Marikana: 'Fall guy' cop cuts a lonely figure
In his mind, Lieutenant Colonel Salmon Vermaak's decision to "tell the truth" about what happened at Marikana was cemented at approximately the moment when it dawned on him that he would be made to look guilty for some of the Marikana deaths.
Fearing he was being set up to take the fall for deaths he did not cause, the North West air wing commander, who witnessed the August 16 massacre from a helicopter, broke ranks.
A phone call from Brigadier Adriaan Calitz during a tea break at the Marikana commission of inquiry this week, asking Vermaak to align his testimony with Calitz's, could not have helped Vermaak's attitude towards the police. He refused, and told the commission that he would instead tell the "truth" from his diary, which contained notes taken on the days leading up to August 16 2012.
Now, at the commission in Centurion, Vermaak cuts a lonely figure in the witness box. The police's lawyers are not leading his evidence. He does not huddle over statements with the police's lawyers or take a stroll with his fellow policemen to talk in hushed tones about this evidence or that. His motives remain unclear, but there can be little doubt that his relationship with other senior officers in the police was a mitigating factor in his decision to break with the police's "self-defence" line at the commission.
It is not the first time he has felt like an outsider. In 2011 he complained about the way the police handled a separate strike-related incident. Many of the same officers were present at Marikana on August 16.
Calitz was in charge of the policemen on the ground on that fateful day. He had called Vermaak on August 12, asking him to deploy a helicopter to Marikana urgently.
On August 13, as the miners moved towards the koppie, accompanied by the police, Vermaak was overhead when he witnessed "someone, not known to us … [who] fired a tear gas grenade … simultaneously we saw a stun grenade explode near the area where the tear gas had been fired".
Vermaak's statement to the commission contains details of a confrontation with North West's deputy provincial commissioner, Major General William Mpembe, at a police debriefing in Potchefstroom in late August 2012. Vermaak said he confronted Mpembe with the allegation that he had given the instruction to fire tear gas on August 13. Mpembe denied it, but later said it could have been him who gave the order, but he could not remember.
This is contested by Mpembe's version of events, but Vermaak said the officers on the ground had heard Mpembe give the order. Vermaak said the miners were so angry with Mpembe that day that he personally saw to it that Mpembe was removed from the scene for his own safety.
The subtext is that this critical action – the decision to fire on the peaceful strikers on August 13 – was the first domino to fall in a series of events that would end, three days later, with 34 dead and 76 critically injured miners.
Cause of violence
Vermaak's view was that the use of tear gas and stun grenades on August 13 was "definitely" the reason for the violence that ensued in which two police officers were killed.
On January 21 2013, Vermaak said he was called into national police commissioner Riah Phiyega's office and "confronted" with a complaint he had compiled about the way the August 13 incident was handled.
"I was effectively told that I am seen as [hostile towards] the police because I dared to draw up the report and disseminate it among the highest command."
Phiyega then told Vermaak that she had heard reports that he boasted about the way miners were killed at Marikana at a braai where other officers were present. He said this could not be true because he does not attend braais at all, as the smell of burning flesh reminds him of the necklacing he witnessed during apartheid.
Vermaak's evidence has yet to be tested by the police's lawyers.