analysisBy Sipho Hlongwane
The pattern set by police witnesses at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry continued Thursday, as a warrant officer present at the scene shortly after the 16 August massacre claimed to have not seen or heard much of what happened, but only arrived to witness the aftermath. It is a line that is beginning to wear thin.
Warrant Officer Patric Thibelo Thamae arrived at the scene of the first shootings at Marikana on 16 August just after 16:00. He and his colleagues had been radioed in to come and do their work as crime scene investigators. What they were told that morning was that they were expected to come in and collect weapons from some 3,000 striking miners, who were expected to surrender them that day. What they found was the aftermath of South Africa’s bloodiest massacre since the end of Apartheid.
Thamae arrived at the big koppie area and began to collect what would eventually amount to 210 rifle bullet cases, 31 pistol cartridges and 57 shotgun cartridge cases. During this time, he noted the melee as police, paramedics and some miners moved about the scene. They also found 522 rubber bullets in the area, as well as four 40mm cartridges which could have been discharged from a teargas launcher.
For some time while he was at the big koppie, he was unaware of what was going on some 500 metres away at the small koppie, where the police were shooting some other miners. This was the story drawn by Thamae at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry. His testimony was supposed to back that of Captain Apollo Mohlaki.
He and the rest of the forensics team then went to the small koppie, having arrived at the first scene at 16:00. According to a police timeline presented at the commission, the shootings at the smaller koppie commenced seven minutes later. Yet Thamae, like Mohlaki before him, claims that he didn’t hear shooting, and that it was all over by the time he got there.
Commission chairman Judge Ian Farlam found difficulty with this testimony.
“Either you are mistaken as to the time you got there, or evidence that you did not hear shooting is incorrect,” he said.
However, Thamae was adamant that he got to the scenes when he said he did and that he did not hear any gunfire. His colleague Mohlaki testified in his earlier cross-examination that he drove towards the big koppie from about 1.3 kilometres away but didn’t hear the gunfire, which was so graphically recorded by television footage, that took place there.
When the warrant officer got to the second scene, he found a pile of traditional weapons, which he began to arrange neatly and photograph. A Colonel Meiring gave him two pistols that were allegedly recovered on the scene. This testimony corresponds with that of Mohlaki, and shows that the police tampered with the scene even before the crime scene investigators got there.
“Do you accept that the scene was interfered with?” asked advocate Dali Mpofu, who is at the commission on behalf of miners wounded or arrested on the day. Thamae agreed, but said that the only evidence that was tampered with as far as he knew was the two pistols he was given.
“I have already said that Colonel Meiring gave me the two guns, he is the only person I know of that removed things from the scene, I don't know about the others,” he said.
Previously, Mohlaki was cross-examined about photos of the scene that he took after dark. They were compared to a set taken by another forensic investigator that showed weapons were planted on the dead miners between the times of their deaths and when they were photographed that night. It was a damning piece of evidence, and Thamae has been unable to refute it, save to say that he saw nothing of the sort on the scene.
The warrant officer also said that he did not think to check the distance between the police lines and the position of the dead miners.
Had he done so, it would have been an important piece in the puzzle that is determining the extent to which the police were in personal danger on the day. The police advocates have claimed they were acting under self-defence because the miners charged at them.
There is now no question that plenty of rubber bullet rounds were fired on the day, as well as (possibly) 10 teargas canisters, which would agree with the police story that they tried to disperse the crowd without using maximum force, at first. However, the crucial question of the position of the police in relation to the men that they killed remains unanswered. That can determine how true the self-defence story is. But the planted weapons ring all sorts of alarm bells.
Thamae was asked by Mpofu if he saw any bodies or armoured vehicle (Nyala) tracks anywhere near the bodies. “There will be some allegations and evidence that some people were run over by Nyalas,” he said.
Thamae denied seeing anything like that. “I am not aware of something like that, I have no information and I have never noticed it. I observed something like the tracks of the Nyalas going to the side where the bodies were lying,” he said.
Individual accounts Daily Maverick has received from some miners point to the police riding over the prostrate bodies with armoured vehicles and inflicting terrible (possibly even fatal) damage.
Needless to say, the testimony we now await with bated breath is the one that will tell us how far apart police and charging miners were at all 34 points where someone was shot and why the senior officers present allowed the scene to be so badly tampered with. Otherwise, the police version of events is a bit ludicrous, especially since the people deployed to investigate the scene appear to be uncertain of what happened exactly to the point of being unbelievable.
The commission continues on Friday.