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A nd so it ends in tears. The brief ca­reer of South Africa’s un­like­li­est cop, that is.

It is now a dead cer­tainty that Na­tional Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Riah Phiyega will soon be on the streets, hav­ing been the high­est au­thor­ity to carry blame for the se­ries of events that led to the Marikana mas­sacre of Au­gust 2012. Un­less she jumps ship be­fore then, she will soon ap­pear be­fore a pres­i­den­tially ap­pointed board of in­quiry which, as many ex­pect, will ba­si­cally be an ex­e­cu­tion squad.

Like that of her pre­de­ces­sor, Bheki Cele, her fate was sealed long be­fore Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma spoke on Thurs­day night. Un­like Cele, who made a stel­lar come­back as a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal fig­ure, this for­mer so­cial worker and okay­ish cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive has no clout and will most likely skulk off in shame. This de­vout church­woman will have to live with the cloud of hav­ing over­seen post-apartheid hu­man slaugh­ter.

There is a strong body of opin­ion that the out­come of the Far­lam com­mis­sion of in­quiry was rather un­fair on her, and that she be­came the fall guy for a de­ci­sion­mak­ing process that went much higher than her pay grade.

Those who sub­scribe to this body of opin­ion be­lieve big po­lit­i­cal play­ers should have been held ac­count­able, and saw the com­mis­sion’s out­come as a damp squib and a huge dis­ap­point­ment.

They be­lieve that the com­mis­sion should have found some cul­pa­bil­ity on the part of Phiyega’s po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­pals and oth­ers who set the events in mo­tion.

But at the end of the day, they have to ac­cept that a com­mis­sion of in­quiry in a law­based so­ci­ety can only come to con­clu­sions that are sup­ported by ev­i­dence.

But there can be no pity for Phiyega. In tak­ing the job, she en­tered a highly politi­cised en­vi­ron­ment in which the top cop is not just re­quired to catch bad guys, but cover for po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­pals. In her tes­ti­mony be­fore the com­mis­sion, she did lit­tle to de­fend her­self and in­stead dug her grave by giv­ing what was ar­guably the worst tes­ti­mony by a se­nior wit­ness.

The com­mis­sion­ers de­scribed as “un­sat­is­fac­tory and un­con­vinc­ing” her in­abil­ity to re­call con­ver­sa­tions “where po­lit­i­cal fac­tors were in­ap­pro­pri­ately con­sid­ered and dis­cussed in re­la­tion to polic­ing the sit­u­a­tion at Marikana”.

“It is not clear why she wished to be eva­sive,” they said.

This is a ques­tion be­ing asked by some who are close to Phiyega, who ap­par­ently ad­vised her to let on more than she did at the com­mis­sion. Ac­cord­ing to those in the know, she re­buffed sev­eral dep­u­ta­tions from friends and as­so­ci­ates who had knowl­edge of what she knew, but chose not to re­veal. They hold that in ad­di­tion to “pro­tect­ing” higher fig­ures dur­ing her tes­ti­mony, she also wanted to cre­ate the im­pres­sion that the buck stopped with her as na­tional com­mis­sioner.

“Ube­fun’ ukuzenza is­tar­ring [She wanted to be the main ac­tor],” some­one close to her said this week.

This wish to be the “star” was ev­i­dent in her en­cour­ag­ing words to po­lice­men af­ter the mas­sacre, when she praised them for “re­spon­si­ble polic­ing”, much like for­mer po­lice min­is­ter Nathi Mthethwa, who thanked the men in blue for pro­tect­ing the coun­try from “an­ar­chists” who wanted to turn “South Africa into a banana re­pub­lic”.

The com­mis­sion did not look kindly on this, chastis­ing both of them.

So af­ter three years of tes­ti­mony, bil­lions of words and tens of mil­lions of rands spent, is the fall of Phiyega and pos­si­ble charges against other po­lice of­fi­cers an ad­e­quate out­come? Was it worth the in­vest­ment, or was it, just like the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion, just another ex­er­cise in cathar­sis? Will it gather dust in ar­chives and be re­mem­bered only by the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies and fu­ture his­to­ri­ans?

Well that re­ally de­pends on how nar­rowly we wish to read the tes­ti­mony, find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions in the 645-page tome. For they speak of more than just the tragic events of that Au­gust day. They tell us about a greater sys­tem fail­ure in South Africa’s so­cioe­co­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture. The re­port talks about a dys­func­tional po­lice op­er­a­tional com­mand struc­ture, and a force that is at sea when it comes to public or­der polic­ing. It tells us of a greedy cor­po­rate sec­tor that does not meet its le­gal obli­ga­tions with re­spect to em­ploy­ees, thus cre­at­ing tin­der­box en­vi­ron­ments. We also learn about an ab­sent-minded state that is woe­ful at en­forc­ing com­pli­ance.

Judge Ian Far­lam’s re­port also paints a pic­ture of a union lead­er­ship that is un­able and un­will­ing to lead. It speaks of the in­grained cul­ture of vi­o­lence, where strikes and protests are not con­sid­ered real un­less blood is spilt and prop­erty de­stroyed. Although it does not ex­plic­itly state this, the re­port is a wake-up call for the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship that is pre­sid­ing over this so­ci­etal sys­tem fail­ure.

Those who were bay­ing for the blood of po­lit­i­cal higher-ups and were dis­ap­pointed still have the op­tion to pur­sue fur­ther le­gal routes, and some have in­di­cated they will do so. But they should also fo­cus their energy on fix­ing the sys­tem. In the years and decades to come, we should not re­mem­ber the com­mis­sion for the fall of Riah Phiyega. Its true value re­sides in the di­ag­no­sis of our so­ci­ety: Marikana was a mi­cro­cosm of South

Africa’s ail­ments.


PO­LIT­I­CAL CA­SU­ALTY Na­tional Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Riah Phiyega

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