Reustenburg - The Constitutional mandate of police officers was to preserve the lives of citizens not to kill them, Advocate George Bizos said at the Farlam commission in Rustenburg on Monday.
Bizos cross-examined police training co-ordinator, Brigadier Petrus Breytenbach, on the August 16 deployment of various specialised units to the volatile Marikana region, in North West, following a prolonged wage dispute.
“What is your opinion on the dispatching of officers trained in counter-terrorism, dealing with armed robbers to that area?” asked Bizos.
“I cannot comment on the particular decisions made (on August 16) on the ground to deploy the officers. If anyone asked me to deploy the TRT (tactical response team), NIU (national intervention unit) and STF (special task force) I would ask why? It had to be a violent crime situation,” responded Breytenbach.
Bizos told Breytenbach that the people involved in the protest were seeking a better life, though some were wielding dangerous weapons.
Bizos wanted Breytenbach to explain what would have been the foreseen outcome of deploying officers “trained to kill” to an already volatile situation.
“Was an unarmed person protesting for a better wage a criminal?” asked Bizos.
“If it were up to me, I would bring the specialised units. These are people who have also undergone basic police training. These units have a wide range of skills. It is better to come prepared for any eventuality,” said Breytenbach.
“An unarmed person is not necessarily not a dangerous person. I do not want to comment on the incidents (of August 16),” he said.
Bizos said Breytenbach’s attitude resembled that of Pontius Pilate. At that stage, chairman of the three member commission, retired judge Ian Farlam intervened and urged Bizos to move forward with his cross examination.
Bizos read statements made by sacked police commissioner, General Bheki Cele, urging officers to take a tougher stance when dealing with criminals.
“I did not take his statements to mean ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. He was encouraging the defence of police officers. He was saying ‘do not be part of the statistics (of slain police officers),” said Breytenbach.
On Monday morning, Breytenbach told the commission that members of the public order policing unit always carried lethal side weapons during crowd control operations to protect themselves.
He said the first option for officers dispatched for crowd control purposes was to use “non-lethal force”, such as rubber bullets and water cannons.
Members of the unit were a specialised division which was specifically trained to focus on handling crowds.
Other units, such as the national intervention unit, special task force and the tactical response team - which were also dispatched to the troubled Marikana region on August 16 - were not specifically trained in handling volatile crowds.
Breytenbach was testifying in public hearings held by the commission in Rustenburg as part of its inquiry into a shooting that left 34 striking miners dead when police tried to disperse them in Marikana, North West, on August 16.
Karel Tip, for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), sought answers from Breytenbach on the police curriculum relating to weapons used to deal with protesters.
Breytenbach said the use of “sharp end” (lethal) weapons was a last resort for police officers in a bid to save their own lives.
He has told the commission that he was not part of the police operations from August 9 to 16, which culminated in the deaths of 34 striking miners.