By 16:00 on 16 August 2012, 17 striking miners had been killed in Marikana. Thirty minutes later, another 17 lay dead at the infamous Scene 2. If we dissect what happened at the “small koppie”, the National Intervention Unit must be held accountable.
With the sun beginning to dip in the Marikana afternoon sky, shortly after 16:00 on the afternoon of Thursday 16 August 2012, three groups of police converged from different directions on the small koppie.
One of these comprised 78 members of the National Intervention Unit (NIU), an elite South African Police Service unit responsible for “medium to high risk” operations. They are supposed to be highly trained and professional. But at Marikana, the evidence shows, there was a breakdown in discipline by some members involved in the shootings at what is now known as Scene 2.
Inside the small koppie, an area of rocks, small trees and bushes, about 300 striking miners had taken refuge. Fifteen minutes earlier, at 15:54, 17 of their colleagues had been fatally shot, and many seriously wounded, by members of the SAPS Tactical Response Team (TRT). The shooting had taken place next to a cattle kraal roughly 500 metres to the east of the small koppie. At the Marikana Commission of Inquiry this would be called Scene 1.
These events were the culmination of a stand-off between police and strikers on the eastern face of a large koppie near to the kraal. Strikers had started using the barren rocks of the koppie as a gathering place during their strike at the Lonmin Marikana platinum mine. On the basis of an instruction issued the previous day, police had launched an operation at 15:40 on 16 August, to disperse and disarm the strikers. By 16:20 another 17 strikers would be dead, or fatally wounded, after having been shot by police at the small koppie.
Many people believe that the strikers had been attacking the police when they were shot down by TRT members at Scene 1. But when it looked at the evidence, including video footage from 10 different television and security cameras, the Marikana Commission could not find any conclusive evidence that this was so.
An alternative explanation may be more plausible. This is that the strikers were initially walking towards a path leading into the informal settlement of Nkaneng. The evidence shows that teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, used by SAPS Public Order Policing personnel, were mainly fired from behind, and into the side of the groups of strikers moving down the channel created by SAPS vehicles against the side of the kraal. As a result the police, unintentionally, propelled them into running towards the line of TRT members who waited, firearms at the ready, ahead of them.
In accounting for the actions of the police at Scene 2 it is necessary to take account of what are likely to have been their perceptions, and mood, at the time. In the period shortly after 16:00, when they were approaching the small koppie, some police are likely to have believed that the strikers had attacked the police at Scene 1.
The NIU line had been positioned behind the TRT. The Commission accepted that some members of the TRT believed that they were being attacked by the strikers. It is likely that some NIU members, positioned as they were, perceived the events at Scene 1 in the same way.
Three days earlier some strikers had been involved in a clash with members of the SAPS in which three strikers and two SAPS members were killed. Though the facts of the incident that emerged at the commission were more complex, the SAPS members at Marikana on 16 August are likely to have understood the incident as one in which the strikers, unprovoked, had attacked the police. Consequently many police at Marikana on 16 August were afraid that they would again be attacked by the strikers.
Now, on Thursday afternoon, their fears had been realised. Members of the NIU had just witnessed what they believed was another attack by strikers on their colleagues. On the one hand this reinforced their view of the strikers as deadly enemies. But after the TRT had mowed down the strikers at the kraal, and the remaining strikers fled from the police in terror, there would also have been a degree of relief. What had just been demonstrated was that, in any confrontation with armed strikers, the SAPS, with its overwhelming superior firepower, would easily get the upper hand.
In his work on violence, the sociologist Randall Collins has argued that violent atrocities often occur in situations of this kind when, after a prolonged tense confrontation, one side retreats in confusion and is suddenly exposed as much weaker.
At the kraal the first shooting had taken place in full view of members of the local and international media. But now, as the NIU moved from the kraal towards the small koppie, the journalists and television cameras remained behind the police cordon designating the operational area. There was now little chance that anything that they did would be visible to the media, and some of them are likely to have been conscious of feeling less constrained. Command and control being absent, they were now guided purely by their own judgments and emotions.
Unknown to many NIU members, two other groups of police were positioned on the koppie’s southern and western sides. No ballistic evidence shows that gunshots were fired by any of the strikers and there is no other credible evidence to this effect. But an initial burst of gunfire from police on the west side resulted in police on the south side believing that they were being fired at from within the koppie. In this burst of gunfire on the west side, Mr Mkhonjwa, the first striker to be fatally wounded at the small koppie, was shot.
Over the minutes that followed the sound of gunfire escalated to a crescendo as SAPS K9 and TRT members on the south side unleashed a barrage of more than 70 rounds of R5 assault rifle and 9mm fire into the small koppie area. Some of the bullets, from this imagined gunfight, passed over the heads of the approaching NIU members.
On the east side of the koppie, two strikers, 56-year-old Thabiso Thelejane and 29-year-old Anele Mdizeni, were the first to fall to the bullets of the NIU. They fell alongside the east face of a long, five-metre-high rock formation while trying to run northwards, most likely in the hope of escaping from the gunfire and approaching NIU members. Both were shot in the right side. Thirty-nine cartridge cases from eight NIU members were found in positions from which it is likely that Thelejane and Mdizeni were fired at.
Accompanied by a major-general from the North West head office, five NIU members then ascended to the top of the high rocks. Three of them had already been involved in the shootings in which Thelejane and Mdizeni, were killed. Major-General Naidoo, who accompanied them, had been in charge of a group of police who were supposed to have escorted paramedics to Scene 1. Instead he too became caught up in the melee at the small koppie.
On the far side of the high rocks a group of strikers were cowering in an overgrown area of large boulders beneath. Over preceding minutes they had been pinned down by jets of water from the water cannon on the north side and by ongoing gunfire from the south. Some were already fatally wounded.
Reaching the top of the high rocks, the NIU members could see some of the strikers huddled below them, amid the bushes and boulders approximately 40 metres away. But they were too caught up in their imagined confrontation with the strikers. Driven by the will to punish the strikers for their earlier perceived belligerence towards the police, they unleashed at least 17 R5 rounds at the strikers huddled in the rocks and bushes. Major General Naidoo added another 9mm round or two to the fusillade. Some of the strikers raised their hands in surrender, but as they did so were gunned down.
At the small koppie 24 NIU members fired a total of 115 rounds, 103 of these with deadly R5 ammunition. One of them, Constable Ngwaleni, fired 25 in all. A further 36 R5 rounds were fired from the rifles of five others.
One aspect of many of their subsequent statements is their obvious unreliability. In his initial statement submitted to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate in August 2012, Lieutenant Ndlela said he had only shot from the east side of the small koppie in defence against a group of strikers who were attacking him. Only in October, after the ballistic report showed that he had fired from on top of the high rocks, did he provide a statement in which he indicated that he had also been involved in shootings “while clearing the small koppie”.
As late as September 2013 Major-General Naidoo submitted a statement that made no mention of firing his pistol from on top of the high rocks. He only admitted to doing so in his testimony before the Commission in March 2014. Constable Ngwaleni first only admitted to firing five rounds. In his further statement he said that his rifle had possibly been on automatic mode. Taken at face value the wording of his statement implausibly implies that he does not know if he fired 25 single shots or a few rapid bursts of fire. Several statements from NIU members claim that they only fired warning shots. None of them admit to killing anyone.
But intermittent photographs taken from police helicopters give no support to police claims that they were being attacked by strikers, clearly showing a group of strikers trying to take cover from the police onslaught against them. And the assessment of the independent forensic and ballistic experts is that some of the 11 strikers who were killed in the group that was huddled among the boulders were shot from on top of the high rocks.
It is now six years since Marikana. Starting from the day of the massacre, when police planted weapons on the bodies of dead strikers at the small koppie, police have closed ranks to protect themselves from being held accountable for these killings.
In so far as we depend on the processes of criminal law for accountability there may be none. R5 rounds, which killed almost all of the strikers at Scene 2, splinter on impact. It is not possible to link any of the gunshot wounds to a specific firearm. Surviving strikers are also unlikely to be able to identify the SAPS members who fired the fatal shots at their colleagues.
But that cannot be the end of the matter. As an elite unit within the SAPS the NIU should not be allowed to kill people without accounting for their actions. They have so far failed to do so. DM
David Bruce is a freelance researcher. His report, The sound of gunfire – The police shootings at Marikana Scene 2, 16 August 2012 was released on Wednesday by the Institute for Security Studies. This article is based on the analysis and conclusions in the report.