Three questions the judge left hanging

The Kannemeyer report into the killing of 20 blacks by police gunfire at Langa on March 21 provided authoritative answers to many questions.

But it left wider queries open. The unanswered queries focus on the role of the police and can be reduced to three inter-related questions.

  • How severely have the police been hurt by the report?
  • Who will be held accountable for their actions?
  • Have the police learnt any lessons in riot control since the Sharpeville shootings of March 21, 1960?

The report makes it clear that the police have to bear a major share of responsibility for the tragedy at Langa.The two armoured car patrols which intercepted the Langa crowd on its way to a funeral in KwaNobuhle were not in possession of standard riot control equipment: teargas, rubber bullets and birdshot.

Justice Kannemeyer found that the non-issue of standard riot control equipment was the result of deliberate policy and that had it been issued the marchers might have been dispersed with “little or no harm”. He further blamed the police for creating confusion and resentment among blacks through their role in banning and postponing funerals of earlier unrest victims and then in banning the re-scheduled funerals again.

He was particularly critical of Captain Andre Goosen, of the Security Police, labelling as “devious” the way in which he obtained the second banning order. Justice Kannemeyer was sharply critical of the behaviour of police under the command of Warrant Officer Jacobus Pentz.

In a meeting with the crowd before it set out on its march, police under Pentz taunted the blacks, challenging them to throw stones. In so doing they showed “serious lack of discipline”, the judge said.
Justice Kannemeyer rejected police accounts of the purported attack on them before they opened fire and characterised their descriptions of the weapons carried by the crowd as exaggerated.

Against these criticisms, however, Justice Kannemeyer ruled that the officer in charge, Lieutenant John Fouche, could not be blamed for his decision to give the order to fire. He faced an “awesome decision” and, in terms of the information at his disposal, believed that the safety of the residents of Uitenhage and the lives of his men were at risk.

Moreover, as a memorandum by the Ministry of Law and Order pointed out, the judge rejected allegations that 43 people had been killed at Langa, that the police had improperly disposed of bodies, that a machine gun had been used and that a babe in arms had been among the victims.

What can certainly be concluded is that Justice Kannemeyer was far more critical of police behaviour than either Justice Cillie who headed the inquiry into the 1976-77 township rebellion, or the judge who investigated the events leading to the Sharpeville shootings.

In an editorial, Beeld, hardly a severe critic of the police, laid the blame on the shortcomings of police action spotlighted by Judge Kannemeyer on the top leadership of the police. That raises the further question: is the Minister of Law and Order Louis Le Grange, part of top police leadership? In western democracies the minister responsible for police would be held accountable for their actions.

The situation, however, is complicated by two factors. First, South Africa is not a western democracy second, Justice Kannemeyer ruled that there was nothing sinister in the inaccurate statement made by Le Grange to Parliament on March 21. To the third and last question have the police learnt anything about riot control since Sharpeville — the answer, in the light of the Kannemeyer Commission findings is unequivocably: No.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Patrick Laurence
Guest Author

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