20 November 2012

South Africa: Marikana Commission - Did the Police Throw Away Their Own Rulebook?

Photo: Werner Beukes/SAPA
Police at Lonmin's troubled Marikana mine in the North West, Tuesday, 14 August 2012


Lawyers acting for the deceased miners and their injured comrades at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry appear to be building a case to show that the police acted outside of their own rules and regulations. On Monday a senior police trainer faced tough questions about the rules under which officers are meant to operate in crowd control operations and the training they receive.

Brigadier Johannes Petrus Breytenbach was not at Wonderkop on 16 August, when his colleagues shot 112 people. He was called to the Marikana Commission of Inquiry to provide expert testimony of a different sort.

As a training coordinator for the human resources department at police headquarters in Pretoria, he intimately knows what training regimes officers go through, and how they are therefore supposed to act in certain situations.

The specific matter under scrutiny is the lawfulness of police action that led to the deaths of 34 men, and the injury of 78. Lawyers acting for the deceased miners and their comrades who escaped with their lives intact (if not their bodily integrity) have already claimed that the police acted unlawfully because they were motivated by revenge, not duty or to preserve their own lives.

The police, however, insist that they acted in self-defence. But big holes have been knocked in that storyline with the presentation to the commission of evidence strongly indicating that police tampered with the scene in a bid to pervert the course of justice.

For the police to be able to successfully defend their actions on the day, they will have to show that they acted strictly within the confines of the law. For those opposing the police argument at the commission, it is crucial to show that the rulebook was tossed out on the day.

A line of questioning by George Bizos SC probed the necessity to bring in specialised units to what was thought to be a simple disarming operation. (Other police testimony suggests that the police thought the miners would freely surrender their weapons and disperse.)

“What is your opinion on the dispatching of officers trained in counter-terrorism and dealing with armed robbers to that area?” Bizos asked Breytenbach.

The brigadier replied: “I cannot comment on the particular decisions made [on August 16] on the ground to deploy the officers. If anyone asked me to deploy the TRT [tactical response team], NIU [national intervention unit] and STF [special task force] I would ask why? It had to be a violent crime situation.”

He continued, in reply to the contention that angry striking miners were not criminals: “If it were up to me, I would bring the specialised units. These are people who have also undergone basic police training.

These units have a wide range of skills. It is better to come prepared for any eventuality.”

After statements by former police commissioner Bheki Cele, urging cops to shoot first and ask questions later, were read to Breytenbach, he said that the context was the tragic deaths of police officers, not a run-of-the-mill crowd control operation.

Dali Mpofu (who is acting for the injured miners) questioned Breytenbach on the normal chain of command in such situations. The brigadier said that the public order policing (POP) unit would be in charge of a crowd control situation. He also read from police manuals which include incidents of unrest as falling in the purview of the POP unit. This unit is also not equipped with heavy machine guns, just a standard issue pistol to be used for self-protection.

The questions appear to indicate that the lawyers suspect breaches in the police rules regarding the chain of command on 16 August, especially the planned nature of the operation. It would go a long way to supporting the revenge theory if it can be shown that the police went out of their way on the day to deal with the miners with maximum force – which would include ignoring normal protocols and giving command to non-POP personnel.

Breytenbach also gave insight into the training of the special task force officers. Since the unit is deployed to manage high risk situations, it is the most thoroughly trained.

“Recruits cannot be older than 32”, Breytenbach said. “They are screened for phobias and are subjected to the ‘vasbyt’ (hang on by your teeth) test, which places them under extremely stressful situations to test their endurance. Initial training lasts for 11 months, then, if successful, an additional five months of advanced training. There is only a 5% pass rate for this training.”

The brigadier said that he was unaware that the NIU is precluded from acting in crowd control situations.

Mpofu also questioned Breytenbach on protocols attached to orders to cease fire. On television footage, the ceasefire order is clearly heard, yet several shots are subsequently fired.

“We can accept as fact that there was shooting after the ceasefire order,” commission chairman Judge Ian Farlam said.

Breytenbach said the question was whether the order to cease fire was heard by all the policemen at the scene.

Already under suspicion of having planting weapons on dead miners, if the point can be made that police protocols were ignored, the inevitable question will be why. Was it because the police were hell-bent on revenge after the striking miners murdered some of their colleagues a few days before they in turn were massacred by the cops?

The commission continues on Tuesday.

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