Bogeyman: Former police minister Nathi Mthethwa would have wanted to pre-empt any intervention in the Marikana strike by EFF leader Julius Malema.
The Marikana commission’s report has been released. But does this mean we now know as much as we ever will about the motive for the police operation that led to the massacre?
The central question that remains is why there was urgency on the part of police leadership to remove the strikers from the koppie on August 16 2012? Choosing to carry out the operation on that day, rather than, for instance, early the following morning, was a decision to carry it out “when the number of strikers on the koppie was likely to be at its highest” – the time when violent confrontation, injury and death, was most likely. The report says this decision “remains inexplicable”.
If we are to understand this urgency, it is obviously important that we know who made the decision. The report states it is “common cause” that the decision was taken by Zukiswa Mbombo, the then North West provincial commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS). But this is not strictly correct.
Mbombo tabled the decision at a meeting of the SAPS national management forum on the night of August 15. But she would not have taken a decision of such gravity without first canvassing it with national police commissioner Riah Phiyega.
The operation was taking place in North West province. The combined might of the SAPS’s special “tactical” forces were about to be unleashed against the miners. Phiyega’s greater seniority would have dictated that Mbombo defer to her on this.
It is also likely that Phiyega’s approach to the matter was framed by the then minister of police, Nathi Mthethwa. The report acknowledges as much. “Pressure or guidance from the executive”, it says, may have influenced the police decision. This, it says, is most likely to have come from Mthethwa.
Mbombo is reported to have told the police national management forum the operation’s motive was to prevent further loss of life. But the last incident of violence had taken place a full day and a half before the meeting. As the report says, the factor of urgency enhanced the risk of violence rather than prevented it. Preventing violence cannot be seen as a rational motive for the decision.
It may be valid to view the operation as underpinned by the fact that the strikers were seen, collectively, as “violent”. Between Sunday August 12 and Tuesday August 14, seven people had been killed by strikers. The seriousness with which these killings were regarded was compounded by the fact that two SAPS members and two Lonmin security guards were among the dead.
It is now known that the killings of the two police officers took place in a clash precipitated by the police. But none of the decision makers acknowledged that anyone other than the strikers might have contributed to any of the violence.
No one seems to have raised the fact that only a small number of the miners were responsible for the killings. Neither did anyone concern themselves with the fact that the strikers on the koppie were first of all husbands, fathers, sons and brothers to many others.
This view of the strikers as violent underpinned a generalised antipathy towards them by those involved in making the decision. As a result of this antipathy, the question of whether there was indeed a proper rationale for the operation fell by the wayside. Instead of any clear reasons, those in charge of decision-making were guided by a patchwork of poorly considered motives.
Prominent among these were concerns of a political nature. This included neutralising opponents of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and also critically, preventing Julius Malema – who had been expelled from the ANC and was now President Jacob Zuma’s arch-enemy – from intervening at Marikana, as he had done at Impala Platinum earlier that year.
The recording of Mbombo’s meeting with Lonmin on August 14 indicates that both of these were important concerns. At the meeting, Mbombo emphasised that intervention by Malema would boost his credibility and that of the cause of nationalisation that he represents.
This, she said, meant that the situation “has a very serious political connotation … which we need to find a way of defusing”. Using words that came to be seen as sinister but primarily express her sense of urgency, she then said: “Hence … we need to act such that we kill this thing.”
Who would it have been who formulated the motives for the operation in this way? It would not have been Mbombo. Phiyega, who had been in her job for only two months at the time of the decision and had a management rather than a political background, would also not have authorised the operation on these grounds without the go-ahead from someone politically more senior.
Was Cyril Ramaphosa, at the time a nonexecutive director of Lonmin, the principal driving force behind the decision to launch the operation? Ramaphosa contacted Mthethwa on the Sunday prior to the massacre. At her meeting with Lonmin, Mbombo said that Ramaphosa was putting pressure on Mthethwa, an apparent reference to this phone call.
Ramaphosa, a founding member and secretary general of the NUM in the 1980s, is likely to have retained loyalty to the union. At the time of Marikana, the NUM was the biggest union in the Cosatu labour federation and therefore a part of the tripartite alliance. Ramaphosa is likely to have been concerned that the strikers did not recognise the NUM’s authority and went on strike in defiance of the union.
At the beginning of 2012, Ramaphosa also chaired the committee that upheld the ANC disciplinary decision to suspend Malema from the party. He might also have been concerned about Malema’s apparently increasing popularity and wanted to prevent him capitalising on Marikana.
Yet the evidence indicates that Ramaphosa was not central to the decision-making process. There is no evidence that he ever made direct contact with Phiyega or Mbombo. He phoned Mthethwa on the Sunday, but the emails of the Wednesday show him struggling to make contact with Mthethwa. As the report says, the “evidence shows Mr Ramaphosa was not aware of the decision on Wednesday August 15 to move to the tactical option”.
The emails also show Ramaphosa at the time wearing the hat, not of a senior ANC member, but of a Lonmin shareholder and member of the Lonmin board. He certainly made use of his access and influence within the ANC but he was not, as he is now, deputy president of South Africa and the ANC.
On the other hand, Mthethwa was minister of police and one of Zuma’s closest allies. As a leading member of the ANC government and loyal ally of the president, Mthethwa would have been concerned to protect the dominance of the NUM on the platinum fields – and he would also have been especially concerned to pre-empt any intervention by Malema.
Understanding Marikana requires going back to mid-2012, after Malema’s suspension from the ANC. In this period Malema evoked enormous fear in the ruling party, including, it is likely, from Zuma himself and those closest to him. Concerned with the danger that he might outmanoeuvre the ANC by playing the populist card, the subject of how to neutralise him is likely to have been a primary preoccupation of the ANC elite at this time.
Mthethwa told the commission he had played it strictly by the book in his role as minister. He said his communication with Phiyega and Mbombo was exclusively concerned to establish that the SAPS had the situation under control. Yet it is reasonable to believe that his role was more extensive than this. Phiyega’s evidence was evasive in many respects, but she said that Mthethwa provided political leadership.
Mthethwa is most likely to have provided the political guidance framing the SAPS approach to Marikana. He is likely to have been concerned to neutralise the possibility that Malema would capitalise on Marikana, which would potentially position him not just as a youth leader but also as a champion of workers’ rights in the platinum belt, a vital sector of the economy.
If Mthethwa played the central role in formulating the motives for the Marikana operation, the implication is that the aim was not just to protect the broad political interests of the ANC. As a dedicated ally of Zuma’s, the threat posed to Zuma by Malema must have been prominent in Mthethwa’s mind.
It is likely, then, that he directed the police to expedite the removal of the strikers from the koppie and to break the strike – and that he did this to protect the ANC and the interests of Zuma, his political master.
David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in issues of policing and crime