Pretoria - Senior police officers should have led from the front when the SA Police Service moved to confront striking Lonmin miners at Marikana, the Farlam Commission of Inquiry heard on Thursday.
George Bizos, for the Legal Resources Centre, was cross-examining North West air wing commander Lt-Col Salmon Vermaak on the 2012 Marikana shootings.
“Is it a coincidence that none of the senior officers were around on the afternoon of August 16 near scene one in order to try and control the situation? Was there a deliberate absence by every senior officer in order to avoid responsibility?” Bizos asked.
Vermaak said he could not comment.
“I was in the air the whole day. Where the senior people where, I do not know,” he said.
At that stage, commission chairman, retired judge Ian Farlam, intervened and asked Vermaak to answer according to his vast experience in the police public order policing unit (POP).
“There must have been other similar operations where there were large numbers of protesters who attracted the attention of the POP. I take it in such operations there should be continuous communication between an operational commander and the joint operations centre (JOC) and that didn't happen.
“The criticism being put to you by Mr Bizos, would you say it is well-founded, or is it unfair to criticise the senior officers for staying at the JOC? Was it their role to stay at the JOC?” Farlam asked.
Vermaak said the operation's overall commander should stay in the JOC and co-ordinate the flow of information on the advancing officers.
Unconvinced, Bizos went on: “I am going to suggest to you that common sense - where you have a volatile situation and a decision which had been taken beforehand saying there would be the use of force which inevitably led to the loss of life, a senior officer should have been there to control the situation”.
Vermaak said in an “explosive situation” like Marikana, one could not predict events.
“If the overall commander is in the JOC and a situation arises on the ground which compels members to act in self-defence, it means there won't be time to contact the overall commander first to say 'should I act?'
“If any action is taken it will be explained afterwards,” said Vermaak.
Bizos said he would submit that “most commanders of the Marikana operation were deliberately absent” at the critical moments on August 16, 2012. That day, police shot dead 34 people, mostly protesting miners, at Lonmin's platinum mining operations at Marikana, near Rustenburg, North West. At least 78 others were wounded when police fired on a group gathered at a hill near the mine while trying to disarm and disperse them.
In the preceding week, 10 people, including two policemen and two security guards, were killed in the strike-related violence.
The commission is probing the 44 deaths. - Sapa