South Africa

Marikana Commission continues, as does the grilling of Riah Phiyega

By Sipho Hlongwane 17 April 2013

The Marikana Commission of Inquiry resumed on Monday. The recent stabbing of advocate Dali Mpofu meant that the question of moving the venue from Rustenburg to Pretoria couldn’t be addressed. Advocate Tim Bruinders spent much of the day questioning the national police commissioner Riah Phiyega about her decision-making process in the run-up to the police operation on 16 August 2012 that ended with the killing of 34 miners. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The Marikana Commission was unable to decide on Monday whether it should move to Pretoria from Rustenburg after Dali Mpofu was stabbed twice on Thursday in the Eastern Cape. While his injuries were not life-threatening, the commission will need to wait for him to return first, as it was he who brought the application in the first place. The commission was returning from a two-week hiatus, with the intention of settling the question (the Bapo ba Mogale community, which is a party to the commission, objects to the move) of where the commission should be held.

Advocates Mpofu and Dumisa Ntsebeza respectively represent the miners who survived the operation, and the families of those who didnt, and have complained that the expense is putting incredible strain on the pockets of their clients.

Riah Phiyega, the national police commissioner, was still on the stand on Monday. She faced questions from Tim Bruinders, acting before the commission for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), who asked about her involvement in the planning prior to 16 August. He also asked about the chain of command, and what Phiyega thought her subordinates knew. In other words, the sort of thing youd want to know from the most senior police commander responsible.

In previous sittings of the commission Phiyega has limited her answers to acknowledging that she knew about the wildcat strike, knew the deaths that had already occurred, and knew that something had to be done. And as on previous occasions, she became annoyingly vague when pressed for specifics.

Having already testified that she was well informed of the operation her contention that the operation was well-planned but disrupted strongly suggests that the police began the operation with the confidence that all their information at that point was correct she nonetheless couldn’t say what North West police commissioner Zukiswa Mbombo was thinking as the operation was being built. This is not a random or unfair question it speaks to mindset of police before the fact. Was their intelligence sound? Apparently not, as their preparations were apparently for a disarm-and-disperse mission. Were the police actually on a revenge mission, as advocates like George Bizos have suggested?

Bruinders made the same point when he repeatedly asked Phiyega about the involvement of the special task force in the operation. This highly-specialised unit is not usually called out to quell public unrest; there are appropriately trained public order policing units for that. And yet there they were, the special task force, called out to receive the surrender of civilians. Why?

Also, having testified that she was confident that Mbombo had things under control before the operation began, Phiyega could not provide specifics on the decision to use sharp point ammunition on the day. Once again, she referred all operational questions to the “operations people”.

Bruinders built an image of a police commissioner who gave the go-ahead for an operation she was wholly unfamiliar with. (“Where you not appointed for your management skills?” he asked Phiyega at one point, with a perfectly straight face.)

For the first time since she began testifying, Phiyega went on the offensive. The line of questioning pursued by Bruinders offered her an escape route, as she blamed mining company Lonmin for failing to deal with a labour dispute that eventually became a public violence issue. Phiyega testified that she told the company that the police couldn’t engage the unions on the level of a labour dispute, but that the company could have. She encouraged Lonmin to “engage” the workers after she arrived in Marikana on 13 August.

Speaking to Lonmin, she said: “You invited us, saying that there was a protest in place, to work towards finding a peaceful resolution… It is expected of you to engage your striking employees.”

Rather surprisingly, Bruinders appeared happy to leave matters to rest at that point.

In truth, the lawyers who have had a turn before him have all emphatically made the point that the police commissioner was pathetically out of her depth, and willing to believe virtually anything she was told, with disastrous consequences.

As far as Amcu is concerned, the union has achieved what it needed to. Amcu’s biggest win is putting as much distance between itself and arch-rivals the National Union of Mineworkers, and the police. AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa was able to show the commission that his organisation had nothing to do with inciting or stoking the flames of the violent wildcat strike, or the deaths that followed afterwards. While it is in the union’s interest to now ensure that Lonmin doesn’t get a bad lashing at the commission, since the two are now effectively in partnership, it can perhaps now afford to worry a bit less about the possible effects of the commission’s outcome.

The police, on the other hand, have everything to worry about at this point.

The commission continues. DM

Photo by Sapa.