Police defence on Marikana falls flat

The Marikana killings took place at two sites. Seventeen of the 34 miners killed on August 16, six years ago, died at scene 2. (Paul Botes/M&G)

The Marikana killings took place at two sites. Seventeen of the 34 miners killed on August 16, six years ago, died at scene 2. (Paul Botes/M&G)

On the eve of the sixth anniversary of the Marikana massacre, an independent report revealing details about what happened at the “small koppie” on that fateful day was finally released to the public.

Nomzamo Zondo, the litigation director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, said the report, compiled by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), goes some way towards giving the families of the fallen mineworkers some answers.

“The one thing all the families had in common was that they wanted an explanation,” Zondo said. “[Because] when they went to the local drinking holes, when they went to fetch water by the river, everybody whispered behind their backs. They said, ‘That woman’s son attacked the police at Marikana.
That’s why he is dead.’”

The killings took place at two places, roughly 500m apart. Police testimony given after the massacre suggested that protesters shot at them at the second location, “scene two”, where 17 of the 34 striking workers were killed on August 16 2012.

The commission of inquiry into the massacre, which was chaired by Judge Ian Farlam, rejected the police’s explanation for the deaths at the second scene. The commission recommended that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) reconstruct the scene to try to determine what happened and whether anyone could be held liable for the deaths.

The Farlam report was released by government in June 2015 but no full account has been provided of what actually happened at scene two.

Today, scene two, which photojournalist Greg Marinovich described as “the weathered remains of a prehistoric hill”, is strewn with abandoned clothing and human excrement — so incongruous with its near-sanctified associations.

The ISS report is based on photo­graphs, witness statements and ballistic evidence presented to the commission, seeking to reveal how and why the men were killed.

“The police are still in denial about what happened at Marikana. As yet, the police have not actually confronted what happened there. The evidence suggests that they acted wrongfully in a very serious way,” policing expert David Bruce, and the report’s author, told the Mail & Guardian.

“And so I think there is a gross failure on the part of the organisation to respond to Marikana.”

In the report, Bruce explains that a large number of South African Police Service (SAPS) members alleged that strikers shot at them, suggesting that many of the cartridge cases found would have been from firearms used by mineworkers, the report surmises.

The report states at least 86 cartridge cases from live ammunition were found in the vicinity of the koppie. Of these, 84 were linked to firearms submitted by police for ballistic testing. Two others were also linked to 9mm pistols fired by police officials.

“Implicitly, if three or four shots had been fired by the strikers, it may reasonably have been expected that at least one cartridge case would have been found,” reads the report.

In light of the inconsistencies between the information provided in police statements and by the ballistic evidence, Bruce subjects the police testimony to obstinate scrutiny. He compares the statements, some provided to Ipid in the week after the massacre and others submitted at a later point within the police, with the media statement issued by then police commissioner Riah Phiyega on September 12 2012.

The media statement appears to describe an apparently cohesive group of strikers, acting with a common purpose, “storming” towards police with weapons, according to the report.

It deduces that it is likely that the content of many of the police statements prepared in the first month or so after the massacre were “strongly influenced” by the media statement. It also finds that the limitations of the police media statement as a “script” may only have started to be recognised by police officials at a later point.

The report also surmises that the gunshots police believed — or said they believed — were coming from striking workerscould have been “friendly fire” from other police teams approaching different sides of the koppie.

When police officers are unable to identify the source of gunfire, protocol requires that they take cover until they can. But it is likely that the emotionally charged nature of the strike that led up to the massacre — particularly the killing of two police officers three days before — clouded the judgment of the officers, the report says.

At the release of the report, Farlam described Bruce’s work as “well reasoned”.

Bruce told the M&G that he hopes the report would be used to ensure “a little bit more energy” is put into creating a rigorous internal police process for carrying out its disciplinary responsibilities regarding what happened at Marikana.

He said he believes the police have delayed this unduly. At the recommendation of the Farlam commission, a panel of experts, including Bruce, was set up to investigate policing methods and transformation within the police service. The panel recently submitted its report to the minister of police.

Police Minister Bheki Cele will announce its submissions in the next few weeks, Cele’s spokesperson Reneilwe Serero said.

“However, in the meantime, the minister has directed the department of police to consider all the matters that have been raised by the panel and advise him accordingly, especially in relation to all transformative issues affecting POP [public order protection] and SAPS in general,” Serero said.

Bruce said: “I think there is a gross failure on the part of the organisation to respond to Marikana, not simply at the level of taking disciplinary action against people but also clearly looking at what happened there. And taking appropriate action to ensure that their elite units don’t become involved in these atrocities again.”

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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