Lieutenant Colonel Salmon Johannes Vermaak is more than just an unusually named person; he is an unusual cop. GREG MARINOVICH reports on the one policeman among the high-ranking officers at Marikana in 2012 who thus far has been willing to stand up and give an off-message version of what happened on the key days of the 13 to 16 August, 2012.
In the early days of the Commission, the top cops spoke of how their benign plan to disperse the miners was ‘disrupted’ by the miners’ response, resulting in the ‘tragic’ killings. Slowly, over the last 18 months, the facts have eroded this version, but it all seemed a bit too diffuse to completely discredit the police version of events. There was considerable anger and frustration among survivors and their families at listening to the police commissioner and deputy commissioners dance on the head of a pin as they skirted facing up to their roles in the massacre.
Then, under rather strange circumstances, Lt Col Vermaak was called to the Commission some 15 months after it began. Vermaak’s evidence was led by the Commission’s evidence leaders. All previous SAPS employees called to the Commission were represented, and led, by the police lawyers. Vermaak was not.
He had been fired by his lawyers, he told the Commission. After several consultations with the police’s lawyers, often led by Advocate Ishmael ‘Ish’ Semenya, the Commission heard that Vermaak was told that SAPS did not want him as a witness, and instead wanted to cross-examine him.
This was a quite extraordinary turn of events. After all, Vermaak had discussed what he knew about the deadly Marikana incidents he was involved in with the confidence that those lawyers were his representatives. He disclosed things that are bound by client-attorney confidentiality. Yet those same lawyers were then instructed (by SAPS bosses, one assumes) to turn on him and treat him as a hostile witness. The lawyers for the police then had knowledge, gleaned from these consultations, which they could use, even if not directly, against their former client.
As Advocate George Bizos succinctly put it, any cop like Col Vermaak who does not “toe the line … will be dropped. It is not in the interest of truth and it is not in the interests of justice.”
Bizos said it was a message to the remaining 25 police witnesses to be called to the Commission – stick to the official version or discover how cold it is on the outside.
Despite denials by the police lawyers, led by the respected Semenya, that they would not use those consultations against him, there was a flurry of police affidavits written and submitted to the Commission after Vermaak’s evidence-in-chief was led at the Commission. It was a defensive action by police in a panic that someone in the thin blue line would break ranks.
The police service dumped Vermaak because his version of what happened diverged from their official line.
Vermaak was the operation’s ‘eye in the sky’, the helicopter-based cop who would help co-ordinate and keep information flowing between the command centre and the various commanders on the ground. One of the key points Vermaak dismissed is that the miners were trying to attack the police lines. He said it was obvious that they simply ran down the mountain in an attempt to escape arrest. This version completely negates the police ‘disruption of the operational plan’ theme.
Vermaak criticised many aspects of police planning – or the lack thereof – and behaviour at Marikana. He had previously voiced his unhappiness with public order policing failings to upper management over the last couple of years. He wrote to his superiors in the months after the 2011 murder of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg at the hands of public order policemen and just prior to the Marikana massacre, sixteen months later.
Vermaak’s letters expressed his concern that the latter day Riot Police – the Public Order Policing (POP) – had massive problems. His last communication, preceding the massacre by four months, was to the North West provincial commissioner, Lieutenant General Mirriam Mbombo, her deputy commissioner Major General William Mpembe and the provincial head of the Operational Response Services (ORS) Brigadier Adriaan Calitz, who would later be the operational commander on the day of the massacre (more on all of them later).
Most of the matters that concerned Vermaak about how the police responded to protests before the massacre would emerge as key factors as to why it all went so terribly wrong during the Marikana operation.
Here was a former riot cop, an apartheid enforcer, standing up and saying that the boys in blue got it wrong. Marikana did not happen in a vacuum.
Vermaak’s time in front of the Commission is being closely followed by many of the middle and lower order policemen who fear they might be held responsible for the killings at Marikana. They have seen their political bosses – the police commissioners and deputy commissioners – refuse to accept any responsibility. They have seen the operational and overall commanders at Marikana duck and dive.
Vermaak is a slight man with reddish-blonde hair run through with grey, and a matching bristly moustache. His English is poor, preferring to speak in his native Afrikaans, but when the Commission’s interpreters proved to be less than perfect, he agreed to struggle on in a relatively alien tongue.
Despite the weeks of cross examination, it became clear that Vermaak had no political capital and few allies among the high-ranking officers. He was hung out to dry by the SAPS legal team and management with not a voice being raised in his defence. He was to be treated as a hostile witness when the police tried to introduce his disciplinary record as evidence.
Before he joined the police’s air wing, he was a specialist riot policeman, based on the West Rand from 1986, and through the turmoil of the ‘90s. He saw duty in Kagiso, Bekkersdal, Swannieville and of course, Boipatong, site of another infamous South African massacre in 1992.
A long list of charges, primarily of assault, are on that record of ‘misconduct’. He was never found guilty. For a riot cop who served from 1990 until now, it is difficult to judge if dozens of charges are common or uncommon. From our experience of police brutality as a nation, it is not unexpected to see a list of charges against him. Nor is it unexpected that he was never found guilty, whatever the merits, dubious or otherwise, of those claims.
One incident in particular was brought up by the police lawyers – that of a nasty labour dispute over twenty years ago when striking dairy workers at Stilfontein hacked to death two labour brokers. The dog squad was called in and they were attacked, and some of their weapons stolen. Vermaak led a group of riot police to the rescue.
Immediately upon arriving on the scene, the strikers opened fire on the police. In the confrontation, Vermaak and his unit shot and killed seven of the strikers. Three were shot dead by Vermaak himself. There was a hearing before a magistrate, and Vermaak was judged to have acted in legitimate self defence.
The police lawyer, Semenya, might have brought this incident up to discredit the notion that Vermaak is ‘a decent cop’ or to prove that there are incidents that require public order police to use live ammunition. It will perhaps be clarified in his argument at the end of the Commission.
The third possibility is that it is a warning to other cops who might break ranks – it will not be a pleasant ride.
Our brutal past runs as an unmentioned yet inescapable element within the policing landscape. Even twenty years after democracy, the police are a tainted body, run through with cops who were the sharp point of apartheid to many black citizens, in South Africa proper and in the homeland tribal fiefdoms.
Almost all the cops who have appeared thus far were either white policemen under apartheid, or black policemen in one of the Bantustans. Even the North West’s provincial commissioner was a Bantustan cop, and then worked for the Security Branch.
Vermaak clearly saw a lot of violent action, and contributed his fair share to it. He says it continues to haunt him. For reasons undisclosed, he prefers not to carry a weapon. He also says he does not attend braais, has not done so for years, as the smell of burning meat brings back the horror of necklacings he has witnessed.
Vermaak is a damaged man, a part of a damaged community that is a subset of a damaged society. Yet he has been the one source of hope from within a police force that clearly feels it owes nothing to the citizens, and everything to the state.
It is for this reason, among others, that the police service, the police ministry and the state are so keen to demonize and diminish Vermaak’s impact on the Commission, as well as on the public in general.
Vermaak first came to Marikana watchers’ notice as the officer that Warrant Officer Heinrich Myburgh came to with allegations that a fellow cop had executed a wounded miner.
A month and a half after the massacre, Myburgh, a dog handler, approached Vermaak and said that “there was an incident at the koppie”. He said he had seen a wounded miner on the ground and as he walked on, he heard a shot from behind him. He turned and saw a cop replacing his pistol in his holster. Myburgh asked him ‘Why did you do that?’ and the policeman replied, ‘he didn’t deserve to live’.”
Vermaak says he immediately called Colonel Calitz about the allegation, who then informed Major General Ganasen Naidoo, and the various police commissioners above him. As Daily Maverick reported more than a year ago, it could only have been one of two police officers responsible for this murder – if it indeed happened – yet no charges have been laid.
It is not clear why Myburgh chose Col Vermaak to tell about this; Vermaak was not his commanding officer, nor was he even in the same unit.
Another time that Vermaak’s name comes up is on 13 August, the day three striking miners and two policemen were killed in a clash, three days before the massacre. Vermaak was above the scene in a helicopter and watched as teargas canisters and stun grenades were fired at an apparently docile group of miners.
In the mayhem that followed, two police officers were hacked to death and their firearms stolen. Their colleagues fled, Vermaak testified, instead of helping their embattled mates. Vermaak and Captain Paul Loest of the Tactical Response Team dropped teargas and stun grenades from their helicopter to try to assist the policemen below. It was to no avail. (Incidentally, Loest features in the video from the initial massacre on the 16th again as the cop who eventually calls for the machine-gun armed police to cease fire).
The chopper landed, and after assisting with the fatally wounded policemen – Tsietsi Monene and Warrent Officer Sello Lepaaku – Vermaak mustered some policemen and set off in pursuit of the miners who had taken the police weapons and radio.
Vermaak himself was without a weapon. He has a police issue pistol but declines to take it out from his office safe most of the time. In Vermaak’s version, he led the police in pursuit of a miner who kept turning and pointing the stolen R5 rifle at them. Another miner fired at them with the stolen shotgun. Vermaak claims that he instructed only one of the policemen with him to fire once. The miners with the firearms were not hit, and they escaped with the weapons. A different miner – Pumzile Sokonyile – was indeed killed by what is thought to be a police bullet.
In statements taken from policemen who are alleged to have been with him after Vermaak had given his version to the Commission, Vermaak either a) grabbed an assault rifle from a policeman and led the pursuit, or b) instructed several policemen to fire on several occasions. Despite a fierce cross-examination by Semenya for the police, Vermaak stood firm on his version.
It would seem that the last minute police affidavits contradicting Vermaak were part of the police’s smear campaign against him. Many of the points raised by the late affidavits were easily dismissed as being without factual backing. Of course this raises key questions about the police service’s participation in the Commission – they are meant to assist the Commission get to the truth, and not just cover their collective arses.
While Vermaak was walking back from the unsuccessful attempt to retrieve the weapons, he heard the policemen with him talking about General William Mpembe, who had been in charge of the operation. Vermaak claims that they said Mpembe was to blame for the policemen’s deaths and should be laying beside them: “They said Mpembe gave them instructions to go and put their shotguns in the nyalas in order not to provoke the protestors. To me that was a serious threat. I then phoned the provincial commissioner (Lt Gen Mirriam Mbombo). I said to her that there was chaos. Two policemen killed.”
Vermaak called his boss a second time, and told her about the threat to Mpembe and how Mpembe seemed to have lost all self-control. Vermaak suggested he remove Mpembe for his own safety, and assume temporary command.
Vermaak says that Mbombo gave her approval.
In her evidence before the Commission, Mbombo denied this, saying that Vermaak had ‘complained about Mpembe’s demeanour’ and that he had not mentioned the threats. She did say, however, that she okayed Mpembe’s removal from command.
The police lawyer, Semenya, claimed that Vermaak invented the threat to enable him to take control of the scene from Mpembe. The reason for this was never put forward except for furthering Semenya’s claim that Vermaak was a maverick.
Again, crucial milestones in the Marikana massacre saga are down to a he said – she said scenario. Mpembe’s state of mind – indicated as emotionally and/or mentally unstable – just three days before he commanded an operation in which police killed 34 miners, several of them allegedly execution style, is key to unravelling why Marikana happened.
It is critical to understand that some policemen were so incensed at the death of their fellow officers on the 13th that they wanted to murder their own commander. These cops were neither suspended nor investigated. Instead, they were allowed to participate in a delicate and fraught operation within 72 hours of that traumatic event.
It is little wonder that the police hierarchy wanted to isolate and discredit Vermaak.
Vermaak’s direct commander is Brigadier Adriaan Calitz. Vermaak reported the threats to Calitz on the 13th, and he was also the officer that he told about Myburgh’s startling allegation of murder on the 16th. Calitz was operational commander on the 16th.
On the 16th, Vermaak was once again the police’s ‘eye in the sky’ for the operation. Once again, his evidence makes things uncomfortable for his fellow cops. The overall commander of the operation – the provincial commissioner, Maj Gen Mbombo, – claimed she did not know that anyone had been shot until 45 minutes after the first deaths at the koppie, or Scene 1.
Yet the records show that Vermaak had reported ‘18 bodies down’ and sent images of this from his blackberry to the command centre within minutes of the shooting – just before 16h00. Mbombo, sitting outside the command centre, says she became aware of deaths only at 16h40.
The officers in charge at the command centre, and Maj Gen Mpembe – the operational commander – all claim they did not know miners had been killed.
The record shows this to be ridiculous, and as George Bizos puts it, fits in with generations of top police officers ensuring they could claim not to know, and blame low ranking officers for brutalities and deaths.
It all became clear that there was a split between Vermaak and the rest of the high-ranking police officers at the so-called Roots gathering in Potchefstroom, two weeks after the massacre. Roots was where the police were to gather all information about Marikana to present their version to the Commission of Inquiry due to begin by November 2012.
As Vermaak recalled “In a consultation with the police legal team, it was mentioned to me that I am going to carry the responsibility for the people that were killed at koppie three.” Vermaak began to diarise attempts to apportion blame to him, and told the police legal team, national commissioner, Riah Phiyega, and the provincial commissioner, Zukiswa Mbombo, that he would only stick to the facts.
“I was disappointed that all of a sudden a finger was being pointed at me… I was being directly held responsible for the death of these people.
When Vermaak finally came to give evidence at the Commission, almost 18 months after the massacre, Calitz called Vermaak and told him to align his version with what Calitz had said before the Commission during his own testimony some months previously – that Vermaak was in command from the air at Small Koppie (Scene 2). Vermaak responded negatively, saying he would not do that – he would tell the truth. Calitz called back the next day, backing off, and agreed that, of course, Vermaak should tell the truth.
The issue of saying that Vermaak was in command from the air would absolve the more senior officers on the ground from charges that they wilfully hunted down and murdered fleeing miners, or at least turned a blind eye.
Vermaak says that once the commanders of the operation knew people had been killed, the operation had gone disastrously wrong, and they should have called a halt to it. Instead, it continued and 18 more men were killed by police gunfire at small koppie, or Scene 2, some apparently executed.
One of the many small nails in the metaphorical coffin of the police version of events was to have it understood from the record of the radio traffic that the operational commander on the day – Brig Calitz – gave the order “no fire unless you are engaged,” meaning that the policemen were not to use live ammunition unless they were attacked. The cop version is that they only used live ammunition when attacked by the muti-crazed miners. Vermaak’s understanding, supported by the evidence, is that Calitz said “Stop live fire”. This would mean Calitz had to know there was indeed live fire happening.
Part of this helped cut through some of the previous police witnesses dissembling: when police are told ‘engage’ it means open fire. If that order is directed at Public Order Policing members armed with teargas launchers and shotguns, then they will fire those weapons. However, if that same order – engage – is directed at the Tactical Response Team members – the amaBereta – it can only mean open fire with live ammunition, as that is what they are equipped with. Vermaak has ensured that we all know that the police were told to open fire with live ammunition.
Vermaak also says that far from the miners attacking the police line, they were trying to escape the encirclement – and the only escape was through the gap left between the end of the rolls of razor wire and the armoured nyalas. In the first days after the massacre, several witnesses from among the miners gave that same version – that they wanted out. Miners later understood that gap to be a ruse to get them to be slaughtered. They refer to it as the ‘trap gap’.
There was an aligning of the story to protect the highest commanders and – it would seem – to ensure that their political masters were not dragged into the morass. It was here that Vermaak began to again set himself in opposition to the rest of his comrades in arms.
It is clear that the police wanted to ensure Vermaak was discredited as a witness, a warning to other policemen of the price they would pay should they break ranks.
Col Vermaak ended his time at the Commission with a statement that we have decided to print in full and verbatim:
“Chair, thank you. I want to thank the Chairperson and his Commissioners and all the legal teams and families who are present. It was mentioned in the media that they referred to me as a rebel officer. I just want to clarify on that maybe.
Why I stood up for the truth and the members and families, since I was a commander from 1986 I made a promise to my members that I will not turn my back on them and I will face – at Stilfontein I faced death in Stilfontein where striker people fired at me from a distance about of 10 metres. I know what it is to be in that situation when you have to protect yourself and your colleagues.
After that incident one of the members who was with us there, a young constable, committed suicide by shooting himself. I also know what it feels to stand next to the body of one of your colleagues and your members. I made a promise to myself that I will do anything in future to prevent the situation where a member of the public or a police member gets killed. That is why I stood up and tried my utmost best to prevent further loss of lives at Marikana.
It is not an easy decision to make, to stand up against the National Commissioner and other senior generals while you were trying to assist and to prevent such an incident. I know that I’m criticised but I stand for the truth.
Chair, I thank you and the Commissioners for the opportunity to address you. I also want to thank all the legal teams who was cross-examining me in the way they did. And also the families of the miners and the police members, they treated me very well and their appreciation for the truth, I thank them there for.” DM
Photo by Vathiswa Ruselo/Times Live
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