON.

Alton Joja was better known to South Africans as simply “the inyanga” or “sangoma”. He was identified by mineworkers speaking to Daily Maverick as the traditional healer called to Marikana to administer medicine to striking mineworkers before 34 of them were killed by police on 16 August 2012, and was a key figure in the police’s depiction of the protestors as aggressive and unafraid of bullets.

“At 15:23 it was reported that the protesters had imported an inyanga or sangoma to perform rituals that would ensure them victory in a confrontation with opponents,” Lieutenant Colonel Victor Visser told the Marikana Commission last November.

“The men gathered at the koppie, carrying pangas, spears and knobkerries and believed the inyanga would sprinkle them with muti to make them brave.”

Joja was gunned down at his Mbizana, Eastern Cape, home on Sunday morning, reported the Daily Dispatch. Five men arrived at his homestead under the pretext of consulting the healer. The men opened fire with R5s and Joja died at hospital. Police are yet to find a motive for the murder, but police advocate to the Marikana Commission Ishmael Semenya confirmed to the commission on Monday the SAPS had been trying to get him to testify at the inquiry. “It was with a deep sense of shock to learn about the assassination of the sangoma in the Marikana muti rituals,” he said.

Abongile Mgaqelwa, one of the Daily Dispatch reporters working on the story, told Daily Maverick there were many shocked mourners visiting Joja’s house on Monday. There were no signs of animosity at the scene, she said, and no one was talking about Joja’s role in the Marikana strikes or his possible testimony to the commission of inquiry. One of Joja’s daughters witnessed the murder, said Mgaqelwa, but she was still in shock and declined to talk to media.

“What we can say is that the police were going to call him as a witness at the commission,” said Tshepo Mahlangu, Marikana Commission spokesman, adding that he did not know what role Joja would have had in the inquiry. The commission has a list of witnesses due to appear, he said, and their legal representatives must apply for witness protection if they are at risk. Police representative Semenya told Daily Maverick he is unable to comment. National SAPS spokesman Phuti Setati still hadn’t heard of the murder when contacted.

The SAPS at the Marikana Commission has continued to use allegations that mineworkers used muti to portray them as violent and extremely dangerous. Earlier this month, police advocate Vuyani Ngalwana told the commission the SAPS had a key witness – “Mr X” – who would testify that a group known as the Makarapa used muti to “render them strong, invincible, and invisible”. While cross-examining miner Mzoxolo Magidiwana, the advocate said Mr X would say the protestors made small incisions on their body for muti. Ngalwana also said his witness would testify that when the protestors killed a security guard in the days leading up to the mass shooting they cut out his tongue and gave it to the sangoma. Magidiwana denied all the claims.

Speaking to Daily Dispatch in August last year, Joja denied he was involved in Marikana. “I never gave the Lonmin mine workers muti and never interacted with them. I know nothing about that. I don’t know where this all comes from. I am God’s man and cannot be the one who says people must forge a war, but the one who would urge them to put down weapons and avoid spilling blood,” said the traditional healer in a statement.

Yet he was widely believed to be the traditional healer at Marikana. In the days leading up to the 16 August shootings by police and the days following, the Marikana protesters allegedly killed a number of their enemies, including NUM shop steward and potential witness Daluvoyo Bongo. If the workers thought Joja was the police’s Mr X, his life might have also been at risk.

On the other side of the theatre of absurd, evidence leader advocate Mbuyiseli Madlanga continued to cross-examine police commissioner Riah Phiyega on Monday. Counsel for the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) interrupted proceedings to say he had advised his client not to comment on the commission until it was completed.

“At best, the national commissioner was dishonest in saying that she had received no information to cause her to question the truth of her press statement that the police had acted only in self-defence. At worst, the fact that the police have never mentioned this evidence is indicative of a deliberate cover-up,” said director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, representing the SAHRC, Bonita Meyersfeld in a statement last week. The SAHRC representative has until this morning to try to get his client to retract the statements. They referred to Phiyega’s continued insistence she backed her force and knew of no police abuse, despite the commission hearing that Warrant Officer Wouter Myburgh had witnessed a member of the National Intervention Unit (NIU) member shooting an injured miner on the ground because, according to the shooter, “They deserved to die.”

Phiyega’s strategy was much the same on Monday: refer operational questions to her juniors; never make a definitive statement; stick to the SAPS presentation and her previous comments, even when they conflict; and try never to agree with the cross examiner. Phiyega, who started her job delivering more cryptic analogies than the media could handle, was tight-lipped. It was an embarrassing and humiliating performance, but succeeded in slowing proceedings.

“Maybe I read it differently,” was a common refrain. “What’s the question?” was another. “I continue to disagree,” Phiyega said doggedly after the SAPS counsel tried to pry her out of a question but was blocked by commission chairman Ian Farlam.

The strategy seems clear: she will be accused of being an incompetent leader, but will not implicate herself, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa or her force.

Madlanga was determined to point out that the SAPS statement to the commission conflicted with Phiyega’s 17 August media statement. The day after the 34 killings, Phiyega said, “the militant group stormed towards the police firing shots.” The SAPS statement to the commission doesn’t mention any protestors charging police with guns at the small koppie, pointed out Madlanga, who spent the day trying to get the police commissioner to acknowledge the categorical difference. The exchange was like pulling teeth. (We considered including an extract of the transcript but decided to spare you the cruel and unusual punishment.)

Phiyega refused to acknowledge the obvious fact that the studied SAPS version of events does not mention protestors charging and firing at police at the small koppie. It’s a slippery slope if she does. She’ll have to elaborate on why she got the wrong information in Marikana or whether she lied. She might have to admit that cops weren’t under fire at the small koppie, except from friendly fire. She will never admit, but might suggest, that police killed unarmed protestors who posed no threat at the time.

Her silence and Alton Joja’s death intersect in the unknown space of the moments before the mineworkers were killed. The traditional healer may have shed light on what the protestors planned to do, what his rituals really meant. On the other side of the barbed wire fence, Phiyega should know the key details behind the police aggression – why was it so stubbornly enforced and who is ultimately accountable?

But Joja’s now dead, joining those on the mountain he was allegedly paid to protect. Despite her incompetence, Phiyega gets to live another day as police commissioner. She’s likely to face the commission all week and continue to stick to her very own idea of truth, designed to protect her bosses and other top cops, while hiding the real truth from the families and public. DM

Read more:

  • Marikana Commission: Under oath, Phiyega’s bald-faced lie exposed, in Daily Maverick
  • Marikana Commission: Phiyega’s bad start gets worse, in Daily Maverick

Photo: Lonmin employees gather on Wonderkop, August 15. 2012. (Greg Marinovich)


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