In apartheid SA, a situation like that in Marikana would have gone down very differently, according to an unreconstructed commander of the riot squad.
He declined to be named for fear of jeopardising his pension.
"If you had a big group like that with weapons, you don't go and mess with them," he said. "You look at where they are, then you say to the leaders: 'This is where the line is. If you go over that line, we shoot you.'"
In such a scenario, he said, "you may have to pop one or two" with snipers if anyone disregarded shots fired into the ground at their feet, but, he claimed, there would be zero risk to the police and fewer protesters put in danger.
Analysts who monitor violent clashes said during South Africa's transition period the public order police would have been on top of such a situation, focusing on intelligence from inside the group, constantly negotiating without imposing conditions or deadlines and intervening only if another group or the public were in danger. In that case – with intelligence on intention and numbers – such intervention would have been by non-lethal means, they said, and might have included using church or traditional leaders, even wives, to talk protesters down.
But at Marikana, with a few hundred ill-equipped police facing a large crowd, 34 protesters were mowed down and even though national police commissioner Riah Phiyega has implied those deaths were unavoidable, few agree.
"From a policing perspective and speaking to people in public order policing, that should never have happened," said Monique Marks, a University of KwaZulu-Natal professor and sociology expert who for years has warned that swift and major changes are needed in the way the police handle crowds. "When you see all the high-level operational commanders deferring responsibility from one to the other, that means something has gone terribly wrong."
Experts point out a number of things that probably went wrong, but in the absence of detailed information, which the police are not providing, they can only speculate.
An important aspect is the deaths of two police members on August 13, three days before the mass shooting on August 16 and the reaction, or lack thereof, from the police.
With an average of about 100 police deaths a year, said Institute of Security Studies senior researcher Johan Burger, "every day is a question of survival. You cannot blame them for being on edge."
South African Police Union president Mpho Kwinika said police members felt threatened and often did not consider themselves adequately backed when they used deadly force or maimed members of the public, even when fully justified in doing so. Too often, members in such a situation are left to fend for themselves in the courts without the legal backing of their employer.
There are also structural problems in the way public order policing is being handled and the blame for that can be laid squarely at the door of politicians. Among the problems experts identify are:
- Poor command and control structures in the field when dealing with hundreds of police operatives from different units;
- Poorly trained police members, who panic in the face of an attack, or a perceived attack;
- A shortage of protective gear such as shields and body armour, which means deadly force must be used sooner rather than later;
- A lack of backup with crowd control weapons such as water cannons or long-distance teargas dispensers;
- An overly complicated tactical approach, which requires a level of co-ordination that is hard to achieve outside a tactics classroom;
- Police badly outnumbered by the crowd they intend to control; and
- A lack of intelligence and crowd infiltration.
- Warnings about such shortcomings in crowd control have been made loudly and often in the decade since public orer policing was deprioritised. With the militarisation of the police came the rise of units trained and equipped to battle large, well-armed gangs – units that are now regularly used in crowd situations.
- But Marikana also held some unique challenges outside the control of police commanders or the politicians who decide on their budgets. These include:
- Strikers gathered in the open, away from the built structures that would normally make it easier to contain them;
- The use of muti and rituals, which made some strikers consider themselves invincible, and police, more used to dealing with urban strikers, unsure of how to deal with the crowd; and
- Confusion about union representation, which made negotiations with the group difficult and the results unpredictable.
Even so, there is some hope that the political firestorm unleashed by Marikana will result in greater attention being given to police crowd control to prevent a recurrence.
"This is definitely going to raise a whole lot of questioning in government circles and there will be some serious thinking about how we organise public order policing from here," said Marks. "Even if it's a little bit late."