The swift and open reaction of law enforcement officers after the bombing of the Boston marathon last week has shown that the South African Police Service acted in an unacceptable way during and after the Marikana crisis last year. Not only did they leave it up to others to furnish the public with the real facts, they were instrumental in making the situation worse.
The police have faced massive criticism since the Marikana massacre on 16 August 2012, when they opened fire on a crowd of striking miners, killing 34 and wounding another 78. The operation itself has been criticised, as has the slow trickle of information, the harassment of witnesses, and attempts to tamper with the crime scene. The national commissioner Riah Phiyega has been on the stand at the inquiry set up to investigate those terrible events for more than a month now, and has had a pretty thin time of it. Not only has her lack of experience in police work undone her several times, but she has been disorganised in her paperwork and evasive in her answers.
In March, the pressure on Phiyega began to tell. In an interview with the Sunday Times, she labelled criticism aimed at her as sexism. She said: “Why, when Phiyega comes, it becomes a huge debate? The president can appoint a man or a woman to control and manage the organisation and I had the requisite skills.
“In the 100 years of the history of the police they introduce a woman. Is that a challenge? I don’t know; I don’t have the answer,” she said.
Is she really being singled out for being a woman, or is she simply incompetent?
The police intend arguing private defence before the inquiry, and Phiyega has repeatedly said that the incident was a well-planned operation that was disrupted due to the unprecedented decision by the miners to charge at the police. The men they faced that day have been painted as a dangerous mob of armed thugs, in a murderous stupor through some ritual involving traditional medicine – and this is the excuse that has been used in the court trials of the 270 miners who were arrested and charged for various crimes (including murder under the Apartheid-era doctrine of common purpose, at one point).
The available evidence points to something completely different: the police mounted a ferocious attack that day, then carried out a terror campaign afterwards to ensure that the hundreds of witnesses to the massacres would not implicate them, and have not been giving the public the honest and full picture of what happened that day.
It takes looking at the response to the Boston bombings last Monday to see what kind of a police response we should have expected to see after Marikana last year. A week after the tragic events, the two suspects are accounted for: Tarmelan Tsarnaev (26) was shot and killed on April 19 after a manhunt and shootout with police, and his brother Dzhokhar (19) was seriously wounded and captured a few hours later.
After the two bombs blew up near the end of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring 183, the police initially did not have much to work with. They spent three days poring over video and photo evidence of the blast area, and examined the shrapnel and material used to make the bomb to try and get clues about the bombers.
Crucially, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies released an avalanche of information to the public, including photos and tip-off websites, to get its help in catching the suspects.
At the press conference, where the photo was shown of the two suspects walking side-by-side with bombs in backpacks before they were placed, the head of the Boston FBI office, special agent Rick DeLauriers, said: “In an instant, images will be delivered into the hands of millions around the world. We know the public will play a critical role in identifying and locating these individuals.”
They got a stroke of luck on April 18 when Jeff Baumann, a blast victim who last both his legs, regained consciousness and was able to give a detailed description of one of the suspects.
The timeline of the bombings and the apprehension of the suspects are astonishing, particularly how swiftly information was communicated. Within hours of the blast, a website and hotline were ready. What was being investigated, and what was known in terms of evidence, was relayed to the press and the public almost instantly. The public knew that at least one bomb was a gunpowder-and-shrapnel-filled pressure cooker that operated with some kind of remote control detonation. The news reports were filled with detail.
“Investigators said Tuesday they had recovered a mangled Fagor brand pressure cooker pot, shrapnel, a circuit board and wiring from what they said was a partially exploded device near the finish line,” an ABC News report said two days after the blast.
Following the release of the photographs, the two brothers were spotted by surveillance videos buying fuel in a suburb of Boston, and then they decided to ambush and kill MIT security officer Sean Collier as he sat in his patrol car on Thursday night, before hijacking another car and telling its owner that they were the bombers. That finally led to the shootout that led to the killing of the older brother, and the manhunt for the younger.
There were risks to the FBI strategy of releasing as much information about the attacks as possible soon afterwards – innocent bystanders were falsely besmirched by amateur sleuths for a variety of reasons, including ‘looking Muslim’. However, there is also no doubt that they acted swiftly and decisively in order to capture the suspects.
We simply did not see the same happen in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre. In some senses, the information flowing out of Marikana should have come at a much quicker rate than we saw in Boston, because the police operation was no surprise, unlike a terrorist’s bomb, and the massacre was caused by the police in the first place. They did not have to round up any suspects.
On 17 August, a day after the massacre, Phiyega called a press conference. That was where she began to describe the police action as self-defence (later changed to private defence). She said that after the police learned that the protesters would not be disarming and dispersing, they decided to erect barbed wire to protect themselves.
“When the police started deploying the barbed wire fencing, the group of protesters armed with dangerous weapons and firearms, hastily flanked the vehicles deploying the wire. They were met by members from the police who tried to repost the advance with water-canon, teargas as well as stun grenades. The attempt was unsuccessful and the police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group.
“The dispersion action had commenced at this time and the armed protestors were driven from their stronghold to a high bushy ground in the close vicinity. The police members encircled the area and attempted to force the protestors out by means of water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades. The militant group stormed towards the police firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons. Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilise maximum force to defend themselves,” Phiyega said.
On 19 August, President Jacob Zuma finally released a statement (note that the response to Boston by US President Barack Obama was within a matter of hours) and announced an inter-ministerial committee to deal with the aftermath of the massacre. He also announced that a judicial commission of inquiry would investigate. On 22 August, that committee visited Marikana.
In the weeks after that, the trial of the 270 arrested took centre stage, as horrible stories of torture in police cells began to emerge. This is also the period when Daily Maverick broke the story of what really happened at the site where most of the 34 miners were killed. By this point, the police were actively driving the saga forward through their actions.
From that point onward, very little new information about Marikana came from the police. The truth about the second koppie killings was exposed by the press and the lawyers at the inquiry. Worse than that, the commission has shown that the police spent a great deal of time and effort after Marikana trying to conceal evidence that wouldn’t support their story.
This is why Phiyega has come under such unkind scrutiny. The police she leads have done almost everything in their power to pervert the course of justice instead of being its servants.
If there ever was any doubt that the SAPS did not respond appropriately during Marikana, the inquiry is pulling that thought apart with precision and ruthlessness. The swift and effective reaction of the Boston law enforcers to last week’s attack has shown us once again just how far short the SAPS fell after Marikana.
Crucially, the events in Boston have shown us just how much can be accomplished if the public trusts the police. People of Boston and police have acted as a team during the entire week. The question is: Will the people of South Africa ever feel like that about the SAPS? Or is the trust between them and our society broken forever? DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
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