South Africa

Marikana Commission: Question(s) unanswered

By Greg Nicolson 17 September 2014

The Marikana Commission of Inquiry has almost heard the last of its evidence before the legal teams reconvene for final arguments. We know much more about what happened in August 2012, but many questions remain unanswered. After police commanders heard of the deaths at Scene One, as evidence suggests they did, why did they allow the operation to continue to Scene Two where 18 strikers were killed? Those responsible may be guilty of causing the murders. By GREG NICOLSON.

At 15:53:50 on 16 August the Tactical Response Team opened fire with live ammunition on a group of mineworkers as they were leaving the koppie. Evidence disproves the police claim that the strikers were charging at them with murderous intent. It also shows the police did not do all they could to avoid using deadly force. Sixteen protesters died as a result, some after not receiving medical attention. It was caught on camera.

While the Commission is yet to deliver its findings, the tragedy at Scene One looks to be caused by a combination of trigger-happy cops; poor police planning and implementation; a failure to collect and respond to intelligence; pressure from top commanders, politicians and Lonmin; a failure to use non-lethal weapons effectively; sacrificing effective negotiation for force; and a system of policing that lends itself to violence.

Surely, though, after the death of 16 people the police should have stood down.

They didn’t. They pursued the protesters to Scene Two, also known as the small koppie, where the greater number of victims were then killed. Again, the police say the were under attack and had to act in self-defence. Yet evidence has shown dead bodies at Scene Two with cable ties around their wrists. Eye-witness reports say those who tried to surrender were shot. There is also evidence that an unarmed, wounded striker was shot at close range.

Why were the police at the small koppie after the massacre at Scene One? Implausibly, the top brass say they did not know about the first deaths until later, nor did they give the orders that led to the deaths at the Scene Two. If they had known, they would have stopped the operation to reassess, they say. The evidence, however, suggests the commanders of the operation sitting in the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) knew what had happened and either let the carnage continue or ordered the operation onwards.

While the ‘disperse, disarm and arrest’ operation began, the likes of North West Police Commissioner Zukiswa Mbombo and Major General Charl Annandale from the Special Tactical Operations team were in the JOC with access to the police radio discussions, footage from various cameras and their own cellphones. Due to technical glitches, they and others have said it was difficult to follow what was happening and they only heard of the deaths about 30 minutes after what happened at Scene One, when those at Scene Two had also been killed.

A timeline of evidence presented to the Commission shows this argument is highly implausible. Dirk Botes, with Lonmin security, was also in the JOC. “Engage, engage, engage,” he heard over the police radio after the striking miners were heading towards the TRT at Scene One after passing the kraal. Although Botes didn’t hear that anyone was killed, the command to engage must have been heard or talked about throughout the JOC as the huge policing operation was under way.

Then, the police logbook shows that in the minutes after the killings at Scene One, Lieutenant Colonel Salmon Vermaak, watching from a helicopter overhead, reported “bodies down” and called for medical assistance. The call was heard throughout the JOC. While some witnesses have debated the accuracy of the logbook’s times, it seems inconceivable that the top brass sitting in the JOC didn’t know what had happened in such an important operation. Vermaak also sent pictures of the scene back to command on his Blackberry.

Then there’s evidence from Brigadier Suzette Pretorius. She was assisting from the command centre and confirms the JOC knew what had happened. After hearing on the radio the strikers were moving towards the TRT and “trying to attack them”, Pretorius says in her affidavit, “From there, 15:56, the radio was taken over by members busy with the operation, and all we could do was monitor the messages and tried to record all the information as best as possible.” She continues, “I picked up from the radio, which was very busy during this period, that people were injured and killed and I started to arrange for additional ambulances and other support personal to attend immediately to the scene to assist.” In fact, her phone records show that at 16:03, within 10 minutes of the shootings, she sent an SMS to the local Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) officer, clearly with knowledge the police had shot civilians.

Astonishingly, however, during the most important public policing operation during the democratic era, top commanders like Annandale and Mbombo claim they were unaware of the deaths at Scene One, despite being in the JOC. In fact, the provincial commissioner says she wasn’t even in the JOC during the operation. Instead, she claims she was either sitting outside or in the ladies’ room; that’s why she had no idea what was going on, she says (despite the fact that she went to Marikana to observe the operation). Annandale blames the situation on communication issues.

Their stories are hard to believe and there’s a more likely scenario. Phone records show that at 16:02 Mbombo sent an SMS to her boss National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega – that’s a few minutes after the killings at Scene One, a few minutes before the killings began at Scene Two, and almost the same time that Pretorius contacted IPID. Mbombo and Phiyega both say they can’t remember what’s the SMS said. One would imagine, however, that the provincial commissioner heard about the deaths and dutifully informed her boss.

After the killings at both scenes, at 16:17 Annandale spoke on the phone to a commander on the ground who informed him of what had happened. He told Mbombo, who 15 minutes later decided to call Phiyega. Yet when she heard the information, Mbombo still didn’t tell the ground troops to stop. “There were people killed at Scene One. The police then proceeded and killed further people at Scene Two. How did you know they wouldn’t proceed further and kill people at a scene three? Why didn’t you say, ‘Stop now’?” evidence leader Geoff Budlender asked Mbombo when she was under cross-examination.

Mbombo said she assumed the operation was over. But the likely answer is that she and other commanders already knew what had happened at Scene One and sanctioned the police to pursue the strikers to Scene Two, where evidence shows they were murdered in cold blood. DM

Photo: Retired judge Ian Farlam speaks as the judicial commission of inquiry into the shootings at Lonmin’s Marikana mine gets underway in Rustenburg, October 1, 2012. (EPA)

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