While the lack of a skilled, experienced, competent leadership has continued to trouble the SA Police Service (Saps) a decade after the Marikana massacre of 34 striking mineworkers, a security expert maintains it could have been averted.
The country marked the 10th anniversary of the Marikana massacre yesterday. Gareth Newham, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies who served on the panel of experts which compiled the report on police conduct, said flaws in the handling of the operation to quell the bloody strike should serve as a lesson for Saps.
These flaws included the use of high-calibre ammunition, instead of teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
“What should have been a watershed moment for Saps was an opportunity to ensure the organisation was only led by competent, skilled and experienced police officers – men and women of integrity – a fundamental change that should have happened,” he said.
Newham said the high-risk tactical response units carrying automatic weapons should not have been deployed to intervene in crowd management.
“Only public order police units, trained to manage crowds and carrying less lethal weapons should have been sent to Marikana – if we had the required leadership at the top.
“Then national police commissioner Riah Phiyega did not know what she was doing, with former North West police commissioner Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo’s policing experience not operational.
Both did not adhere to the laws governing the country. “They tried to mislead the [retired Judge Ian] Farlam commission into the Marikana massacre when questions were raised about their integrity,” said Newham.
Asked whether there were any lessons learnt from the Marikana incident, police national spokesperson Colonel Athlenda Mathe said Saps continued to address “the Farlam commission recommendations in relation to training of members in the public order policing environment”.
“The organisation continues to capacitate and resource the operational environments to ensure that Saps delivers on its constitutional mandate.”
Lirandzu Themba, spokesperson for Police Minister Bheki Cele, said training of officers in public order policing was “an ongoing process in Saps, as well as increasing capacity and personnel”.
“Saps is also improving relationships between police and communities,” she said.
Sketching a picture of what led to the massacre, Newham said 600 heavily armed police officers, about 300 of them carrying R5 automatic weapons with an additional 4 000 rounds of ammunition and four mortuary vans, were ordered for what led to the mass killing of the striking mine workers in Marikana, the intention being to kill.
The police-led Marikana massacre in a post-democracy South Africa had the hallmarks of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre during apartheid, which left 69 people dead and 180 others injured at a peaceful protest against pass laws.
A day before the massacre, Phiyega convened a national management forum meeting, which took a decision to go ahead with the police operation the following day Newham recalled: “Police started encircling the miners, cutting them off from the settlement, rolling off barbed wire between the koppie and the settlement.
“The dropping of teargas and stun grenades from helicopters forced workers to move off the mountain to the direction of the police, who then opened fire. What was very shocking about that decision was that the police were made aware before this operation that there would be bloodshed.
“They went in there knowing people would be killed or injured. They went ahead nevertheless – something illegal in South Africa. Their job was to de-escalate violence and protect life and bodily integrity.
But they went against that. They unleashed an operation they knew would likely cause death.
“What we have not seen yet is those commanders being held accountable for what could arguably be a case of dolus eventualis [intentional] murder.”