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Our police are militarized and that needs to be addressed

Laura Pollecutt

During the years of apartheid, discussions were ongoing both inside and outside the country, about how state security institutions would function in a post-apartheid democratic state. These discussions intensified in the dying years of apartheid.

There was little difference between the army and the police under apartheid; both were used to keep the minority government in power by repressive means. In fact these two institutions were often in competition to see who could serve their National Party masters best. The police had far-reaching powers and were heavily armed to quell ‘unrest’.

After 1994 it was important to ensure that the police changed and could carry out their duties in a way that would be a service to citizens. Consequently, the name changed from South African Police (force) to South African Police Service to emphasize the needed change in attitude. New police ranking structures were also introduced to demilitarise the police.

Levels of crime in South Africa are high. Consequently, post-apartheid police cabinet ministers and commissioners have pandered to calls for more of what the apartheid government would have called ‘Kragdadigheid’ (forcefulness, an iron fist) in dealing with crime. The language was, and still is, ‘war talk’. The police hierarchy advocates greater aggression in the pursuit and arrest of criminals and talks constantly of the ‘war against crime’. Despite it being against the law, police officers are encouraged ‘to shoot to kill’. Those who believe the police should be both judge and executioner like to claim that criminals have more rights than ordinary citizens.

Demilitarists have opposed the remilitarization of the police services regularly advocated by politicians and spoke out particularly when it became known that moves were afoot to reintroduce military rankings. Despite this opposition, military rankings were re-introduced in 2010 to what they were under apartheid. The change was not popular even within the police services. In 2011 police union Popcru tried to have the reintroduction of military rankings declared unlawful reminding South Africans: “It was precisely in order to break with the ‘soldiers at war’ mindset and to build a police service that was democratic and accountable that demilitarization of the police was such a crucial part of ANC policy.” POPCRU did not succeed.

But it is probably in public order policing that militarization has really thrived.

In the early 1990s, after the unbanning of the liberation movements, talks were ongoing between these movements and the apartheid government. At this time the country was plagued by internal political violence and an ‘internal stability division’ was established. In line with addressing negative perceptions of apartheid security forces, the unit was renamed Public Order Policing post the elections in 1994.

Progressive models of policing were adopted and public order policing was made more user -friendly. As Tait and Marks record in You strike a gathering you strike a rock, SA Crime Quarterly No 38, December 2011: “Public order policing training focused on a shift from the ‘control of crowds’ to the management of crowds’. Public Order Policing unit members were required to think about ways of policing crowds that resulted in minimal use of force, to negotiate with convenors and authorisers about policing plans and outcomes, to employ policing tactics that demonstrated tolerance, and to make use of weapons that fitted the new framework for crowd control.”

I think it is safe to say that this model was guided by what had been envisaged in the Regulation of Gatherings Act passed just prior to the new dispensation. A flawed piece of legislation in many ways, it did, however, move away from the repressive policing of gatherings by the apartheid government.

The enlightened approach, however, was disrupted by restructuring over the years and there was an emergence of (or possibly a return to?) a more paramilitary approach to public order policing. Initially these units were known as Tactical Response Unit (TRUs) but later reverted to being called Public Order Policing.

Frustration and disappointment with the pace of delivery has led to frequent service delivery protests often accompanied by destruction of property and confrontations with the police. Studies have shown that these protests only really get out of hand when communities believe they are not being heard by their government representatives. Since 2004 at least 44 people have been killed by the police in protests. This figure includes the massacre at Marikana where 34 people were killed and 78 wounded. South Africa is awaiting the outcome of the commission of inquiry into this horrendous incident.

Because of training offered by the French police, SAPS has tended towards their model of public order policing. Offering caution regarding acceptance of this model, Tait and Marks argue that though the French Gendarmerie tactics are effective, they are also criticised because they are perceived as paramilitary and rely on shows of force. Unfortunately, the show of force is becoming a regular feature in public order policing.

Opinions regarding the role of local police and that of the TRUs/public order policing, in public order policing, differ. Some suggest that the local police, who because they are not trained sufficiently, resort more frequently to violence when quelling demonstrators than the public order policing unit does. Others believe the local police have more empathy with demonstrators than a public order policing unit from outside and therefore are more able to stabilize the situation. From my own observations, it would appear to me that that the paramilitary character of the public order policing unit with its sophisticated weaponry, armoured vehicles (Nyalas are used now and were used extensively by apartheid police and the association does not escape the communities) and equipment, heightens tensions in crowd control particularly in communities where protest action is more spontaneous and the Regulation of Gatherings Act has not been used. Although local police work with the public order policing unit, it sometimes appears to be an uneasy relationship.

The Marikana bloodbath saw both local police and the public order policing unit involved. At the time, the Ceasefire Campaign expressed concern that previously and during the actual incident, police had lacked restraint in crowd control situations. Ceasefire was also unhappy about the extensive firepower that was on display (the symbolic demonstration of power that is a part of a paramilitary force) before the police opened fire possibly under the mistaken belief that it would deter the crowd. History has taught us that weaponry tends to aggravate a tense situation not subdue it.

There has been a call for retraining of the Public Order Policing Unit and a return to the model that was used in the early years of our democracy. Jan Burger of the Institute for Security Studies has called attention to sections of South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) 2030, titled ‘Our future - make it work’. It contains a number of far-reaching recommendations, which, he believes, if implemented, could see dramatic improvements not only in policing but throughout government. “The NDP strongly recommends that the SAPS be demilitarised and that this should happen as soon as possible. It also recommends that the organisational culture of the police should be reviewed to assess the effects of militarisation, demilitarisation, and remilitarisation and ‘the serial crises of top management’.”

However, Burger suggests that there is not sufficient content in the recommendations as to its understanding of militarisation and demilitarisation and supports the view that the police cannot be demilitarised by merely reverting back to previous non-military style rankings. He refers to an ISS seminar on 11 April 2013 titled ‘Understanding police brutality in South Africa: challenges and solutions’, where he says it was argued “that the police are not militarised or demilitarised simply by changing their ranks. Rather it is the language and tone of their political and senior leaders that contribute to the creation of a form of militarisation”.

Regrettably there appears to be a gap in what the NDP recommends and how those involved in policing see a reversal of the paramilitary style of public order policing. At a parliamentary briefing in Sept 2014, there was no reference to the NDP and very little concern for citizens’ right to demonstrate unharmed. The presentation argues for an increase in resources in line with the paramilitary nature of the unit. It would seem that steps are being taken to impose the state’s authority, through public order policing policing, on dissent in the lead up to municipal elections next year.

In a Right to Know (R2K) campaign statement issued on human rights day 21 March, the campaign demands that the people’s right to protest, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, be respected and protected by the police. It concludes:

The police must change!

The growing criminalization of protests is an attack on freedom of expression and assembly. The right to protest was at the heart of the democratic struggle for freedom. Mobilising brute force against unarmed individuals is an insult not just to the freedoms of expression and assembly enshrined in our Constitution; it is a rejection of the legacy of the struggle for which thousands paid the ultimate price.