While accepting responsibility for police operations on August 16 2012, the former police minister pointed out he wasn’t personally to blame.
Former police minister Nathi Mthethwa has told the Farlam Commission that he regards himself as responsible for the deaths and injuries caused by police at Marikana in August 2012.
“What I know is that as the political head at the time, I’d have been responsible for all the things the police were doing,” he said. The commission, which is being held in Centurion, was packed as the minister started his first day of testimony.
Mthethwa acknowledged the tragedy, in which 34 people were fatally shot by police and more than 70 injured, saying that “whatever happened was not supposed to happen under democracy”.
“Something terribly wrong took place there,” he said. “I’m sure this honourable commission, at the end, will get [to the truth of] whatever happened … so that we can learn whatever lessons need to be learned and move forward as a society.”
Although Mthethwa said that whereas the responsibility for the police’s actions ultimately lay with him, he was also quick to point out that as the minister, he was not aware of the skills and competencies of individual officers who were involved in the Marikana operation.
Mthethwa also repeatedly emphasised that his role as the minister of police had nothing to do with operational matters, but rather with “determining and formulating policy”.
Lonmin employees and Ramaphosa
In giving evidence led by advocate Lindiwe Nkosi-Thomas, Mthethwa insisted that he had not experienced any alleged “undue political influence” or “toxic collusion”.
Many emails sent between Lonmin employees and Cyril Ramaphosa – who in addition to being the ANC’s deputy president at the time was also a member of the Lonmin board – make mention of Mthethwa. One such email from Ramaphosa to Lonmin’s chief commercial officer, Albert Jamieson, sent only 24 hours before the massacre took place, is signed off, “Let us keep the pressure on them to act correctly.”
However, Mthethwa claims that he was not privy to these emails and that he was never at any point put under pressure to direct the South African Police Service in any particular way. Mthethwa denied putting undue political pressure on the operational team or influencing their conduct in the period leading up to the tragedy.
“That is not how I understand my mandate,” he said. “The task of the minister is to ensure policy is being implemented … so there would be no need for any pressure except oversight over the police.” But, Mthethwa did admit that he had been contacted by Ramaphosa regarding the unfolding events at Lonmin Marikana.
“[Ramaphosa] explained to me that the situation in Marikana is bad … he said he was concerned because people were dying there, property was being damaged there and as far as he could see there was no adequate police [presence] on the ground.”
Mthethwa said that Senzeni Zokwana, then the minister of agriculture as well as the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, had left a message for him expressing concerns similar to those of Ramaphosa.
Mthethwa also conceded that he had been in contact with the national and provincial police commissioners during the week of the unprotected strike. “I immediately contacted the … provincial commissioner of police [Lieutenant General Zukiswa Mbombo] … firstly to ascertain what I heard from the two gentlemen.”
Mthethwa said he had then taken time to understand what the police’s plan was to deal with the situation. He was satisfied when Mbombo informed him that there was going to be a reinforcement of the police presence on the ground to ensure that public order was maintained.
Since the events at Marikana, Mthethwa has come under fire for his alleged intervention in the operations at Marikana, which may have triggered the ensuing killings. But at the commission on Monday, Mthethwa – now the minister of arts and culture – said that any person would expect the minister of police to react when such issues are raised with him and that he would have been “criticised in the extreme” had he not contacted the relevant heads of police in light of the events that were unfolding.
“It’s incumbent on the minister of police to satisfy himself that indeed what has been raised is being attended to, especially because this is about the issue of safety and security of members of the public. It was what I was expected to do and I did it,” he said confidently. “And if there was the chance to do it again, I’d do it.”
Mthethwa also told the commission how he had first heard about the tragedy on the radio, before national police commissioner Riah Phiyega confirmed the details to him telephonically later that night.
Not unexpectedly, Mthethwa faced questions about statements he’d made in 2008 and 2009 encouraging the police to use “maximum force” in the fight against crime and to “fight fire with fire”.
Mthethwa said these statements had not been made in the context of crowd management, but rather in that of dealing with violent criminals. He told the commission how when he was given the police portfolio in 2008, the situation in the country was “dire, especially by criminal gangs who were terrorising people”.
Mthethwa said he had decided against calling the army in to deal with the problem, but instead told the police to “meet these criminals head on. They would have to fight them in the language that they understand”. He admitted however, that when it came to ordinary people, there was no need for the police to be heavy handed. The cross examination of Mthethwa continues on Tuesday.