The murder case against police officers who were involved in a clash leading up to the Marikana massacre continued in a near-empty courtroom this week.
It has been more than eight years since 34 striking mineworkers were killed outside the Lonmin platinum mines. But since 2012, only nine police officers have been prosecuted for the deaths. Justice for these families has been elusive. In 2018, the 320 claimants who sued the state, were paid R69-million for loss of support. But the families have not settled for damages relating to emotional shock.
This week six police officers appeared before Judge Tebogo Djaje at the Mahikeng high court for their role in the murders of three mineworkers on 13 August 2012 three days before the massacre. The state has a list of 140 witnesses it may call to give evidence during the trial. There have to date been no prosecutions for the killing of the 34 mineworkers on 16 August 2012.
On Tuesday, the courtroom — not big enough to contain the pain endured by the families — was too big for those in attendance. Most of the seats, marked with red tape for social distancing, were empty. A former colleague of the accused watched the proceedings but did not stay the whole day.
In the second week of the trial of the six police officers, including retired North West deputy police commissioner William Mpembe, video footage taken by police videographer Abrahm Masinya was cross-examined.
Three days before the massacre
Under cross-examination, Masinya was questioned about the integrity of the footage he recorded of the events of 13 August 2012.
Two mineworkers — Semi Jokanisi, Tembelakhe Mati — and two police officers — Hendrick Monene and Sello Lepaaku — were killed on that day in a violent clash. Another mineworker, Pumzile Sokanyile, was shot in the back while fleeing.
Back in 2012 Mpembe led the 70 police officers to confront about 200 mineworkers who had been barred by security personnel from entering another Lonmin mine, Karee, where they wanted to speak to other mine workers about the strike.
On their way back to the koppie, the mineworkers were stopped by the police contingent led by Mpembe and were asked to lay down their weapons. They refused. The police allowed the miners to continue and then started shooting. Mpembe allegedly instructed the police to fire tear gas and stun grenades at the mineworkers, which ultimately triggered the clash. In doing so, Mpembe has been charged with acting “in flagrant disregard” of policing guidelines relating to crowd management.
He has been accused of giving false evidence about the instruction to the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Judge Farlam, into the massacre. The failure to disclose evidence is a contravention of the Commissions Act
One of Mpembe’s co-accused, retired air wing commander Salmon Vermaak, has also been charged with lying to the commission. He allegedly instructed his juniors, Nkosana Mguye, Collin Mogale, Katlego Sekgweleya and Khazamola Makhubela, to pursue and shoot at the mineworkers fleeing the scene.
Vermaak and Mpembe have also been charged with defeating the ends of justice.
‘I was affected emotionally’
On Tuesday, the six accused sat masked and a metre apart from one another as Mpembe’s lawyer, Jan Ellis, painstakingly cross-examined Masinya. The two ex-senior officers sat on pink cushions brought to the court by Vermaak.
Masinya’s cross-examination was slow, made more onerous by the awkward push and pull between the two interpreters flanking him. The only moment of relief in the sober cross-examination happened after Masinya was driven to tears recalling the killing of Lepaaku, who died after being struck by a panga.
The moment came after Ellis questioned why Masinya did not record any footage of when Lepaaku was being taken away from the scene in a police van.
“In that particular period, my mind maybe slipped off,” Masinya responded. He later added: “Warrant officer Lepaaku, he was my colleague and I was affected emotionally.”
On Wednesday, the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) North West spokesperson, Henry Mamothame, commented on the slow battle for justice for the Marikana victims.
“Look, it has been a long process. It has been a long process. But at the end of the day investigations have to be thorough … We were not going to come to court without things being thoroughly checked,” he told the Mail & Guardian.
“To put a tight case forward to ensure prosecution, it takes time. It takes time.”
Though he would not pre-empt the outcome of the trial, Mamothame said the NPA has gathered sufficient evidence, the culmination of the Farlam commission and the investigation by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, to see the case through. “So we think we have a case to prosecute.”