IN JANUARY last year, the operational response services component of the South African Police Service (SAPS) was moved out of the "crime prevention" division and re-established as a full police division in its own right. The units that comprise the division are the Special Task Force, the National Intervention Unit, the Public Order Police and the Tactical Response Team.
In August, all of these units were part of the SAPS operation at Marikana.
From January on, the division would function as an explicitly political entity. However, this would not mean it did not engage in occasional acts of gratuitous brutality for reasons that had nothing to do with politics. On February 27 last year, a newspaper published CCTV footage of Tactical Response Team members assaulting patrons at a restaurant called Catz Pyjamas in Johannesburg the previous day.
A cellphone video clip shot 10 days before this in the township of Wesselton outside Ermelo showed "a young man rolling on the ground while being followed by armed Tactical Response Team members". According to the man who captured the footage, "the youngster in the clip was coming from the nearby shops with a female friend when he was summoned to the officers’ vehicle, questioned and allegedly shot at several times with rubber bullets. He was then forced to roll on the dusty street."
The background to this was violent protests in Wesselton that started on February 14 and which included the blockading of access routes to the township and the stoning of a police vehicle.
An initial report in Beeld indicated that "protests were related to the community being unhappy about the ANC’s candidate lists for the local government elections". A subsequent police intelligence report on the causes of the violence linked the protests to a local pressure group, the Msukaligwa Concerned Citizens (MCC).
The MCC was angry with Sibusiso Sigudla, a local strongman and ally of Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza, partly in relation to its belief that he had imposed his preferred candidates during the process of compiling the African National Congress (ANC) regional list in advance of the local government elections.
In January last year, the MCC handed a memorandum of complaints to the municipal manager of Msukaligwa, Ace Dlamini, who promised to respond in seven working days. When he did not, on February 13 the committee held a community meeting at which they discussed their demands.
The "theme" of the meeting "was that by Monday they do not want Sigudla because the ANC had failed them".
More than 160 Tactical Response Team members were deployed to the township after the start of the protests on the Monday. By the Wednesday, the protests had died down as people felt their outrage had been communicated and "were tired" of protesting. Residents were also expecting the arrival of then national police commissioner Bheki Cele, who visited Wesselton that day. The police imposed a curfew in the township, punishing people on the streets by shooting them with rubber bullets or sjambokking them.
According to the man who captured the video footage, "they didn’t want anybody on the streets that day. That guy wasn’t the only one (who was assaulted). A lot of people were being ejected from shops and forced to roll on the ground." The police were also conducting door-to-door raids. Two people were killed by police during the protest, with at least one of these probably shot with live ammunition.
A subsequent report in the Mail & Guardian indicated that the operation not only involved Tactical Response Team members but also other units, including the National Intervention Unit.
The ferocity of police action in suppressing the protests was equalled in their dealing with people arrested in connection with the protests. This allegedly included the use of torture, including giving electric shocks to detainees, wrapping their heads in plastic and holding their heads under water.
Dumisani Mahaye, who was accused of leading the protests, said: "After we were arrested for the protests, we were divided into groups of four and taken to the radio control room in the Ermelo police station, where we were tortured into confessing things we did not know about." He said he was forced to confess to having made and distributed petrol bombs that were used against the police during the protests.
In addition, he was forced to name various opponents of Mabuza as well as ANC branch member Bongani Phakathi as the people who had paid him to instigate the protest.
Mahaye’s comments were consistent with information provided by Phakathi. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Phakathi said he had met the Ermelo station commissioner, Col Zachariah Nyathi, the day after the protest erupted. Nyathi told him he was suspected of being behind the protests.
Phakathi then handed himself over to police crime intelligence in Pretoria on January 16 because he felt he could not trust the Mpumalanga police. He said he was then interrogated for 14 hours by the Mpumalanga head of the Hawks, Gen Simon Mapyane. "Mapyane asked me where I worked and where I got the money from to fund the protest. He asked me about my relationship with Fish Mahlalela and Mbombela mayor Lassy Chiswayo."
These were the same people that, according to Mahaye, police had forced him to name as having paid for the protests.
Although Mpumalanga police confirmed that Mapyane had interviewed Phakathi, Phakathi’s other allegations were generally denied by the SAPS.
If these allegations are true, the police operation in Wesselton can be seen as something of a template for that which took place in Marikana. In both operations, it is alleged that those who were involved in the protests were arrested, with a large number of them being tortured. After the Wesselton operation, this led to 25 charges of assault being lodged with the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD). In Marikana, this led to 94 cases of assault being lodged with the ICD’s successor, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.
In both cases, it is alleged that individuals among the police torturers focused on a specific objective. In Wesselton, it was to get confessions that political opponents of Mabuza had instigated the protests. In Marikana, the alleged objective of these torturers was to obtain "confessions" that former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema had instigated the protests.
While it is argued that the Marikana operation involved complicity between the state and big business, it would appear that the key interests the police operation were intended to protect may not have been those of the mining bosses but those of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). This would be consistent with the emphasis by President Jacob Zuma, in his speech at the Congress of South African Trade Unions congress a month after the massacre, on the losses the NUM had suffered. In the section of his speech dealing with the massacre, it was reported that "Zuma blamed socioeconomic inequalities for the massacre. He took care to acknowledge the NUM’s own losses in a situation in which the union has come under fire for failing to lead its members and the miners’ loss has largely overshadowed any other in the public’s mind".
"We also offer condolences to the (NUM), which lost shop stewards who were brutally killed during the first week of the illegal strike," Zuma said.
A number of other details of the circumstances surrounding the massacre suggest that this may be the correct analysis.