Phiyega faces Marikana grilling after weak showing

National police commissioner Riah Phiyega at the Farlam commission of inquiry. (Gallo)

National police commissioner Riah Phiyega at the Farlam commission of inquiry. (Gallo)

It was not that Phiyega on Thursday said much at the commission that got her into trouble. Her testimony, consisting mostly of one-word answers to South African Police Service (SAPS) legal counsel Ishmael Semenya's leading questions, was over in about half a day and was the exact replica of a minimalist witness statement, whose most revealing line was: "It is common knowledge that I have no previous experience as a police officer."

Much of the portions relating to August 16 contain Phiyega basically advising the SAPS members to use their discretion.

Even with all the hand-holding, Phiyega failed to get off to a convincing start. Like a blind woman feeling her way with a walking stick, Phiyega sat with her legal advisor Tshegofatso Rantho, who helped her navigate a thick tome of documents and, in some cases, even appeared to help her answer questions by whispering in her ear.
This first raised the ire of evidence leader Mbuyiseli Madlanga, before other lawyers weighed in, calling it "uncalled for" and unprocedural.

There was also a telling amendment to her statement, which she changed to say Phiyega told Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa that she would be going to attend to the aftermath of the massacre personally, after initially stating that Mthethwa instructed her to do so.

Perhaps predictably, Phiyega hid behind her gender when interviewed by the Sunday Times. She called the furor about her lack of experience in the police force a "veiled gender debate" and a discomfort she was "trying to unmask".

Unpatriotic chauvinism
But perhaps that was the genius of President Jacob Zuma's appointment in the first place; to get someone who is primarily a loyalist and a woman so that if her inadequacies were revealed and criticised, it would come across as an act of unpatriotic chauvinism.

Lawyers close to the commission suggested that the essence of Phiyega's testimony would be to say: "I don't know anything about policing, I was doing what I was told to do." The amendment of her statement proved that this was indeed the case until her legal strategy probably changed to a more outward show of leadership. There would not be another way to explain the reliance on a rather damaging speech at the Lonmin-based joint operations centre on August 20, where Phiyega told the gathered police officers: "What you did represents the best of responsible policing. You were making sure that you continue to live your oath, that South Africans are safe. I want to thank you for having done what you did and enduring the challenges that you endured."

Contrary to the speech, the reality was that Phiyega's handling of the situation amounted to proof of her lack of control and evidence that she and Mthethwa – who seemed more preoccupied with campaigning for Mangaung at the time – were cheerleading for people who wanted to crush the strike violently.

This was suggested by the decision to let close to 20 hours lapse before addressing a press conference, as well as the fact that even though she was present on the scene just after the massacre had transpired, police officers set about planting evidence on injured and deceased miners.

The outcome of the investigation she instituted a few days later regarding the planting of evidence is still not known.

In an effort to streamline the proceedings of the commission, Phiyega will be interviewed first by the evidence leaders on Tuesday morning. Counsellors due to follow the case are understood to be under strict injunction to avoid repetition when they cross-examine her.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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