Marikana: Mpembe’s thin blue line failed miners

He predicted there would be bloodshed at Marikana in August last year should the police try to disarm the striking Lonmin miners. In an attempt to contain the violence he tried to move the miners to the koppie, where 34 of them would later die. And he watched from a private helicopter on August 16 as the men in blue below rained bullets on the Marikana miners.

In a sense, provincial deputy police commissioner of the North West province, Major General Zondasi William Mpembe might be the Farlam commission of inquiry's best chance at understanding the various forces pulling at the police in the days before the massacre.

But the integrity of his evidence could be declared null and void if his critics are right: that police tampered with evidence at the scene, as well as video footage taken from the days leading up to August 16.

In particular, crucial bits of video evidence from August 13 have been deleted from that recording and the man at the centre of those scenes is Mpembe.

In spite of this, Mpembe held the official police line this week insisting that the police were under attack from striking Marikana miners in August last year. But his evidence reflected a much deeper tension between the police and the communities it is mandated to protect: the duty of the police to protect both the rights of the individual and the collective, or the social order, and the potential for bloodshed when the protection of one of these occurs at the expense of the other.

Mpembe resumed his seat at the witness table at the Farlam commission of inquiry in Centurion on Tuesday. The commission is investigating the circumstances surrounding the murder of 34 miners at Marikana in the North West on August 16 2012.

Mpembe's haunting account
Mpembe is perhaps best known for his chilling prediction on August 15, a day before the massacre, that "there will be bloodshed" should the police try to disarm the striking miners. On Tuesday, Mpembe's haunting account of that day also shows that it was his decision to encourage the miners to go towards the infamous "koppie".

A police officer with 33 years' experience, Mpembe is also one of the only, if not the only, police officer to have been arrested after Marikana: he was arrested in connection with the alleged torture and assault of 44 miners who were in police custody.

Mpembe is suing the police for R1-million in damages, claiming he was unlawfully arrested.

On Tuesday, Mpembe personified the deeper push and pull of the police's responsibilities during violent strikes: proactively enforcing the law while simultaneously protecting the right of citizens to strike, as well as their personal safety.

This week, his evidence tied into earlier evidence heard at the commission about the working environment of the police: national police commissioner Riah Phiyega conceded, in earlier evidence to the Farlam commission, that 907 police officers were attacked between 2010 and 2012, on and off duty.

Sense of fear and foreboding
In this context, two police officers were killed and another was seriously injured in the days before August 16. Again, Mpembe indicated that the police were "under attack".

Mpembe verbalised not only the sense of fear and foreboding in the police's higher echelons about their own personal safety, but also their suspicion that the striking miners would not disperse without coercion.

Tensions at Marikana had reached almost near-unbearable levels by August 15 and union leaders pleaded with the police to disarm the striking miners.

The following day, Mpembe watched the events of August 16 unfold from a Coin Security helicopter. The helicopter had height restrictions: it could not hover below a certain altitude.

Mpembe could see the outlines of the massacre unfolding below. But he could not descend low enough to tell the men apart.

Throughout Tuesday's sitting of the commission, Mpembe's evidence also typified the police's narrative in its evidence to the commission: "We were under attack. We tried to negotiate. We did everything we could."

This evidence remains at odds with the lingering question of malice on the police's part in opening fire on the striking miners; whether the police's tactical response to the situation was adequate; and the allegations that the police colluded to align all their evidence to fit this narrative, at a nine-day meeting in Potchefstroom, after August 16.

This narrative was sharpened by Mpembe's account to the commission of the events of August 13, when a confrontation ensued between striking miners and the police at a railway line at Marikana. Three miners and two police officers were left dead that day.

Prevent further bloodshed
Mpembe's version of events on Tuesday again painted the officers as willing but unable to harness their negotiating skills to prevent further bloodshed.

He said that on August 13, at about 12.45pm, Mpembe's immediate superior, North West police commissioner Lieutenant General Mirriam Mbombo, asked him to go to the point of "interception" at the railway line.

There was no time to brief the police members on what procedures would be followed beforehand, although Mpembe met with his senior commanders at the scene, he said.

He testified this week that there was no intention to use lethal force at the railway line. Mpembe was tasked with talking to the protesters because he spoke their language.

"Chairperson, I did persuade them to lay down their weapons."

Commission chairperson and retired judge Ian Farlam interjected: "You didn't persuade them; you tried to persuade them. If you had persuaded them we probably wouldn't be here."

But police video footage of the August 13 events, shown several times to the Farlam commission, paints a different picture: It shows Mpembe talking to the miners, followed by a suggestion that they should head for the koppie, and then it cuts, abruptly, to scenes of tear gas, chaos, injury, and ultimately, death. Suggestions that the police tampered with this footage, so as not to reveal who really instigated those events, will ultimately test the sincerity of Mpembe's evidence.

'Tatane moment'
"There will be bloodshed," Mpembe warned a day before the massacre, referring to suggestions by National Union of Mineworkers president Senzeni Zokwana, that the Marikana protesters should be disarmed by the police.

Mpembe simultaneously rejected similar propositions made to him by senior police officials at the scene. He warned that attempts to disarm the miners would lead to another "Tatane moment".

In evidence given before this week, Mpembe was quoted as saying, prior to August 16: "I need to go to the house because that's the only way – beating this elephant bit-by-bit because me going to the mountain, disarming people, it's going to be bloodshed; it's going to be bloodshed, that one I can assure you … Those blankets they have, and those things I saw … police officers being cut in front of me, they did that."

And later: "I am calling upon the leadership. This is the help they need to give me. I cannot go to the mountain. It's not … it has never been strategically in my training … How do I disarm somebody with an axe and I have a firearm? It will never work. There's no training in the whole world like that," he said.

And yet, it was Mpembe who, probably without malicious intent at the time, decided to guide the striking Marikana miners to the koppie on August 13.

This, again, was an attempt by the police to protect the personal safety and property of the residents and business owners at the Nkaneng township near Marikana, Mpembe said. This in itself is a bone of contention at the commission: that the police have been inconsistent in their evidence about how the miners should have been dispersed, whether in groups or individually.

Mpembe articulated some of the difficulty in managing the dispersing strikers.

He said that, in his experience, dispersed strikers might destroy property there, if given such an opportunity to vent their frustrations. But they were less likely to do so if they moved individually, as they would "think individually".

Moved to the koppie
Additionally, Mpembe felt the police needed to protect the residents and businesses at Nkaneng. Additionally, he felt there was a possibility that a nearby railway line might be damaged. The NUM offices and the police satellite station were also possible targets, he said.

Faced with the difficulty of where to let the striking miners disperse, Mpembe was finally presented with a solution on August 13: he heard from some miners that they would be willing to move to the koppie.

"I decided to escort the miners to the koppie," Mpembe told the commission on Tuesday. And so the miners gathered there, three days before August 16.

And on August 16, police rolled out barbed wire fences as part of their crowd management plan. Again, Mpembe attempted to create the impression that the police could not have foreseen what came after, in spite of his "there will be bloodshed" comments.

Mpembe, under questioning from counsel for the police, advocate Vuyani Ngalwana, said the police did not anticipate that the strikers would "attack" the police when the barbed wire went up.

Said Ngalwana: "Can you give an example of an incident where you used barbed wire and explain what the result was in that instance?"

Mpembe replied, "In 2010 I had a very unusual crowd management situation in Ventersdorp where Mr Eugene Terreblanche was killed … Different members of the community attended the court proceedings. I had, on the other hand the AWB members and on the other hand the ANC Youth League and the community. I used the barbed wire to separate the police and the different groups I mentioned, and there was no attack."

On Tuesday, Mpembe was led by Madlanga on to one of the central issues being heard at the Farlam commission: the police's assertion that they tried, and tried, to disperse the striking miners via means of negotiation.

It is a contentious point, and strikes right to the heart of the police's evidence at Farlam and its historic role in public order policing more broadly: the allegation that the police frequently use excessive force, the police's argument that this is not true, and that they are within their perceived right to protect themselves when they are, as Mpembe put it, "under attack".

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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