Radio communication breakdown added to Marikana chaos
POLICE units at the heart of the Marikana massacre mayhem couldn’t talk to each other because of incompatible radio systems – a technical bungle which played an important role in the high number of deaths.
A picture of chaos and confusion has emerged from sources close to the police investigation into the force’s actions on that day.
This detail is yet to emerge at the Farlam Commission inquiring into the tragic events at the Lonmin mine on August 16.
Two independent sources close to the police investigation told Media24 Investigations this week that the radio systems problem contributed to a breakdown of police communication.
Police commanders at the site of the initial volley of fire were unable to communicate with some of their counterparts further down the line. This allegedly led to units opening fire on fleeing strikers.
Both sources said this breakdown contributed to the high death toll at Marikana where independent reports say the majority of deaths occurred hundreds of metres away from the shooting scene whose televised scenes shocked the world.
Media24 Investigations understands that a police report circulated to top brass highlights the radio systems problem, among other critical lapses.
The report is understood to show that police failed to discuss the potential radio problem in the planning of the Marikana operation which saw a number of different specialised and other police units deployed.
The operation was the biggest of its kind since 1994.
The source say police management were also warned earlier this year that the dual radio system could have disastrous consequences in the future, but that the warnings fell on deaf ears.
Specialised police units like the special task force, the tactical response team and the national intervention unit (NIU) – all present at Marikana, use the state-of-the-art Terrestrial Trunk Radio (Tetra).
Tetra has also been introduced to Gauteng police units.
In contrast, all the North West province police units, of which several were on active duty at Marikana, still use the old Orca radio system.
Tetra and Orca cannot communicate with one another.
The sources said that when the different units opened fire at Marikana, police commanders lost control over certain units and could not co-ordinate their actions.
Police commanders on Tetra could not give instructions to units on Orca.
“Certain police kept shooting long after they should have ceased fire,” said a source with technical expertise. “Command and control broke down.”
Tetra is an expensive and sophisticated compatible digital police radio system that was recently introduced to certain police units.
The roll-out of Tetra is fraught in controversy. Police commissioner Riah Phiyega has asked the Hawks and the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to investigate the multi-billion rand Tetra contract.
It has cost the police almost a billion rand to introduce Tetra to the Eastern Cape alone.
Because Tetra is so expensive, it has not been rolled out yet to most provinces and units which continue to use the Orca system.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Phuti Setati said he could not comment due to the commission of inquiry’s on-going proceedings.
Police expert Dr Johan Burger of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said if the radio bungle was true it “boggles the mind”.
He said it would seriously have compromised the command and control centres of the police and would have worsened the situation.
“You cannot conduct an operation like this with different radio systems. If it true, it was a recipe for disaster,” said Burger.
Media24 Investigations has also established that serious concern was raised even before the massacre that the police had a shortage of important equipment.
The police had to borrow stun grenades from the defence force while the air force provided an additional helicopter.
On the day of the massacre, police commanders planned to surround, disarm and arrest the striking mineworkers.
The public order policing unit was supposed to play a vital role in achieving this, but when they failed to stop the strikers, the task force, the national intervention unit and the tactical response team opened fire.
Media24 Investigations’ sources said that in the chaos that followed, other police units, also those from the North West police, joined in the shooting, deaf to calls from other commanders to stop.
In the chaos that followed, the police fired 900 bullets.