Honourable Judge Ian Gordon Farlam during the public hearing of the Marikana Commission of Enquiry to investigate the Marikana tragedy. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Pretoria - Police officers assigned to manage the 2012 labour unrest at Marikana, North West, lacked critical experience, the Farlam Commission of Inquiry heard on Monday.

North West Air Wing Commander Salmon Vermaak broke ranks with his employer when he testified at the inquiry's public hearings in Centurion, south of Pretoria.

“I have raised my concern with the manner in which this protest was handled. It could not be done in the ordinary manner like a service delivery protest.

“It was clear to me that there wasn't much experience. The protests you get in the mines are more violent than the ordinary protests. They fight to their deaths,” said Vermaak.

He said it was known in the SA Police Service (SAPS) that the protesters had carried out certain rituals with sangomas and the miners believed that they were invincible before the August 16, 2012 fatal confrontation.

“These people (protesters) were fearless. In the past it was believed that police or security officers' bullets would turn into water. The fact that they had advanced on police made it clear that they believed they had sangomas' protection.”

Vermaak said armoured vehicles should have been used to protect police officers.

In the days leading up to August 16, he said he had cautioned Brigadier Adriaan Calitz, head of North West provincial operational response services, that “a much more careful approach was needed” in dealing with the armed miners.

“He only sent me a message (saying) 'thank you', that's all,” said Vermaak.

He said experience taught him that protesting miners wrapped blankets around their bodies and that effected on the police intervention of firing rubber bullets.

The rubber rounds would have lesser effect on a person wrapped in a blanket.

Among other suggestions to his superiors, Vermaak said judging from previous bloody interactions between the miners and police, it was clear that the protesters would defy when asked to vacate the koppie.

He warned them beforehand that another tactic should be used.

“I warned them that the people would not surrender. From the beginning I suggested that from my experience, we should remove traditional weapons. We start from the hostels,” said Vermaak.

“This was disapproved. It was said there was no specific information which justifies the search of the hostels.”

He said that he also advised his seniors that it would be better for the police officers to occupy the koppies at night, before the numbers of protesters swelled at daybreak.

“This again was not accepted,” said Vermaak.

On August 16, 2012, police shot and killed 34, mostly protesting miners, at Lonmin's platinum mining operations at Marikana, near Rustenburg in North West. At least 78 miners were also wounded when police fired on the 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 led by retired judge Ian Farlam is probing the 44 deaths.

Unlike all other police officers who have testified at the inquiry, Vermaak is being led in giving his testimony by evidence leaders.

Other police officers have been led by SAPS lawyers at the commission.

Vermaak will be cross-examined by the police lawyers.

In January, evidence submitted to the inquiry showed that Vermaak lashed out, criticising the police's handling of the Marikana strike.

Vermaak wrote a memo to provincial commissioner Zukiswa Mbombo outlining numerous flaws in the police intervention management of the strike.

The correspondence titled “Unrest: Marikana and Rustenburg: 2012”, was also copied to Calitz.

On the Marikana intervention, Vermaak made a long list of “shortcomings” by the police.