Only prosecutions and police reform will rid SAPS of Marikana’s deadly stain

Police responsible for the unnecessary killings of striking miners must be held accountable says the ISS.

Pretoria, South Africa

Marikana trials a priority for new NPA head

Police commanders who authorised the 2012 killing of striking miners at Marikana six years ago should be a priority for prosecution by the incoming head of the National Prosecution Authority (NPA), the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said on Wednesday.

The SA Police Service (SAPS) can only rid itself of Marikana’s deadly legacy by taking responsibility for the unnecessary killings, with commanders and those who pulled the trigger being held accountable, said ISS justice and violence prevention head Gareth Newham.

This will signal a clear break by SAPS from its troubled past. It will improve public trust in the police at a time when the risk of volatile protests is high as 2019 elections approach and politicians turn up the rhetoric on land reform.

New police minister Bheki Cele and SAPS commissioner Khehla Sitole, under President Cyril Ramaphosa, have the opportunity to rebuild public trust in SAPS by making much-needed reforms in the interests of public safety, Newham told a seminar at the ISS.

On 16 August 2012 police shot dead 34 striking mineworkers at Marikana platinum mine in North West Province, the bloody culmination of a violent ten days that left 44 dead and 94 injured. The mineworkers were on an unprotected strike demanding better wages and working conditions.

It was the worst police killing in South Africa since the end of apartheid and a complete failure of responsible policing in a democratic society.

The ISS on Wednesday released the most comprehensive account to date of the police killings at what is known as Marikana Scene 2, where 57 police from four units fired 295 bullets at mineworkers. Five hundred metres away, police had earlier shot dead another 17 men in a fusillade of automatic gunfire lasting just 12 seconds. At Scene 2 they took 11 minutes to shoot and kill a further 17 miners, including a group taking cover among rocks and bushes.

The chilling details are revealed in a new report by independent researcher David Bruce, based on photographs, statements from police and surviving miners, and ballistic and forensic evidence.

Bruce finds some police thought they were under fire from the miners, when it was in fact bullets from their colleagues approaching from the other side of the area. This is evidence of what the Marikana Commission called a ‘chaotic free for all’. The commission rejected the police version of events as it did not accord with the evidence.

In the absence of an immediate threat, the responsibility of police was to take cover and identify the source of the shooting. Instead they fired lethal R5 assault rifle rounds into the area where a large number of men had gathered. ‘This was reckless in the extreme,’ Bruce said.

More than two thirds of the shots were fired from R5 rifles, with some police firing at strikers from a tactical vantage point atop high rocks. Multiple statements from miners say people were shot while trying to surrender, and many were assaulted after being arrested. Police are accused of putting weapons into the hands of dead miners.

Bruce concluded that most of the shootings were not justified, but motivated by the desire to punish the strikers for the killing of two police earlier in the week. Police may have believed they could act with impunity in the absence of media.

Trust the police again

Newham said police reform was now likely, following publication of the 2016 White Paper on Policing, and the appointment of a new minister and SAPS commissioner committed to change. Police leadership also has detailed recommendations from an expert panel on police reform set up after Marikana.

The Marikana Commission of Inquiry called for a full investigation to determine the criminal liability of police involved in the killings at Scene 2. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate told Parliament in March 2017 it had identified 72 police officers for prosecution for their role in the Marikana killings. These cases are awaiting action by the NPA.

‘The families of the dead miners and the wider SA public require at the very least that those accused of murder be put on trial. People need to be held accountable for shooting husbands, brothers, sons and fathers, and then lying about it,’ said Nomzamo Zondo, director of litigation at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI).

The full ISS report by David Bruce: The sound of gunfire: the police shootings at Marikana Scene 2 is available here.

For media enquiries, contact:

Anzet du Plessis, Proof Communication Africa: [email protected], +27 83 557 2322 

Gareth Newham, ISS: [email protected], +27 82 887 1557

Picture: Amelia Broodryk/ISS