An eerie echo of apartheid

2013-03-24 10:00

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It felt much like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) all over again: a police commissioner scrambling to defend her political masters and the officers whose guns and bullets snuffed out the lives of 34 men in a matter of minutes.

At the TRC, those on the stand were white Afrikaans men who had served an illegitimate, murderous government.

But at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry in Rustenburg, the police commissioner is not a General Johan Van der Merwe or a General Johan Coetzee.

It is General Riah Phiyega, a black South African woman with a glittering track record in top-level administration.

Unlike the Van der Merwes and Coetzees of the country’s dark past, Phiyega serves a legitimate government with a progressive Constitution.

But when she took the stand to begin her cross-examination in Rustenburg on Monday, Phiyega sounded more like her predecessors.

Phiyega came very close to washing her hands of the Marikana saga, shifting responsibility to her surbordinates and protecting the role played by her political master, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

Phiyega was, at best, evasive about Mthethwa’s role when questioned by evidence leader Mbuyiseli Madlanga. She would only say Mthethwa offered political support.

But Madlanga wasn’t letting go that easily.

“Am I right to say you cannot be specific on the political direction, nor can you be specific on the political support you received from the police minister?”

So far, police evidence has suggested the strikers were a militant group of armed warriors dosed with muti and ready to engage officers in a mortal duel.

This is in reference to the scene of the first shooting, in which 16 people were killed with automatic gunfire.

TV cameras captured this scene, in which a group of miners armed with traditional weapons and a firearm seemed to be charging at a line of police officers.

One of the miners fired at the officers with a gun.

But a few hundred metres away from the prying eyes of the media, where a large group of miners had retreated behind rocks and bushes, police shot and killed another 18 people.

Siphethe Phatsha, a witness who lost a toe in the shootings, has told the commission he saw police shoot at people who had their hands up in surrender.

Phatsha was the first eyewitness to give this account, which corroborates various unsubstantiated allegations that police went on a shooting and killing frenzy at the second scene.

Phiyega appeared shocked and somewhat taken aback when Madlanga read her a statement made by one of her officers, who alleges he saw a National Intervention Unit (NIU) constable shoot at an injured person at the second scene.

Hendrich Wouter Myburgh, stationed at the K9 unit in Mahikeng, North West, alleges in the statement that when he questioned his colleague about his actions, the man replied: “They deserve to die!”

Myburgh said he later reported the incident to a Major-General Naidoo, who was part of the command structure at Marikana on August 16, and then to North West provincial commissioner Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo, and Phiyega.

Phiyega was unable to explain what action had been taken about the allegation.

First, she said Naidoo, as one of the operation’s commanders, would have looked into the matter.

But when pressed by Madlanga, the commissioner said she had personally asked Naidoo to look into it.

She said it had been difficult to follow up because Myburgh had not provided them with a name and had said he could not remember what the constable looked like.

Madlanga then read out documents providing details of NIU officers deployed at the scene on the day of the alleged incident, in which he pointed out that only two constables from the unit had fired 9mm pistols.

Madlanga argued that if the police wanted to pursue the matter they could have done so based on the documents.

It is not clear if Phiyega’s reluctance to answer questions on operational matters is part of her legal team’s strategy.

She stubbornly insisted she would not speak for the Marikana commanders, who could do so for themselves.

Her evasiveness and apparent desire to pass blame on to foot soldiers irked Madlanga.

“General, you repeatedly say your commanders are best suited to answer questions. It must have been crucial for yourself as national commissioner to establish what happened at Marikana,” Madlanga said.

Her responses, he said, suggested she had no detail at all about the operation.

The commission of inquiry continues tomorrow.

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