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Why have the police learned nothing from Marikana?
16 August 2013

A year ago South Africa and the world watched in horror as police officers shot 112 striking mineworkers, killing 34 of them near the dusty town of Marikana in the country’s North West province. Looking back, it would be prudent to ask whether the South African Police Service (SAPS) has learned any lessons from this event. The answer is that there is no indication that anything has changed in the police as a result of the ‘Marikana massacre’.

The SAPS has not revised its training, policies or public order practices as a result of what happened on that day. Furthermore, the recently released Green Paper on Policing, which will ultimately result in a new police policy and law, simply mentions Marikana in passing. It only does so to make the argument that the adoption of military-style ranks was not to blame for incidents such as Marikana and that these ranks should remain. The Minister of Police intends to finalise the policy and legislation before the end of this year, long before the release of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry’s findings.

Why have no lessons been learned or changes made? The simple answer is because the SAPS’s version of events at Marikana is that each of the killings and injuries caused by the police was in self-defence and thereby lawful and justifiable. This was the position taken by SAPS National Commissioner General Riah Phiyega the day after the massacre, when she said that the 34 deaths occurred after a militant group of mineworkers ‘stormed towards the police firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons. Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilise maximum force to defend themselves.’ Simply put, the police killed the miners in self-defence.

But even if one completely accepted this version of events, it would be reasonable to expect that the National Commissioner would have taken urgent steps at the time to establish exactly what had happened. Surely a situation that placed the lives of almost 500 police officers in grave danger would warrant a proper internal investigation? Phiyega did not think so: as she had made up her mind about what had occurred very quickly, telling her officers, ‘Don’t be sorry about what happened. We confront, every day, heartless criminals who are gunning for our lives.’

Later, Phiyega explained that no investigation had been necessary because the commission’s proceedings would form part of the police’s review of events and that as far as she was concerned, ‘the results would be the same’ as those of an internal investigation.

We now know from evidence brought before the commission that much went wrong on that day. The SAPS has already conceded that its radio communication system was not fully functional and that officers did not film the shooting incident, as standard practice demands. National commanders had also ignored Deputy Provincial Commissioner Major-General Simon Mpembe’s repeated warnings that there would be ‘bloodshed’ if the police persisted with their plan against the miners. Evidence has also emerged of police officers allegedly planting weapons on the dead bodies of the miners, and there have been cases of witnesses allegedly being intimidated and tortured by the police. It is now a year later and there are still more questions than answers.

It is reasonable to expect that, immediately following the Marikana killings, the National Commissioner would have called in a team of the best available independent and police experts to provide an authoritative account of exactly what had happened in order to identify possible police shortcomings. This knowledge could have been used to improve police safety and to avoid the large-scale loss of civilian life in future policing operations. Such action would certainly have strengthened the credibility of the SAPS and the National Commissioner in the eyes of the public and the world at large. Interestingly, sources within and close to the police have said, confidentially, that an internal review was undertaken by a small team of senior officers. However, the results have been buried and hidden from the Marikana commission.

Far from building trust in the SAPS National Commissioner, her testimony before the commission has left her credibility in tatters. Consider the following statement made by Phiyega under oath: ‘I cannot say those 34 people were killed by the police ... and to say who was shot by whom. I am not (in) a position to say.’ This directly contradicts her previous public statement that the police had killed 34 miners in self-defence.

Of greater concern, however, is evidence before the commission that the National Commissioner was dishonest to the South African public. When making her public statement, Phiyega had already sent the Minister of Police an internal memorandum stating that the police had killed miners at two separate scenes. There was what is called ‘scene one’, which was broadcast across the world, where about 18 miners had initially died. Then there was ‘scene two’, which was a few hundred metres away and where some time later the police allegedly shot dead miners who were cowering among the rocks and bushes. There were audible gasps from those attending the commission when it emerged that Phiyega had related a version of events that she knew full well not to be truthful.

Perhaps we can only expect policing to change if the recommendations of the National Development Plan are fully implemented. In particular, the recommendations that the senior management of the SAPS, including the National Commissioner and his or her deputies, are appointed on merit and that a code of ethics guides everything police officials do and say. Surely we don’t need more evidence that senior police officials appointed primarily for their political and personal loyalties do more damage than good to the SAPS.

Gareth Newham, Head, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Media coverage of this ISS Today:

Die Burger (Note: This newspaper is in Afrikaans)

Polity.org.za video interview

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