In all, more than 100 people were killed or injured by police gunfire. Were these actions consistent with the principle of minimum force as embodied in South African law, which is supposed to guide the police in a democracy?
It should be acknowledged that the events escalated into tragedy amid a complex and unprecedented situation. The police cannot be held responsible for the unfolding of the conflict and the breakdown of attempts to resolve it over the preceding weeks. But it is always the job of the police to step in where other mechanisms have failed and these are frequently difficult circumstances. The scrutiny to which the police are subjected should ensure that events of this kind are not repeated.
According to police statements, a concerted effort was made to engage in dialogue with the crowd of strikers over preceding days. These efforts had failed. By midday on Thursday, the police said: "We had received information from various sources that the protesters would not end the strike peacefully and they would not leave their gathering point or disarm."
The police then decided to change tactics. They erected a barbed-wire barrier "to protect their members adjacent to the protesters" and decided to "disperse the protesters from their stronghold into smaller groups, which would be more manageable to disarm".
A key question is: What were the police's priorities at this point? Their statement indicates they had a dual agenda – not simply to disperse the crowd, but also to disarm its members. They do not seem to have had a clear strategy on how to accomplish this without escalating the potential for bloody confrontation.
Building trust and confidence
A further question concerns police communication with the crowd. A guiding principle of crowd control is the need to optimise communication with demonstrators about the intentions behind police actions to minimise the potential for panic. Where possible, the police should seek to build trust and confidence between themselves and the crowd. And when crowds are to be dispersed, avenues of exit should be announced in advance.
In Marikana, however, the police did not, in fact, appear to want the members of the crowd to escape, because they wished to disarm them. Did the police anticipate how the crowd would respond to efforts to disperse it? Furthermore, once the police had decided on a change of tactics, what effort was made to communicate this to the crowd?
It seems that the police tried to negotiate with the crowd earlier, but it is not clear that they continued to communicate with the miners about their intentions at this later stage. It appears that the decision to erect a barbed-wire barrier was a key moment, one that escalated anxiety among the crowd. Rather than being given avenues of escape, the crowd may have believed that it was a prelude to people being encircled and attacked. Whatever other plans the police may have had to disperse and disarm the protesters proved to be irrelevant. A group, said by some to have numbered 1000 miners, descended from the koppie where the miners were entrenched and rounded the end of the barrier.
The police said the miners stormed towards them. Were the miners, in fact, directly attacking the police? Available accounts suggest that some of the miners indeed intended to attack the police. They were certainly armed and police personnel had been killed earlier that week.
Other statements, however, have contested this. It is not clear whether there was unanimity among the crowd about attacking. Many of the miners may have been trying to escape but were channelled towards the line of armed police by the Nyala vehicles. It seems that one miner fired at the police before the final police fusillade, but was this in response to the police's rubber bullets? Did the rubber bullets propel the miners into racing towards the police line?
Perhaps the most important question is about the basic doctrine that guided police actions. By occupying the koppie, the miners were not doing any harm. Why was it decided to disperse them, considering that standing orders emphasise that "the use of force must be avoided at all costs" and "offensive measures" must be used only "if negotiations fail and life or property is in danger"? Should a different approach not have been taken in terms of the requirement that the "purpose of offensive action" should be to "de-escalate conflict"? Was it not apparent that there was massive potential for violence?
Informing the police decision to disarm and disperse the strikers may have been the knowledge that they, the police, had the capacity to determine the outcome of any confrontation through superior firepower and it was acceptable to deal with the situation in this way, if necessary.
This capacity to unleash concentrated firepower has been developed by the police to respond to cash-in-transit gangs armed with automatic weapons. Along with the capacity to deploy firepower of this kind, the government and the police have adopted the doctrine of "maximum force", although this concept should be anathema to policing in a democracy.
Was Marikana therefore just a story of police officers under attack from a group of miners, some of whom were deceived into believing that muti rendered them immune to harm from police guns?
Or was it also about a group of protesting miners desperate to escape a perceived trap, who came face to face with concentrated police fire guided by a doctrine of maximum force?
If the commission of inquiry into Marikana is to make sense not just of the range of labour issues that led to the event, but also of the complexities of its horrifying conclusion, these are among the questions on which it will have to shed light.
Independent researcher David Bruce wrote this article on behalf of the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum.