Suspended national police commissioner Riah Phiyega tried to undermine the investigation into police killings at Marikana killings from the outset — even as she publically pledged her office’s full co-operation.
Her first week at the Claassen board of inquiry, interrogating her fitness to hold office, saw her stare down evidence leaders as they punched holes in her integrity with startling revelations.
In 2012, after 34 miners were gunned down by police at Lonmin Mine in Marikana following a week of bloodshed and stand-offs, Phiyega released statements that she would ensure that her office worked with any probe into the massacre.
In August 2012, a day after police killed the miners, Phiyega released a statement stating that whatever had happened represented the best of responsible policing.
“The police will give their full co-operation with any investigation into this tragic incident,” said Phiyega. Yet behind the scenes she was sending emails to her team of lawyers, giving instructions to frustrate the Farlam commission of inquiry.
On day one of the Claassen inquiry this week, it was revealed that on June 10 2013, Phiyega sent the police lawyers an emailed instruction that they should not provide Judge Ian Farlam with the assistance he had requested regarding police experts.
Evidence leaders at the Claassen inquiry presented a response to this emailed instruction. “Dear National Commissioner, I am instructed by the legal team to communicate this letter to you. We refer to your letter dated 10 June 2013 conveying the instruction to the legal team that the SAPS [South African Police Service] management declines the instruction of the chairperson of the [Marikana] commission that various expert witnesses must hold a conference of experts to identify areas of commonality, differences and reasons for holding different opinions on particular points.”
The author of the email, a representative of SAPS’s legal team, goes on to emphasise that Cees de Rover, who was called as an expert to testify on behalf of the SAPS, is entitled to express his professional opinion without interference, influence or instruction.
“What Mr de Rover cannot do is to direct how his evidence is to be presented before the commission. We implore the national commissioner to reconsider this instruction and revert to us.”
De Rover, an international law enforcement expert, was a witness for the SAPS but under cross-examination he made startling revelations about police management, eventually becaming the main protagonist against the police.
He admitted that parts of his statement, in support of the version the police had presented, were incorrect.
He added that in no democratic society would a police operation such as Marikana happen without an executive instruction and he was not able to unearth who gave the order during his interaction with the police officials.
De Rover added that Phiyega was not helpful when he raised these concerns with her.
It is clear from the email that Farlam needed experts from both sides to meet and discuss policing issues, the commission needed clarity on. But Phiyega’s referenced email with instructions, which may still be revealed in the Claassen inquiry, paints a picture of a commissioner who wanted to thwart the work of the commission and silence De Rover.
Evidence leader advocate Ishmail Jamie said Phiyega had personally instructed the police legal team to decline any requests by Farlam for meetings with De Rover. He added that Phiyega continued to hold this position even though her team of lawyers had tried to persuade her that her stance was inappropriate and could not be justified.
“It is submitted that this conduct on her part on its own demonstrates her unfitness for the high position that she holds,” said Jamie. He also revealed that, in Phiyega’s statement of representations to President Jacob Zuma, she called Farlam’s findings malicious in content and scope.
Jamie further argued that it is highly improper for a public servant such as Phiyega to accuse a judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal of malice, particularly in the absence of compelling evidence to support such a contention.
Phiyega’s team is still to respond to these revelations. But the first week of her bid to dispel notions that she is unfit to hold office is already proving to be an uphill battle.