Former police minister Nathi Mthethwa was confident on his first day at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. His testimony is crucial in understanding whether political influence played a role in the deaths of 44 people. Mthethwa, now arts and culture minister, has been steadfast in his defence, but can he keep it up? By GREG NICOLSON.
Frustrated by the pace of Advocate George Bizos’ cross-examination and the accusations levelled against him, Mthethwa corrected the lawyer on a point of pronunciation. “Sell-e,” pronounced Bizos. “Cele,” a confident Mthethwa accentuated the click.
Almost two years after the Marikana massacre and a year and a half into the Commission, who is responsible for the 44 deaths has been waded down in thousands of pages of transcripts and legalese that makes the Oscar trial look simple. But Nathi Mthethwa’s testimony is crucial in understanding what happened that day and finding justice. He was the elected representative responsible for the function of national policing and is embroiled in allegations of influencing the SAPS response to the situation.
The Commission has heard that there were no good reasons for the police to have cracked down on the miners on the afternoon of 16 August. It was an example of poor policing, but did it begin with political pressure?
It’s worth recalling the 14 August 2012 conversation between North West Police Commissioner Zukiswa Mbombo and Barnard Mokoena, Lonmin executive vice president of human relations and external affairs. The transcript, which wasn’t presented by the police to the Commission, is worrying:
Mbombo: “But when I was speaking to Minister Mthethu [Mthethwa] he mentioned a name to me that is also calling him, that is pressuring him, unfortunately it is a political high…”
Mokoena: “It is Cyril.”
Mbombo: “Cyril Ramaphosa, yes. Now remember now when I was talking to the national commissioner last night she says to me, look General who are the shareholders here, so I said I do not know the shareholders but I know that when I spoke to the minister he mentioned Cyril. And then she says, now I got it. You know why she says I got it?”
Mbombo: “Now our discussion with the national commissioner was around this thing, that say is this thing now happening such that again Malema come and defuse this thing, so that it becomes as if Malema has taken charge of the mining – the mine.”
Mbombo: “Once again remember Malema’s view that the mine should be…”
Mbombo: “Nationalised and all of that. So it has got a serious political connotation that we need to take into account, but which we need to find a way of defusing. Hence I just told these guys that we need to act such that we kill this thing.”
Mokoena: “Immediately, yes.”
Mbombo: “When tomorrow we have to move in, if today we do not find cooperation in these people we need to move in such that we kill it. Because we need to protect a situation where any jick-and-joff from a political arena…”
Political pressure appears to be a given. When she appeared at the Commission, Mbombo doubted whether Mthethwa used the word “pressure” and claimed she always uses it when a South African asks for help.
Mthethwa explained his role on Monday. He spoke to both Cyril Ramaphosa, a Lonmin board member at the time, and then National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) President Senzeni Zokwana on 12 August. “[Ramaphosa] says he’s concerned because people are dying there, property is being damaged there and as far as he can see there are no police or adequate police on the ground,” said Mthethwa on his conversation with the now Deputy President. Mthethwa then called the provincial commissioner.
“What I said to the provincial commissioner is I’ve been talking to Mr Ramaphosa and Mr Zokwana on the phone and as far as they’re concerned they think that police are not adequate on the ground.” Mthethwa added, “I have never came to that situation where someone would put pressure on me, on my job… Honestly, I don’t regard anyone who would put pressure on me.”
Mthethwa received a number of updates on the situation at Marikana, but he was careful on Monday to distance himself from the SAPS operation. As minister, his role was in policy making and oversight, not getting involved in day-to-day activities. He accepted the response from the SAPS that they had the situation under control. Apart from seeking some updates, he wasn’t involved in the policing plan, he told the Commission. He said he didn’t know which units were on the ground on 16 August, wasn’t told when the ‘disperse and disarm’ plan moved into its tactical phase, and first heard about the mass shootings over the radio.
Phone records appear to vindicate his claims of how often he spoke to the provincial and national SAPS commissioner. A statement from Phiyega said she informed Mthethwa of the plan to move into the tactical phase on 16 August, but she later said the comment was incorrect and it wasn’t meant to be in her final statement.
Surely, he should keep closer tabs on violence that’s already claimed the lives of two officers, said lawyers. “The minister of police is not the person who is supposed to ask police how many guns you are having and so on… I differ that it’s a dereliction of duty because that’s a purely operational matter of a police service who would know what they are doing in any situation in interacting with the public,” he responded to allegations of failing in his duties.
“What I know is that as the political head at the time, I’d have been responsible for all the things the police were doing,” Mthethwa admitted. Then came the heartfelt moment: “I would want to acknowledge really what happened in Marikana and say that whatever happened was not supposed to happen in democracy. Something terribly wrong took place there. Where exactly that happened I’m sure this honourable commission is seized with that and we will get what happened.” It was “indeed a tragedy visiting democracy”, said Mthethwa.
Bizos, however, suggested it was a tragedy of his own making. “I submit that the witness is vicariously responsible for the deaths,” said the advocate. He tried to prove that because Mthethwa, along with President Zuma, Susan Shabangu and Bheki Cele have all made comments endorsing a “shoot to kill” approach from the police, created a policing environment that led to the deaths in Marikana. Mthethwa defended his past comments, claiming that when he said them crime was rife, but said police must stick to the law.
The day could have been much worse for Mthethwa, now minister of arts and culture, who was confident but not overly combative. The transcript between Lonmin’s Mokoena and Mbombo was damning. As evidence that political influence had an impact on the actions of the SAPS, it’s strong. But Mthethwa was consistent in denying he exerted such pressure and was at least able to answer questions competently, unlike National Commissioner Phiyega when she came to the inquiry.
But the allegations of political pressure and police cover-up are widespread. Before Monday’s final adjournment, Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza referred Mthethwa to two documents. The first was a report for the minister of international relations on the night of 16 August to brief Zuma, who was in Mozambique. The second was the SAPS media statement from the next day. The documents are extremely similar, outlining the work of the police throughout the week. The internal briefing, however, makes it clearer that there were two scenes where police killed the protesters. The public announcement isn’t as cogent in its explanation that there were two different scenes, both of which led to a large amount of deaths.
Ntsebeza was inferring that the police wanted to hide the killings at the second koppie, where they are accused of shooting protesters who were running away and trying to surrender. If that’s the case, those who saw both statements, like Mthethwa, could be implicated in hiding the truth. It’s a minor detail, but at the Commission it’s the connection of minor details that counts.
Mthethwa will continue to be cross-examined on Tuesday. DM
Photo: Former police minister Nathi Mthethwa is seen during a break in proceedings at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry in Pretoria on Monday, 14 July 2014. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas