Editorial: Redraw the thin blue line

In his cross-examination of Lonmin’s former human relations head, Barnard Mokwena, at the Farlam inquiry into the Marikana massacre, advocate Ishmael Semenya, acting for the police, asked a key question. With the benefit of hindsight, he asked Mokwena, would Lonmin have handled the events at Marikana differently?

Sememya’s point of departure was what is now common cause: the strikers at Marikana wanted an audience with Lonmin, but Lonmin would not go to the koppie, despite repeated requests by the police and assurances that its representatives would be protected.

“If the same situation happens today,” asked Semenya, “does Lonmin go to the mountain?” Mokwena had no clear answer. Semenya’s conclusion: “Then we have learnt nothing.”

The South African Police Service would do well to avoid this trap. It should not emerge from the commission having “learnt nothing”.

Chairperson Ian Farlam may or may not ultimately concur with the recommendations of the commission’s evidence leaders, but they are a team of highly respected legal minds and have done good work in the course of the commission. Their views cannot be dismissed. Their recommendations are an indictment of the entire police service.

Some are predictable: policy changes, an inquiry into national commissioner Riah Phiyega (who was believed to have been less than “candid” at the commission), demilitarisation, the depoliticisation of senior positions, and accountability. There are practical recommendations: for one, the use of R5 rifles in crowd policing must stop now. All police must be trained in first aid (one Marikana miner bled to death, over an hour, while police idly waited for an ambulance).

The evidence leaders also highlighted police attempts to hide evidence, particularly to do with the deaths at Marikana’s “scene two”, where most miners died. They recommend that the police who helped in the cover-up be criminally charged. They point out that using the police to break the strike was a politically charged move. Senior positions in the police must be depoliticised.

Standing order 262 is a crucial police policy document. It outlines how crowd policing should be handled, especially when it comes to “maximum force”. The evidence leaders are the latest of many to point out that the standing order is not detailed enough, and its delayed review stands in the way of preventing the unlawful killing of protesters. We have known this for years.

Thanks to the commission, we know that the police regularly use R5 rifles in public-order operations. The inquiry has shown that they ignored expert advice to stop this. Less lethal options are available, and the police know well the risks of such firepower in public policing situations, yet the practice continues.

Within a year, we will see the commission’s final report. For two years the police have used the commission’s existence as an excuse to delay taking the urgent steps needed to make their work easier and the lives of those they serve safer. None of these measures would put the police’s lives in immediate danger or prevent them from defending themselves, when legally justified and in line with the legal test of proportionality.

We agree with the evidence leaders: our police service must change, top to bottom, and quickly. No more excuses.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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