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International police expert criticises Marikana operation

Gabi Falanga

An international policing expert, Gary White, says there were major problems with Marikana's planning, intelligence, and command and control.

Gary White said he was shocked at the lack of intelligence that was available to the police during the Marikana operation. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Significant problems with intelligence, planning, and command and control were some of the shortcomings of the police at Marikana in 2012. This is according to Gary White, an international public order policing expert from Northern Island.

“My opinion is that this operation represents a serious failure of public order policing. With better preparation, planning, leadership and execution, a situation in which more than 100 SAPS [South African Police Service] members felt compelled to fire live ammunition is likely to have been avoided,” White said in his statement.

White indicated his shock at the lack of intelligence that was available to the police during the Marikana operation. 

“I was shocked at how little intelligence seems to be available ... very little of it seemed to be actionable intelligence and that that was didn’t seem to be actioned properly,” he told the commission on Thursday, saying that after going through all the evidence, there were only two or three pieces of intelligence that could be acted on throughout the  week.

He also criticised the lack of an ongoing update in relation to planning and intelligence, saying that the plan that was drawn up for August 10 2012, was also used on the following two days, and that it contained “little useful direction” to the officers. He pointed out that the situation on the ground changed and, as such, the plan was no longer appropriate.

White continued his criticism of the police’s lack of planning, referring  to August 13, when police and a group of makarapas (strikers who had undergone rituals) clashed, resulting in the death of two police officers and three miners. The police had been instructed by North West commissioner, Lieutenant General Zukiswa Mbombo to disarm and disperse the strikers.

“You’re sending a large number of heavily armed police officers to deal with a large number of heavily armed people. [This] requires a degree of planning,” White commented. He suggested that while it wasn’t always necessary or possible to have a written plan, a “dynamic plan” could also work. He pointed out that it would even be acceptable if this dynamic plan was only in Major General William Mpembe’s head, provided he knew what he wanted to achieve and how to communicate that clearly to all his members. Mepmbe was the operational commander on August 13.

Insufficient planning
Moving on to the events of August 16, when 34 miners were shot and killed by police and over 70 were injured, White said that the polices’ decision to “go tactical” was a “hugely questionable” one. But he could not say with certainty that people would not have died had a different decision been taken.

He also heavily criticised the lack of a written plan for August 16, saying that in an operation of that size there was the potential for confusion and misunderstanding. “In an operation that complex, it’s not only a requirement that you know what to do, but that you know what everyone else has to do,” White told the commission. “Therefore, for the purpose of clarity, that needs to be written down ... to be fair on the officers ... to make it crystal clear.”

White’s opinion on these events is that the striking miners were aggravated by the police when they decided to roll out barbed wire without providing the crowd with a warning. “I can see no tactical advantage in this roll out,” he said. He again related this back to insufficient planning and said that there should have been public order policing (POP) involvement in the planning process.

“I think it’s entirely predictable that when the police change their situation so much, it’s likely to engage a reaction from the crowd, and I don’t know that Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Scott properly thought that out.” White went on to say that had a POP commander, who has experience in dealing with crowds, been engaged in the planning, they might have suggested an alternate plan of action.

White also said the briefing for this operation was poor, that the people rolling out the barbed wire and operating the water cannons were uncertain of their roles.

Not for the first time during his testimony, White expressed his shock at the polices’ actions, this time that the tactical response team (TRT) was sent to be part of the operation. “My understanding is that the TRT is only armed ... Shoot people: That seems to be what’s going to happen ... [there’s] an inevitability that there are going to be very high levels of force used ... 60 people lined up with R5 rifles ... I just wonder, at what point did someone say, let’s be clear here, what are we asking TRT to do? What is the position that we’re putting those officers in? What do we think they’re going to do?”

Addressing the issue of when the police should use live ammunition, White said only when there is “imminent threat to life – yours or someone else’s”.  He added that their response to lethal threat was disproportionate and criticised the police’s continued shooting, despite not been able to see the strikers due to the dust cloud that had formed, calling it the “excessive use of force and potentially reckless firing”.

“My opinion is that better planning, better briefing, and/or better decision making could have avoided conflict entirely, or significantly mitigated consequences of any conflict,” White says in his statement.

Lack of accountability
White said he was concerned by the lack of accountability shown by the police with regard to the incidents involving the police on both August 13 and August 16.

“I was struck by the overall quality of the statements in terms of accountability,” he said referring to police statements made about the incident on August 13. “I would’ve expected to see much better statements and much better details, especially in a situation where five people died, including two policemen.”

White said he was also surprised that there had not been a debriefing session after the incident to try and “identify lessons and what went wrong,” especially given that it was an ongoing situation.

White also commented that many statements offered very little in terms of the justification of the shootings on August 16. “I was concerned about the number of statements of police officers who said I was on duty at Marikana ... I didn’t shoot, that’s all I can say.” He also expressed concern about the number of police officers who changed their statements, specifically referring to Constable Nyanisile Majombozi, who originally said he fired 10 shots and then changed his statement to say he didn’t fire anything at all. White said that even those who did not fire had a moral obligation to provide more information about why their colleagues standing next to them felt the need to fire.

White, who was brought by the South African Human Rights Commission to provide his opinion on the shootings at Marikana, will continue testifying on Friday.

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