1 November 2012

South Africa: Marikana Commission - the Forensic Expert Who Saw Little, Heard Nothing, Couldn't Say Much

Photo: SAPA stringer
Police on the scene at Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana in the North West where ongoing violence resulted in the shooting of a number of people on Thursday, 16 August 2012.


On Wednesday, it was the turn of forensic investigator Captain Apollo Mohlaki to face lawyers at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. He attended to the scene at Lonmin shortly after the 16 August massacre. Even though he spent most of that day not far from where the shooting occurred, he says he didn’t hear gunfire and it was all over by the time he arrived.

Captain Apollo Mohlaki, a crime scene investigator with the Local Criminal Record Centre (LCRC) of the South African Police Service (SAPS) arrived on the scene of the 16 August massacre at Marikana not long after it had happened. He received a call to say that he was needed, and drove in from the operations centre that the police had set up about 1.3 kilometres from the area where the 34 striking miners were shot dead, and a further 78 injured.

When he arrived, he was directed to the area where 14 men were killed in front of television cameras and then to the second scene, where the majority of the deaths happened. He noticed a holding area in the middle of the broken outcrop of rocks where the arrested men were being kept, and also a number of police and paramedics nearby.

He then asked his companion to start filming the scene, and began to gather the evidence in the area. He found many bodies, and also a live ammunition case next to one body. There was one loaded pistol found between three bodies, with its magazine cartridge containing 15 rounds.

He also found some shotgun cartridges, which could have been pellets fired or rubber bullets.

At some point, a police general directed him to an armoured truck (Nyala) that had bullet marks in it so that he could photograph it. He didn’t speak to the driver on that day; only later.

He and his three colleagues worked late into the night to comb the scene for evidence. During the initial stages of their work, the scene was thoroughly contaminated by the presence of the other police, the arrested miners and paramedics.

This was Mohlaki’s testimony at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry.

Lawyers then laid into him for what they saw as holes in his testimony.

George Bizos of the Legal Resources Centre asked him why he – a forensic investigator – was called in to attend the briefing sessions before the massacre happened. The captain said that the generals there told him they expected the miners to surrender their weapons on that fateful Thursday, and he would be needed to collect and document them. He was apparently not told how many weapons he would collect, and did not think it strange that on the day he reported for duty in Marikana, three other investigators joined him.

Mohlaki said that he waited from about 09:00 at the operations centre with his colleagues until he was called in sometime between 13:45 and 16:00 to come in. At this point, the killings had already started, yet he repeatedly stated that he did not hear a single gunshot, and by the time he arrived, it appeared that the tactical phase of the operation was over.

The men were either dead, wounded or arrested already.

Tim Bruinders, the advocate representing the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) asked Mohlaki if he didn’t wonder why so many forensics people were brought in when all he expected to do was collect weapons. He was also asked why the briefing before the operation lasted about two hours if all they discussed was collecting weapons. Not unlike his superior, Colonel Johannes Botha (who testified on Monday and Tuesday), the captain pleaded ignorance.

The line of questioning by several lawyers about Mohlaki’s stated duties on the day seems like it was intended to create the impression that the police were preparing for a much bigger operation than just collecting weapons from the very outset.

Bizos found it strange that no police officers came to discuss with Mohlaki the fact that a charge of murder had been laid against them for the murder of 34 miners, when his evidence was the most crucial to this particular investigation. He put it to the investigator that this charge was not pursued in a serious manner, but commission chairman Judge Ian Farlam said that this particular point was for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to answer.

Bizos also quizzed the captain on the distance between cartridges and bodies at the first scene, where some of them were greater than 20 metres. He asked him how such distances could be reconciled with the police statement that they acted in self-defence. Mohlaki said that he could not say which cartridges fell from bullets pointed at which bodies.

Towards the latter part of the afternoon, Ishmael Semenya, acting for the police, requested to cross-examine the witness. He made him go over the scene again, and got him to say that he had only collected several dozen pieces of evidence, even though the evidence that the counsel himself would lead would show that over 500 rubber bullets and many live rounds were fired on the day.

Semenya created the impression that Mahloki could not do his work properly because his scene was contaminated and he had to work at night over a very large area. We can only hope that we will learn what happened to the other cartridges and rounds that were shot as other witnesses testify.

While Bruinder questions the unusually large number of forensic investigators called in for what the captain assumed to be a simple documenting operation, it appears that in practice – given that they only managed to capture such a tiny fraction of what they ought to have found – there were actually too few of them on the scene to work fast enough on gathering evidence before everybody else on the scene could contaminate it.

Unfortunately the police testimony that we have heard so far only clouds the situation, rather than revealing what actually happened.

Like Botha before him, Mohlaki frustrated many of the lawyers questioning him because of the details he seemed to have forgotten, especially about what was said to him before the 16 August operation. As with the colonel, his videographic evidence shows what happened after the shooting, not at the time.

Meanwhile, some of the other evidence given simply seems rather light.

The evidence of the shot Nyala, for example, will battle to carry weight. He interviewed the person driving it some days after photographing it, and assumed that this was the person who drove it on 16 August simply because he was told that the vehicle did not have those bullet marks on it that morning.

Mahloki’s cross-examination will continue on Monday.

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